How The South Will Rise To Power Again


The common media view of the South is as a regressive region, full of overweight, prejudiced, exploited and undereducated numbskulls . 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, Northeners 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% over the past decade; all the former confederate states, outside of Katrina-ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana, gained between 5% and 10%. 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% 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%; Baton Rouge, Nashville, Houston, Tampa, Dallas and Atlanta all expanded their educated populations by 35% 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 and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register . He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

This piece originally appeared at

Photo by Belle of Louisville.

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When is the South no longer "the South?"

I am a Native Texan, born and raised. I lived in Central Texas for 31 years before moving to Pennsylvania in 2010. My inital impression is to characterize this as colonization rather than "the South" rising. What has historically defined the South? It is culture, evangelical Protestantism, climate, an economy based primarily on agriculture and resource extraction, and the legacy of the region's peculiar institution. If this piece is correct then the traditional character of "the South" as defined by history and presented in the media is in fact chaning, if not being abolished altogether. My native Tejas is booming I am astonished every time I go home to visit. But the state has serious issues to address in order to sustain this longer term growth, water shortages probably being the most pressing.

Is Northern Virginia "the South"?

I have read that many persons from points further south in Virginia (often south of the Rappahannock River) don't like to consider Northern Virginia as "Southern."

And then there are complaints in North Carolina about too many people from "the North" invading Wake County and other areas near and around Raleigh/Durham/Cary/Chapel Hill (obviously including the Research Triangle).

It happens on a smaller scale around Washington, D.C. ...

... while many from places further south do not consider Northern Virginia as part of The South, since the 1970's, it has out-grown both D.C. and its neighboring counties in Maryland in terms of employment.

Partly because some big-spending federal agencies are located in (or have moved to) Northern Virginia (including the Pentagon, the CIA, the NRO and the NGA). And because Washington Dulles Airport (originally built with federal dollars) is located on the border of Fairfax County and Loudoun County.

But also because Northern Virginia does not have the fixation on Smart Growth and related policies (forest conservation, agricultural "preservation" and attempts to stop "sprawl" that are common in nearby Maryland).

"Smart" growth and deflected growth

Vital point you make there - regions without "smart growth" will gain deflected growth from regions with it. Even States way across the USA will gain, like Texas has from California and NY.

But if there is a non smart growth region close at hand.......

There is a danger that the close-at-hand non-smart-growth region can get so swamped by the deflected demand that it loses its affordability advantage because housing supply cannot keep up, and then speculative mania sets in.

Been There. Done That.

"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"

Texas is number 1 in minimum wage jobs.

Furthermore, companies aren't moving to the south for the quality labor pool.

Corporate welfare at it's finest.

You can put away your Confederate flag.

Median multiples don't lie

Nonsense, people who move to Texas are far better off than if they stayed in a unionised, urban-planned, liberal "utopia". It is all about discretionary income left over after housing costs. Median multiples don't lie.

When you get a median multiple of 6 with a median income of $50,000, in a cool sophisticated liberal city, and a median multiple of 3 with a median income of $35,000 in a Texas city; why would anyone with less skills and a LOW income, remain in the city where housing prices range from $250,000 to $750,000 for the same thing as costs $100,000 to $300,000 in Texas? Even if there are minimum wage laws and unionisation requiring that they are paid more in the high-cost city, they are still far better off going to Texas.

The jobs that suit them tend to follow them. Read "Superstar Cities" by Gyourko, Mayer and Sinai. "Unequal Britain" by Gibbons and Overman makes similar points too.

It is a huge ignorance, physical determinism, assuming that "the place makes the skills/income" and that ANYONE would be better off in the sophisticated, smart-growth, liberal-utopia high housing cost city. The multitudes voting with their feet are not stupid. And liberals actually are not smart. Smart growth is a classic Orwellian misnomer.

Mild winters, a beautiful

Mild winters, a beautiful landscape, affordable housing, and a steady influx of hip, well-educated young people from the north: those are the things I see around Chattanooga. To my unpracticed eye, at least, the northeast and upper mid-west are have a run-down look. When driving up into Ohio to my daughter's college town recently I kept getting the impression I was driving south instead of north; the rest-rooms kept getting filthier, the people fatter, the housing more dilapidated, and I even saw a Confederate Flag painted on the side of a barn. All this is very sad in my book, as most of my father's relatives were from Ohio and New England.

Luke Lea

Great comments about the south

Charlotte, My city is going to have a great growing decade and score of years.
Downtown Dan

GDP Per Capita

Did not realize the South had 113 million people. Population growth really has taken off. However while the south is outstripping the rest of the US in terms of population growth the northeast and is performing far better on the basis of per capita GDP growth.

GDP Per Capita Percent change, 1980 to 2009
Northeast - 85.2%
Midwest - 61.0%
South - 63.0%
West - 55.5%