D. Dowd Muska


The Sun Belt Buckled -- It Didn’t Break

March 21, 2013

As the traumas of the popped housing bubble gave way to the broader calamities of the Great Recession, a refrain arose from America’s elites: The Sun Belt is finally getting its comeuppance.

For decades, reporters, pundits, and academics in the D.C.-to-Boston corridor grumbled as their terrain hemorrhaged jobs, investment, residents, and political influence. The growth of the Sun Belt, a region identified by Kevin Phillips in The Emerging Republican Majority, appeared unstoppable. A 2001 Fannie Mae Foundation analysis documented that between 1950 and 2000, the population below the 37th parallel expanded by 156 percent, compared to a nationwide increase of 86 percent. Clark County, Nevada (2,749 percent), Arizona (584 percent), and Florida (477 percent) ranked at the top of the territory’s eruption.

But when home prices began to sag in 2006, and widespread economic disaster hit in late 2007, the Sun Belt’s streak fizzled. By the spring of 2009, the Associated Press declared that the boom was over, “replaced by a bust that has left some swaths of the region suffering as severely as anywhere in the current recession.” USA TODAY wrote that hard times had spawned “an about-face in where Americans choose to live,” with “New York [registering] the smallest outmigration since at least 1990.” In September 2011, The New York Times noted -- gleefully, perhaps? -- that “the highest unemployment rates” were in the South and West.

Snickering beyond the borders, despair inside the region. In 2009, The Arizona Republic’s Betty Beard lamented that “Arizona has lost a larger percentage of jobs in this recession than Michigan, even as that state’s auto-based economy continued to melt down.”

Alas, the reversal is being reversed. USA TODAY recently discovered that the Sun Belt is “recovering some of its lost appeal as the population begins to grow again in counties from Florida to Arizona.”

“Even the deepest recession since the Great Depression cannot permanently disrupt the decades-long trend of growth in the South and West,” UNLV’s Robert Lang told the newspaper. Things, the professor noted, “are slowly getting back to where they were.”

The last five years have been brutal to metropolitan Las Vegas. Unemployment hovered above 14 percent in 2010 and 2011. But joblessness declined to 12.5 percent in January 2012, and fell to 10.2 percent in January 2013. Clark County, home to Sin City’s sprawl, recently acquired its 2 millionth denizen, thanks, the Las Vegas Review-Journal found, “to an influx of new residents not seen in years.”

According to the Heart of Dixie’s chief executive, in 2012, 432 new and expanding companies announced plans to create more than 20,000 jobs in Alabama, making a total capital investment of $5.4 billion. Examples: Airbus is bringing 1,000 jobs to Mobile, and China’s Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group plans to hire 300 workers in rural Wilcox County. The state’s already-low unemployment rate of 6.6 percent is likely to keep dropping.

Some members of the Sun Belt continue to struggle -- North Carolina and Mississippi each endure unemployment rates above 9 percent. But jobless rates in Oklahoma (5.1 percent), Louisiana (5.9 percent) and New Mexico (6.6 percent) are well below the national figure. And Texas? Please. Unemployment there peaked at 8.3 percent in early 2010. It’s down to 6.3 percent today. In the last 12 months, Houston alone has created 118,200 new positions. The future looks just as good, if not better. Texas is making a habit of filching businesses disgusted by California’s collectivist pols, and its roaring oil-and-gas sector is poised to offer livelihoods to tens of thousands of refugees from no-growth states.

Wendell Cox, an invaluable land-use and transportation scholar, crunched population statistics for major metropolitan areas between 2011 and 2012. The ten with the highest gains -- including Orlando, San Antonio, and Phoenix -- are located in the Sun Belt. Nine are in right-to-work states, and six are in no-income-tax states.

Beginning to see a pattern? Probably not, if you’re a member of the legacy media or an “expert” who claims to know demographics. For folks who talk incessantly about “sustainability,” blue-state blowhards stubbornly ignore the undesirable effects of high taxes, housing-hostile “smart growth,” wasteful “public investments,” runaway energy meddling, and unchecked union machinations. Most in the Sun Belt don’t. That’s why the region was knocked down, but not out, during the Great Recession.

The Northeast’s Nanny Statists persist in believing that their policies generate economic growth and foster a stellar quality of life. It’s a soothing fantasy, but one that grows tougher to hold as the Sun Belt’s comeback strengthens.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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