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Bye Bye Boston Friday, April 18, 2003
Steve Bailey, Globe Columnist Boston Globe
If you survived Massachusetts in the early 1990s, you know the story.  What was a mild national recession was a depression here.  It started in technology, but it didn't take long to roll into real estate and the banks.  Nothing was spared, and before it was over we had lost 11.6 percent of all jobs in just four years.  The result: Massachusetts's most important resource, our people, started heading for the exits, big time. And it is starting to happen again.

Massachusetts residents are again leaving the state in scary numbers.  Last fiscal year, according to US Census numbers, about 28,000 more people left Massachusetts than moved here, double the previous year and about the same as 1992, when the state was just beginning to recover from our worst economic quagmire in a half century.  Today's numbers still do not approach those of a decade ago when we experienced a net loss of 70,000 people in a single year, but the situation this time is certain to get worse before it gets better, considering Massachusetts's nation-leading job losses and its high cost of living.

Curt Schultzberg got laid off from his job in August 2001 when his mutual fund company, American General, was acquired by American International Group, which then shut down the entire Boston unit of 60 people.  He and his wife, Kim Arnold, who are both 38, wanted to stay, but they couldn't make it work.  "There was blood on the streets in the financial services sector," he says. "I couldn't even get an interview."

So a year ago the couple sold their Milton home and moved their two young kids to tiny Pinehurst, N.C.  The upside: He's working again and they sold their 60-year-old, 1,700-square-foot home for $375,000 and bought a new house with twice the space for $258,000.  The downside: It's not Boston.  "I miss the Northeast", says Arnold.  "The schools up there are excellent".

Just three weeks ago Jim and Antonia Wolfson reluctantly made the same decision, leaving Arlington for Sarasota, Fla.  Jim Wolfson knows too much about layoffs: In 1996, he was laid off as a vice president at Fleet Bank in Connecticut and then by Bentley College in 2000. Now 63, Wolfson has had no luck getting hired.  "I was `over-qualified,' which is a euphemism for too old," he says.  His wife tried to go back to work, spending four months in a job-training program with Operation ABLE, but couldn't get hired either.  Now they have bought a condo in Sarasota and are making the best of it. "We are maintaining our middle-class standard, which we couldn't do in Boston," Wolfson says.

The stories, told one by one, add up to an economy.  And they do not bode well for our economy long term.

Paul Harrington, an economist with Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, says people are fleeing Massachusetts because of the mounting job losses and the high cost of housing.  Over the last two years Massachusetts has lost 157,000 jobs, or 4.7 percent of all jobs, by far the highest percentage in the country.  "And the prospects for a turnaround don't seem that bright," he says.

Increasingly those who can -- and too often they are the young, the educated, and the mobile -- are responding in the most basic of ways, by leaving.  Short term the migration has helped keep Massachusetts's unemployment rate below the national level.  In the long term, however, it is not good for any economy.

From 1979 to 1989, in those heady Massachusetts Miracle days when we were adding workers, the region captured a healthy 1 in every 15 new jobs created nationally, Harrington says.  In the following decade, when people were leaving in droves, the region won just 1 of every 53 new jobs.  The workers and the jobs went elsewhere.

The Massachusetts economy will turn again.  But when it does, we will need workers to fill the jobs.  You don't have to look far back to see problems ahead.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at 617-929-2902 or at bailey@globe.com.

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