This is the introduction to a new report on the future of the American Great Plains released today by Texas Tech University (TTU). The report was authored by Joel Kotkin; Delore Zimmerman, Mark Schill, and Matthew Leiphon of Praxis Strategy Group; and Kevin Mulligan of TTU. Visit TTU's page to download the full report, read the online version, or to check out the interactive online atlas of the region containing economic, demographic, and geographic data.
For much of the past century, the vast expanse known as the Great Plains has been largely written off as a bit player on the American stage. As the nation has urbanized, and turned increasingly into a service and technology-based economy, the semi-arid area between the Mississippi Valley and the Rockies has been described as little more than a mistaken misadventure best left undone.
Much of the media portray the Great Plains as a desiccated, lost world of emptying towns, meth labs, and Native Americans about to reclaim a place best left to the forces of nature. “Much of North Dakota has a ghostly feel to it," wrote Tim Egan in the New York Times in 2006. This picture of the region has been a consistent theme in media coverage for much of the past few decades.
In a call for a reversal of national policy that had for two centuries promoted growth, two New Jersey academics, Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper, proposed that Washington accelerate the depopulation of the Plains and create “the ultimate national park.” They suggested the government return the land and communities to a “buffalo commons,” claiming that development of The Plains constitutes, “the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history.” They predicted the region will “become almost totally depopulated.”
Our research shows that the Great Plains, far from dying, is in the midst of a historic recovery. While the area we have studied encompasses portions of thirteen states, our focus here is on ten core locations: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.
Rather than decline, over the past decade the area has surpassed the national norms in everything from population increase to income and job growth. After generations of net out-migration, the entire region now enjoys a net in-migration from other states, as well as increased immigration from around the world. Remarkably, for an area long suffering from aging, the bulk of this new migration consists largely of younger families and their offspring.
No less striking has been a rapid improvement in the region’s economy. Paced by strong growth in agriculture, manufacturing and energy — as well as a growing tech sector — the Great Plains now boasts the lowest unemployment rate of any region. North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska are the only states with a jobless rate of around 4 percent; Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas all have unemployment rates below the national average.
A map of areas with the most rapid job growth over the past decade and through the Great Recession would show a swath of prosperity extending across the high plains of Texas to the Canada/North Dakota border. Rises in wage income during the past ten years follow a similar pattern. The Plains now boasts some of the healthiest economies in terms of job growth and unemployment on the North American continent.
Of course, this tide of prosperity has not lifted all boats. Large areas have been left behind — rural small towns, deserted mining settlements, Native American reservations — and continue to suffer widespread poverty, low wages and, in many cases, demographic decline.
In addition, the region faces formidable environmental and infrastructural challenges. Most prominent is the continuing issue of adequate water supplies, particularly in the southern plains. The large-scale increase in both farming and fossil fuel production, particularly the use of hydraulic fracking, could, if not approached carefully, exacerbate this situation in the not so distant future.
Inadequate infrastructure, particularly air connections, still leaves much of the area distressingly cut off from the larger urban economy. The area’s industrial economy and rich resources are subject to a lack of sufficient road, rail and port connections to markets around the world. Yet despite these challenges, we believe that three critical factors will propel the region’s future.
First, with its vast resources, the Great Plains is in an excellent position to take advantage of worldwide increases in demand for food, fiber and fuel. This growth is driven primarily by markets overseas, particularly in the developing countries of east and south Asia, and Latin America.
As these countries have added hundreds of millions of middle class consumers, the price and value of commodities has continued to rise and seem likely to remain strong, with some short-term market corrections, over time.
Second, the rapid evolution and adoption of new technologies has enhanced the development of resources, notably oil and gas previously considered impractical to tap. At the same time, the internet and advanced communications have reduced many of the traditional barriers — economic, cultural and social — that have cut off rural regions from the rest of country and the world.
Third, and perhaps most important, are demographic changes. The late Soichiro Honda once noted that “more important than gold or diamonds are people.” The reversal of outmigration in the region suggests that it is once again becoming attractive to people with ambition and talent. This is particularly true of the region’s leading cities — Omaha, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City, Sioux Falls, Greeley, Wichita, Lubbock, and Dallas-Fort Worth — many of which now enjoy positive net migration not only from their own hinterlands, but from leading metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York and Chicago. Of the 40 metropolitan areas in the region, 32 show positive average net domestic migration since 2008.
Together these factors — resources, information technology and changing demographics — augur well for the future of the Great Plains. Once forlorn and seemingly soon-to-be abandoned, the Great Plains enters the 21st century with a prairie wind at its back.
Visit TTU's page to download the full report, read the online version, or to check out the interactive online atlas of the region containing economic, demographic, and geographic data.
Praxis Strategy Group is an economic research, analysis, and strategic planning firm. Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. Kevin Mulligan is Associate Professor of Geography at Texas Tech University and Director of TTU’s Center for Geospatial Technology.