Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Geography Of American Prosperity

A reader emailed to me a link to this article about personal income growth and asked me to react (i.e. offer my thoughts). looked at data for the time period 1984-2009. Surprisingly (at least to me), the results outline a contiguous region of booming prosperity:

The best markets for income growth, according to the study, lie in a broad swath from the Middle Atlantic region to the Southwest. Right behind El Paso in the national standings are Baton Rouge, Baltimore, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, and Jackson, Mississippi.

The only exception to this geographic rule is the 10th-place finisher, Honolulu.

These markets have shown remarkable stability during the current recession. Five of the top-10 metros actually managed to boost their per capita incomes between 2008 and 2009. Only five of the study’s other 90 metros could say the same.

I assume Pittsburgh's favorable ranking is why I received the email message. This map obliterates our established sense of economic geography. Reactions to the rankings highlight the paradigmatic challenge:

Make book, folks, the new study from is NOT one that will be touted by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, the Research Triangle Regional Partnership or anyone else who touts the capital city metro area as one of the nation’s best.

Raleigh ranks 98th(!!!) out of the top 100 U.S. metro areas over the last 25 years for income growth, says a new study from

Are you shocked? Well, here’s more grim news: Detroit, which is on its way to becoming an urban ghost town in some areas, is 99th.

Dead last is Atlanta at 100.

Charlotte ranks 96th.

Greensboro, meanwhile, is 94th.

Looks as if the “Rust Belt” has spread south.

If the Rust Belt has spread south, then it skipped over Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Virginia Beach-Norfolk. The Rust Belt is dead. As a megaregional geography, it hasn't existed for a few decades. Yet we cling to this abstraction of yesterday's economy.

Robust inmigration has long masked the chronic weaknesses in the US Southeast. The Great Recession pulled back the Green Curtain on the supposed economic miracle. The Southern Growth Policies Board is no guide for the struggling Midwest. Look at Pittsburgh and forget Charlotte.

We've obsessed about migration tales for far too long. "Brain drain" and "voting with your feet" are mythologies that obscure more important economic development factors, reinforcing the false dichotomy of "Rust Belt" and "Sun Belt". These misconceptions handcuff policy efforts. We'd be better off removing them from the discussion.

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