The Myth of America’s Sunbelt

We all know about America’s sunbelt, that wide swath of states stretching from California to Florida.  This region has attracted droves of sun-seekers in recent decades.  Except it’s all a myth.  There is no sunbelt.  There are sun corners.  To prove this we’ll have to engage in a bit of detective work.

Let’s start with south central America, the huge region lying between Georgia on the east coast, and Arizona in the southwest.  South central America has 7 states, but initially I’d like to discuss just six of them: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, which have a combined population of 21 million.  The recent census showed these six states grew by 6.6% since 2000.   That’s well below America’s 9.7% growth rate. If the term ‘belt’ means anything, it means a horizontal band.  And yet between Atlanta in the east and Phoenix in the west, we have a huge swath of the so-called sunbelt with net out-migration.  What gives?

My theory is that there are sun corners, and also one state that instituted such a pro-growth economic regime that it was able to overcome the disadvantage of lying in south central America.  What is that disadvantage?  I’m not entirely sure, but I’ll try to throw out some ideas.  My basic argument is that south central America is mostly hot, humid, flat, and boring.  Parts are also especially susceptible to temperature extremes, as the central US has a more “continental” climate than the corners.  It’s easier to make this argument vis-a-vis the southwest corner, which has a warm dry climate that many people like.  But the southeast can be hot and humid, so my theory doesn’t work as well there.  I’d like suggestions from my readers, but I still think the southeast is slightly more desirable than south central America.  Maybe it’s the thought that many of its metro areas are a short drive from either mountains or the ocean.  But I’m open to other suggestions.  Do you visualize it as being more desirable?  If so, why?

Now of course you’ve noticed one glaring flaw in my “no-sunbelt” hypothesis—Texas.  The 7 states of south central America contain four big boom towns (more than a million people), five if you consider Ft. Worth as a separate metro area.  All four are located on east Texas.  Is that a coincidence?  I doubt it.  Louisiana and Oklahoma are also oil rich, and New Orleans used to be an important headquarters for oil companies.  Oklahoma has two middle sized oil centers (Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which were once as big as Austin.  But the Texas boom towns have left all the others in the dust.  While the 6 states containing 21 million grew 6.6%, Texas (containing nearly 25 million, grew more than 20%.  BTW, although Texas is big, most is uninhabited desert—the big growth is in those 4 metro areas, a region no bigger than Alabama.

Paul Krugman and Ryan Avent point to the low cost of housing in Texas, and I’d never deny that’s a factor.  But housing is also dirt cheap in the other 6 south central states.  Again, don’t think sunbelt, think sun corners plus east Texas.  I think the main factor is that the Texas government has very pro-growth economic policies, such as the lack of an income tax.

The traditional argument against Texas being special is that there are other boom towns (Phoenix, Orlando, Atlanta, Raleigh, etc) that are in states that do have income taxes.  But notice they in are in the sun corners, not hot, humid, flat, boring south central America.

Now let’s extend south central America one tier to the north, by adding Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky.  These six states have two big boom towns, Denver and Nashville.  Colorado has an income tax, so that doesn’t fit my theory.  But is Denver really hot, flat, humid, and boring?  The only one of the states lacking an income tax is Tennessee, which contains Nashville.  In the northwest Washington has no income tax, and it’s most similar neighbor (Oregon) grows more slowly.  In New England New Hampshire is the only state without an income tax, and for many decades it has grown much faster than other New England states.  In north central America South Dakota is the state without an income tax, and it it sandwiched in between two slower growing Great Plains states.  Nevada lacks an income tax, and has been the fastest growing southwestern state for many decades–indeed the fastest in America.  Wyoming grew very fast, but so did other mountain states.   Alaska lacks a good comparison state.  The last state lacking an income tax is Florida, which has obviously grown very fast for a long time, although I’d concede it would have grown fast even with an income tax–climate matters a lot too.

PS.  I agree with Krugman and Avent that there is nothing special about Texas in this recession, nor would I have expected that.  It’s gained many more jobs than average, but has fairly normal unemployment.  It’s the long run trends that favor Texas.  I just wish more pleasant areas would institute more sensible economic policies (I’m looking at you California, where I intend to retire.)

PPS.  Yes, I know that New Mexico isn’t humid, but it’s also the only one of those states that grew slightly above average.  Consider it a transition state between true south central America, and booming Arizona.  And it has no big cities.

PPPS.  One thing that makes me think there really is something special about the Southeast is South Carolina.  For the other states I can imagine special factors (DC boosting Virginia, the Triangle Research Park, Atlanta–traditional capital of the South, etc.)  But even South Carolina is growing fast.

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About Scott Sumner 492 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

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