For 50 years now, the story has been how the South has been booming while the Midwest has languished in perpetual decline. Nearly every day, a new ranking or story comes about how great the South is in relation to its Northern neighbors, but the more I’ve looked at the numbers, the more I realize that the hype is built upon lies, half-truths and cherry-picking data.
The first data point we’re going to look at is Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, a measure of the total economic output, for the Midwest vs. the South.
So on this measure, the South is doing pretty well vs. the Midwest… or so it seems at first. The advantage the South has, however, is Texas. Without the behemoth state, the South has had growth on pace with the Midwest, though the recession did knock the Midwest down a bit from a fairly wide gap. Even so, the Midwest is ahead of the South without Texas, making it pretty clear that Texas is a HUGE reason for the South’s growth. All by itself, it nearly double’s the region’s GDP. The Midwest has no such massively dominant state. So does this mean that the South has Texas to thank for all the attention it gets? More light will be shed on this as we go.
Now let’s look at GDP growth by decade for the regions.
Create a graph
Again, on the surface the South does well. The 2000s were especially kind to the South, while the Midwest declined some, likely due to the double recessions that occurred. However, during the 2010s so far, the Midwest has been growing a bit faster than the South (without Texas), something which hasn’t happened since the 1970s. Once more, Texas shows up as being the main contributor by FAR vs. all other Southern states combined.
Taking GDP further, what does it look like per-capita for the regions?
graph and charts
First of all, the data only goes back to 1987, and the 1997 jump is because the data collection sources changed. In any case, the Midwest region is the leader here. The South has been stagnant for the last decade or so, while the Midwest, aside from during the recession, has seen a steady rise. Since the recession, the pace of per-capita GDP growth has accelerated, and the gap between the region and the South has widened. The Midwest has reached the US average, while the South, with or without Texas, is well below it and not catching up. What does this mean? Well, that despite relatively healthy GDP total growth in the South, it has simply not been fast enough to keep pace with either the national average or the Midwest. The Midwest has a much stronger economic output per its population than the South does, by almost $10,000 per person.
What about income?
graph and charts
I know this chart is a bit hard to see, but it runs from 1930-2013. What it shows is that the Midwest has long had the highest per-capita income of the two regions. In fact, the gap between the two has grown steadily wider over years, and has accelerated in the last 5. The Midwest, while just below the national average now, is ahead of the South as a whole, Texas alone and the South without Texas.
To illustrate the income change over the 1930-2013 period further, let’s look at % growth by decade.
Make a graph
This chart actually shows that the South generally performed much better by rate of growth from the 1970s and earlier. Since then, the rate of growth between the regions has been much closer, and in the 1990s and 2010s, the Midwest grew faster. What this seems to indicate is that the long term growth rate in income is gradually turning more strongly towards the Midwest after a long period where the South had faster growth. The Midwest has also seen faster growth than the national average since the 1980s, not exactly an indication of some kind of sustained decline.
So far, the picture is not quite as one-sided as we’ve been told.
What’s more interesting, especially from a total GDP standpoint, is that the Midwest is smaller than the South as a whole. To be more equal, you’d have to include the Northeastern states. This throws the entire dynamic out the window. In fact, the North combined is still the largest regional economy of the 3 (North, South, West) by about 13 percentage points.