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A Deeper Look: 'Brain Drain' in Nebraska

Posted at 7:03 PM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 00:29:17-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — For years, decades really, the state of Nebraska has had a "brain drain" issue, specifically with young people.

“They’re looking at their opportunity for jobs and pay and maybe culture or nightlife, so to speak. That's where some of the larger cities have more of a draw,” said David Drozd, research coordinator for UNO’s Center for Public Affairs.

Drozd classifies "brain drain" as the net migration of college educated adults moving out of the state.

According to Center for Public Affairs data, in Nebraska, 72% of people that do this are young, between the ages of 20 and 29.

Over the last 10 years, Nebraska roughly loses 2,000 a year to brain drain.

“So it doesn’t sound like a ton in any one particular year, but if you add that up over 10, 20 or 30 years,” said Drozd.
“It gets up into the millions and billions of dollars of lost taxable revenue."

This is a problem in over half the U.S. states, but Nebraska ranks poorly — 40th overall.

In the Nebraska Legislature, it’s often mentioned as a political football, with lawmakers occasionally using as reasoning to support or kill bills.

3 News Now spoke with four lawmakers, two Democrats, two Republicans, asking what they believe would solve the problem.

That includes, 24-year-old Julie Slama, who went to school on the East Coast, and came home a few years ago.

“I understood what I valued and I value the sense of community that I could find in southeast Nebraska,” said Slama.

For Slama, it boils down to taxes, housing and jobs.

Her district borders Kansas, Iowa and Missouri, she knows of peers who come to Nebraska to work, but live and spend their money outside the state.

Mainly due to tax issues, specifically property taxes.

“We need to make sure young professionals have the money available to pay taxes on their starter homes,” said Slama, who was elected in 2020 after being appointed in 2019.

While Slama is quite conservative, she might find common ground with one of her more liberal colleagues, Senator Megan Hunt of Omaha, particularly on housing.

“This is a problem with so many people in Nebraska, regardless of whether they rent or own,” said Hunt.

While Hunt wants to work on housing legislation, she points to other factors being a part of Nebraska’s "brain drain."

“I think the social climate that we have in the state is probably the number one reason that we have people leaving the state,” said Hunt.

Hunt believes ending workplace discrimination for LGBTQ individuals, along with upping tipped minimum wage and embracing cannabis, can go a long way.

“This generation does not accept inequality, we do not accept discrimination,” said Hunt.

Freshman senator Jen Day, who represents parts of Sarpy County and Omaha, agrees with Hunt on ending discrimination.

Day also owns a small business and thinks the state needs to do a better job of helping out young entrepreneurs instead of huge corporations.

“I know that there’s a lot of other Nebraskans that would stay if they had the ability to start their own business and then continue to function within that business,” said Day.

While Day wants to aid small businesses, she also believes in requiring paid sick and family leave, which business often opposes.

“I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. and I think they have to work together, to down the road, making Nebraska the type of place where people want to stay,” said Day.

While the Legislature can certainly pass bills to solve the problem, the entire issue is likely not going to be solved in Lincoln.

Senator Mike Flood tells 3 News Now that each town in the state is going to have to focus on ensuring they grow as well as making sure they’re welcoming.

“It isn’t the government’s job, it isn’t the university's job to make sure your home town is livable, that’s a decision that the people that live there make. And not just livable for people over 30, but livable for people that are 20-something,” said Flood.

Flood, who represents Norfolk and some of the surrounding area, points to the same data Drozd has, saying once you’re 30 and live in Nebraska, you’re likely to stay.

He wants to build up small towns across the state so many that grow up in the area never have to leave.

“I don’t think we have to turn Grand Island, or Norfolk or Fremont, into Dallas, Austin or Boston. We just have to make the quality of life investments, make sure we have the jobs and make sure we have good paying jobs,” said Flood.

Not one state senator 3 News Now spoke with believes the problem is going away soon.

“I think it’s always going to be a struggle, but we can chip away at it,” said Slama.

“There is no magic bullet but incrementally we have to make decisions everyday that put Nebraska on the forefront of innovation,” said Flood.

And if things don’t change, and the problem gets worse, Hunt said Nebraskans always have the power of the ballot box.

“If you can't change the people...[what] we really need to do is just elect different people who actually reflect the views of the majority of Nebraskans,” said Hunt.

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