What is Brain Drain and How Does it Effect The Places They Leave Behind?

Updated on March 22, 2020 Updated on March 22, 2020
Listen Money Matters is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. How we make money.
"An only as good as the people who live and work in it." —Dee Huck
Table of Contents  
  1. Why They Leave
  2. Where Do They Go?
  3. The Impact On A New Home
  4. The Impact On The Home Left Behind

What happens to a place when talented young people move away? And what drives them to leave home and family in search of greener pastures?  So, What is brain drain?

Brain drain is defined as, “the emigration of highly trained or intelligent people from a particular place in search of better pay or living conditions.”  New York City is full of brain drain refugees. I’ve lived here for fifteen years and I’ve met exactly two people who were born and raised in Manhattan.

One came from Greek shipping tanker money and one was raised in the projects. Which seem like the two choices you have if you want to live in Manhattan anymore but that is a topic for another rant.

Why do young people flee small, confining hometowns for the bright lights of the big city? Where do they go and what effect does it have on the people and places they leave behind?

Why They Leave

Young people leaving home and striking out on their own is nothing new. Great artists and innovators have been leaving small, provincial hometowns since time immemorial.

Sometimes they are fleeing expectations. Maybe they didn’t want to marry the homecoming queen, have 2.5 kids, buy a house with a white picket fence out front and take over the family business.

Sometimes they are fleeing the past. A bad early marriage, a small town scandal ala Blanche Dubois. New Orleans has been the refuge for many a scoundrel.

Maybe they are fleeing conflict. This is happening now in Eastern Ukraine as IT professionals flee the tumult for more peaceful pastures. Literally fleeing for their lives.

I had a friend whose grandfather was gay in Atlanta in the 1950’s. He married, had children and one day up and disappeared. It was decades before the family left behind knew what became of him. He had moved to Chicago where he met his partner of many years. The partner contacted the family when the man passed away.

I think many of those men who “went out for a pack of smokes” and never came back, left for the same reason. Was it the most honorable path?

No, it wasn’t but it’s hard for me to completely condemn the decision. Denying a fundamental part of yourself must be unbearable.

The hateful religious freedom law that Indiana tried to enact was the impetus for me to write this. If you love the place that you were born and raised and can largely go about your life without complications, you might choose to stay there.

Maybe you can’t walk down the street holding the hand of your same-sex partner but you don’t feel particularly hated and ostracized, so maybe you stick around.

But when discrimination against you is legislated, saying “Fuck this,” and packing up heading out doesn’t seem an unreasonable response to me.

Where Do They Go?

Certain cities have always been more welcoming to people who, for whatever reason, didn’t fit in or feel comfortable in the small towns they grew up in.

New Orleans, the city that care forgot, has provided succor for gay artists for decades. The most famous of course is Tennessee Williams. Imagine a world without A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie.

The performer Josephine Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in America and fled to Paris. Not only did Josephine not have to contend with the same level of racial discrimination in Paris but also didn’t have to conform to America’s puritanical views on decency. She often performed nearly nude in France.

New York City has always been a safe place for all types of refugees, from the freaks to the artists, to the politically and racially oppressed. Between 1918 and the mid 1930’s dozens of black intellectuals, actors, artists, and writers moved to Harlem. The list includes luminaries like Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington and Jessie Fauset.

So mostly, to big cities where the atmosphere is more tolerant and where there is probably already a community of like-minded people.

Get our best strategies, tools, and support sent straight to your inbox.

The Impact On A New Home

The places I mentioned were enriched a great deal by the refugees I mentioned. New Orleans hosts the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival every spring which brings thousands of tourists and their money to the city.

Josephine Baker became a citizen of France in 1937. She assisted the Resistance during World War II and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by Charles de Gaulle. When she died in 1975 she was the first and only American woman to be given full French military honors at her funeral.

The influx of smart, talented, creative people to Harlem gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance and so much great American music, writing, and activism sprung up around the people responsible because they could realize their full potential here.

The Impact On The Home Left Behind

The impact is catastrophic. Small town USA is drying up and dying out. And it’s not just an American phenomenon. According to UN statistics, 2007 was the turning point. For the first time in human history, more than 50% of the world’s population was living in cities.


When young people leave, they take a big chunk of the tax base with them. A dwindling tax base means less money for schools and public services like police and fire departments.

The French government has started awarding grants to those who buy properties in areas in need of regeneration, who turn an existing property into a business or into a working farm so desperate are they to prop up rural areas who have suffered from depopulation.

One of the most important factors for a lot of people when deciding where to buy a home is how good the schools are. So not only does flight defund the schools, but now there is even less incentive for new people to move in or those who left to come back.

Delta announced in 2011 that it would end flights to 24 small airports. The US Postal Service considered closing hundreds of rural post offices in 2011. The plan was scrapped and instead, hours were cut and full time employees made part time. In some locations, the post office is open for as few as two hours a day.

Stores and restaurants don’t open in towns with dwindling populations so people have fewer options. So even though a town may be smack in the middle of farm country, the residents may actually live in a food desert, miles away from the nearest grocery store.


So you’d think politicians in states affected by brain drain would bend over backward not only to keep the young people already there but to attract new young people and businesses to employ them. You’d think that.

As the religious freedom law debacle in Indiana proves, bible pandering politicians will always first cater to the useful idiots who keep them in office rather than do something to actually help the local economy.

We’ll never know how many young people considered this the last straw and decided to move on. We do know that Governor Pence cost his state a lot of business, not to mention good will. And now the tax payers get to pay for a public relations firm to try to rehabilitate the state’s well deserved bigoted reputation.

There was absolutely no reason for Indiana to try to pass this ludicrous law. It was pandering to the religious right plain and simple. Indiana has plenty of economic problems to deal with and now is facing an HIV outbreak so bad that Pence had to declare a health emergency.

The outbreak is due largely to drug abuse fueled by limited job prospects and the poverty that accompanies that lack of jobs. And partly due to Indiana’s draconian drug laws which prohibit needle exchange. Pence had to backtrack on that policy too and authorized a short-term exchange.

But the governor felt his energy would be better spent protecting Christians, clearly a persecuted minority in the middle of the bible belt, from what exactly I don’t even know and he probably doesn’t either.

I hope pandering politician’s everywhere take a close look at what happened to Indiana. If you refuse to deal with economic problems that make people flee and pass laws that make the young and educated feel unwelcome, your state starts dying off and it’s a slow, painful death. But maybe that’s what needs to happen to drag some of these places into the 21st Century. So be it.


Candice Elliott - Senior Editor
Candice Elliott is a substantial contributor to Listen Money Matters. She has been a personal finance writer since 2013 and has written extensively on student loan debt, investing, and credit. She has successfully navigated these areas in her own life and knows how to help others do the same. Candice has answered thousands of questions from the LMM community and spent countless hours doing research for hundreds of personal finance articles. She happily calls New Orleans, Louisiana home-the most fun city in the world.

What's next?

learn course podcast popular toolbox