Exodus: Why Ohioans Are Voting with Their Feet

Almost every business has done it from time to time. Their people take their existing loyal customers for granted -- even the big ones. Sometimes it's because their people have gotten so focused on new customers. Other times, it's a matter of letting standards slip or of building internal bureaucracies that wallow in internal politics.

Occasionally, a company with a dominant market share will get so arrogant that it asks, "Where else can they go?" The business graveyards are full of those who didn't think their customers had alternatives, when there were plenty.

This also happens to governments with their "customers," the taxpayers they are supposed to serve -- though governments usually don't go out of business. They rely on productive individuals and businesses for the taxes that are their very lifeblood, but they usually take them for granted -- especially the ones who quietly go about living their lives, doing their jobs, or building their enterprises, paying their assorted levies while generally staying out of the way. These people don't expect much: reasonable taxes, decent schools, and safety.

But that's been too much to expect of too many of America's city governments. Their best customers, the high producers, have been taken for granted and even abused for decades. In many cases, enough of them have left to make a harmful difference. Nowhere has that situation been truer than in my home state of Ohio.

When I attended grade school in the Mesozoic Era (actually the 1960s), we learned that the Buckeye State had eight cities (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown) with populations greater than 100,000, the most in the country. We also knew that Cleveland, at 876,000, was the eighth largest city in the U.S. (Schools were strangely focused on facts in those days, weren't they?)

Today, Youngstown (down over half) and Canton have populations of less than 80,000. Cleveland will probably be below 400,000 soon. All of the others except Columbus, the state's capital, have declined severely.

Ohioans have been leaving the state's large cities for four reasons, only one of which -- the natural human desire for open space -- is arguably not their fault. The causes the cities have failed to deal with, and which have been within their control, are high crime, lousy schools, and high taxes. For decades, their governments have been asking, "Where else can they go?" Hundreds of thousands have answered with their feet.