Spring officially arrived Wednesday, but you wouldn’t know it from the snow that still surrounds us. T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, but to me our long, wintry March feels worse. Greater Boston’s challenging climate makes the region’s economic success somewhat miraculous. But the tenuous nature of that success also means that we should be mindful of what brings new residents to Boston — and what might scare people way.
Last week, the Census released its estimates of the population of US metro areas in 2012. In a familiar pattern, the Sun Belt metropolises of Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles gained the most residents between 2011 and 2012. Yet the Boston area did remarkably well, adding 37,000 people. Our growth rate of 0.8 percent may not look huge, but it outpaced every other large Midwestern or Northeastern metropolitan area but Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.
What’s noteworthy is that growth in cold-weather cities comes in large part from immigrants. While nearly 2,000 people left the Boston area for other parts of the country, more than 23,000 moved in from overseas; these international migrants made up 62 percent of our growth. (The rest was because the number of births exceeded the number of deaths.) A similar pattern of international inflows and native outflows shows up in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. Dallas, in contrast, attracted more than twice as many US-born migrants than immigrants from overseas.
Moving to warmer weather is something that well-off people in rich countries do. The pattern has been documented in many other industrialized nations — but not in the developing world, where people are too poor to put climate ahead of earnings. Hardy immigrants seem more willing to put up with our winters than the US-born.
The dense cities of the Northeast and Midwest also appeal to less prosperous immigrants because well-developed transit systems enable mobility without a car for every adult. Moreover, the information-intensive industries of these cities, like biotechnology in Boston, disproportionately employ the most skilled international immigrants.
All of which points to an opportunity: The pattern of immigrant inflows and domestic outflows implies that Boston will benefit from comprehensive reform that makes it easier for immigrants — particularly skilled immigrants — to come to the United States.
One positive result of Mitt Romney’s poor performance in the 2012 election is that more Republicans, such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, are now supporting immigration reform as a way of courting Latino votes. Some of the opposition to the failed 2007 reform plan came from the left, though. The all-Democratic Massachusetts congressional delegation should help ensure that labor union opposition to guest worker programs doesn’t prevent a deal this time.
Even as Massachusetts leaders champion the immigrants who help our economy grow, we shouldn’t give up on trying to attract the US-born either — despite the handicap of heavy snowfall in March. Here there’s a challenge: We need to be careful about enacting state and local policies — most notably, higher tax rates — that will make our snowbound region even less attractive. Governor Patrick’s proposed tax increase falls into that category.
Higher taxes aren’t always bad, especially when those taxes fund improvements in education and other core services. But the governor’s tax plan has more to do with redistribution than service improvement. More than 50 percent of the increased revenue from higher tax rates and eliminated deductions will go to reductions in the sales tax and increases in the personal exemption. Together, these changes shift the tax burden up the income ladder. I share the governor’s concern about fairness, but state taxes in Massachusetts currently are less regressive than in other states. Especially when the weather already creates a temptation to move, can Massachusetts afford to become more inhospitable to high earners?
If raising raise $1.9 billion in added revenue were Patrick’s only goal, he could achieve it with his proposed elimination of tax deductions and a modest increase in the income tax rate. If drivers were to fund highways and other transportation improvements with tolls and higher gas taxes, lawmakers could eliminate the need to raise the income tax altogether.
We can take pride in our New England sturdiness as we shovel ourselves out from under the snow, but that snow does hinder the state’s attractiveness to most Americans. Our elected leaders ought to make policy accordingly. Our national legislators should fight to let more immigrants come to Boston, and state lawmakers should reflect on the chilling impact higher taxes can have on the region’s appeal.
Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, is the director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.