Economic divergence between urban and rural economies is as much a story about the South as the struggling Rust Belt. As the Wall Street Journal highlighted in a recent feature, the South’s decades-long convergence to the rest of the country has halted since the Great Recession:
In the 1940s, per capita income in the states historians and economists generally refer to as the South — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky — equaled 66.3% of the national average, according to historical data reconstructed by University of Kent economist Alex Klein and The Wall Street Journal. By 2009, that had climbed to 88.9%. That was the high-water mark. By 2017 it fell back to 85.9%.
It is true that incomes in the South have stopped gaining ground on the rest of the country, but the story is more complicated. The South is also home to some of the fastest-growing cities in the country, among them Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Charleston. While their West Coast and Northeastern counterparts have enacted restrictive zoning laws that drive up the cost of living and deter in-migration, these fast-growing metros have so far avoided that temptation and remain magnets of economic opportunity. At the same time, places outside these cities have been struck by high poverty, job loss, and other forms of social hardship, driving overall regional economic outcomes away from the rest of the country.
The self-sorting of workers from struggling towns to places offering higher wages and living standards is an important driver of national growth. Policymakers in the South should continue to facilitate the migration of workers to the booming cities of the Sun Belt, but they must also pursue smart place-based policy to assist the communities that migrants leave behind. It is not a fact of life that vast swaths of the region are destined to succumb to stagnation and lag the rest of the country, and with a careful reconsideration of longstanding economic development practices, the South can reverse their divergence and spur more broad-based growth.