By Joel Kotkin
The common media view of the South is as a regressive region, full of overweight, prejudiced, exploited and under-educated numb skulls . This meme was perfectly captured in this Bill Maher-commissioned video from Alexandra Pelosi, the New York-based daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Given the level of imbecility, maybe we’d be better off if the former Confederate states exiled themselves into their own redneck empire. Travel writer Chuck Thompson recently suggested this approach in a new book. Right now, however, Northerners can content themselves with the largely total isolation of Southerners from the corridors of executive power.
Yet even as the old Confederacy’s political banner fades, its long-term economic prospects shine bright. This derives from factors largely outside the control of Washington: demographic trends, economic growth patterns, state business climates, flows of foreign investment and, finally and most surprisingly, a shift of educated workers and immigrants to an archipelago of fast-growing urban centers.
Perhaps the most persuasive evidence lies with the strong and persistent inflow of Americans to the South. The South still attracts the most domestic migrants of any U.S. region. Last year, it boasted six of the top eight states in terms of net domestic migration — Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia. Texas and Florida alone gained 250,000 net migrants. The top four losers were deep blue New York, Illinois, New Jersey and California.
These trends suggest that the South will expand its dominance as the nation’s most populous region. In the 1950s, the South, the Northeast and the Midwest each had about the same number of people. Today the region is almost as populous as the Northeast and the Midwest combined.
Perhaps more importantly, these states are nurturing families, in contrast to the Great Lakes states, the Northeast and California. Texas, for example, has increased its under 10 population by over 17 percent over the past decade; all the former confederate states, outside of Katrina-ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana, gained between 5 percent and 10 percent. On the flip side, under 10 populations declined in Illinois, Michigan, New York and California. Houston, Austin, Dallas, Charlotte, Atlanta and Raleigh also saw their child populations rise by at least twice the 10 perdcent rate of the rest country over the past decade while New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago areas experienced declines.
Why are people moving to what the media tends to see as a backwater? In part, it’s because economic growth in the South has outpaced the rest of the country for a generation and the area now constitutes by far the largest economic region in the country. A recent analysis by Trulia projects the edge will widen in the rest of this decade, sparked by such factors as lower costs and warmer weather.
But some of this comes as a result of conscious policy. With their history of poverty and underdevelopment, Southern states are motivated to be business friendly. They generally have lower taxes, and less stringent regulations, than their primary competitors in the Northeast or on the West Coast. Indeed this year the four best states for business, according to CEO Magazine, were Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee. They are also much less unionized, an important factor for foreign and expanding domestic firms.
Despite a tough time in the Great Recession, overall unemployment in the region now is less than in either the West or the Northeast. As manufacturing has recovered, employment has rebounded quicker in the Southeast than in the rival Great Lakes region.
A portent of the future can be seen in new investment from U.S.-based and foreign companies. Last year Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina were four of the six leading destinations for new corporate facilities.
Some of this growth is centered on the automobile industry, which is increasingly focused on the southern tier from South Carolina to Alabama. The other big industrial expansion revolves around the unconventional oil and gas boom. The region that spans the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi to New Orleans includes the country’s largest concentration of oil refineries and petrochemical facilities. In 2011 the two largest capital investments in North America — both tied to natural gas production — were in Louisiana.
In the long run some critics suggest that the region’s historically lower education levels ensure that it will remain second-rate. Every state in the Southeast falls below the national average of the percentage of residents aged 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree.
Yet the education gap is shrinking, particularly in the South’s growing metropolitan areas. Over the past decade, the number of college graduates in Austin and Charlotte grew by a remarkable 50 percent; Baton Rouge, Nashville, Houston, Tampa, Dallas and Atlanta all expanded their educated populations by 35 percent or more. (See “The U.S. Cities Getting Smarter The Fastest“) This easily eclipsed the performance of such “brain center” metropolitan areas as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco or Chicago. Then there’s the question of critical mass; Atlanta alone added more than 300,000 residents with bachelor’s degrees over the past decade, more than Philadelphia and Miami and almost 70,000 more than Boston.
Perhaps more revealing, an analysis by Praxis Strategy Group suggest a good portion of these new educated residents are coming from places such as greater New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. The South’s new breed of carpetbaggers increasingly bring diplomas, skills and high wage jobs with them. The main attraction: not only jobs, but lower housing prices, lower taxes and, overall, a more affordable quality of life.
Rather than some comic-book version of a sleepy old south, the South’s dynamic metropolitan regions — not surprisingly, among the nation’s fastest growing — represent the real future of the region. They are becoming more diverse in every way. Houston and Dallas are already immigrant hotbeds; Nashville. Charlotte, Atlanta, Raleigh and Orlando all have among the nation’s fastest-growing foreign populations.
Growth in the South, as elsewhere, is concentrated in their suburban rings but there’s also been something of central city revivals in Houston, Raleigh, Atlanta and Charlotte. Increasingly these places boast the amenities to compete with the bastions of hipness in everything from medicine and banking to technology and movies. The new owners of the New York Stock Exchange are based in Atlanta and some financial professionals are moving to low-tax states such as Florida.
For its part New Orleans, where I am working as a consultant , is challenging New York and Los Angeles in the film and video effects industry. Houston boasts the country’s largest medical center. Raleigh, Austin, Houston and San Antonio rank as the largest gainers of STEM jobs over the past decade.
Over time, numbers like these will have consequences politically, as well as culturally and economically. In the next half century, more Americans will be brought up Southern; the drawls may be softer, and social values hopefully less constricted, but the cultural imprint and regional loyalties are likely to persist. Rather than fade way, expect Southern influence instead to grow over time. It is more likely that the culture of the increasingly child-free northern tier and the slow-growth coasts will, to evoke the past, be the ones gone with the wind.
(Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in Orange, California. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. This article was provided to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation by the author and was previously published at NewGeorgraphy.com.)