Sometime this year, the population of the Southern U.S. will surpass that of the Midwest and Northeast combined.
How did I arrive at this assertion? Last July 1, according to the state population estimates released last month by the Census Bureau, there were an estimated 124.6 million people living in the Midwest and Northeast and 123.7 million in the South. Next July 1, if the regions continue growing at the rates that they have since 2010, the numbers will be almost even at 125 million, with the South presumably pulling away after that. Meanwhile, the West – which surpassed the Northeast in population in the 1980s and the Midwest in the 2000s – had 77.4 million inhabitants as of last July and has been growing almost as fast as the South.
The South, as defined by the Census Bureau, is a vast, 16-state region stretching from West Texas to the Delaware shore. The West is similarly sprawling. The fact that each has a lot more inhabitants than the Northeast, which is just Pennsylvania and the eight states to its east, is not in itself noteworthy.
It is noteworthy, though, how much the regions’ relative populations have changed over the years. And while it’s not exactly news that the nation’s population has been shifting southward and westward, it does seem like a phenomenon worth dwelling on from time to time – especially when a major milestone looms, as with the South overtaking the combined population of the Midwest and Northeast this year. Here are the changes through the decades, expressed in population totals:
Here’s that same data, expressed as percentages of U.S. population:
And finally, just to hammer it in:
In 1900, the Midwest and Northeast were home to 62.3 percent of the U.S. population. Now, the South and West are home to 61.7 percent. They have become the true American heartland that news organizations keep sending reporters to the Midwest (or maybe western Pennsylvania) in an attempt to locate.
In the South, that population heartland is increasingly in Florida and Texas, which accounted for 39.9 of the region’s people in 2017 and 58.7 percent of its growth since 2010. While the South was the fastest-growing region from 2010 to 2017, half the Southern states actually grew more slowly than the nation as a whole. The Carolinas and Georgia together formed the region’s other fast-growing pocket, albeit not nearly as fast-growing as Florida and Texas.
In the West, the most rapid growth is inland and in the Pacific Northwest, with Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Washington leading the way in percentage terms. Behemoth California is still growing faster than the national rate and still accounts for just over half the region’s population, but its share is likely to drop below 50 percent soon.
There’s no guarantee that all these trends will continue. Over the first six decades of the 20th century, the South lost population share. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s – thanks in part to the spread of air conditioning – that it began its great rise. It could be that climate change brought on in part by burning fossil fuels to power all those air conditioners eventually sparks a resurgence of the Midwest and Northeast. Or it could be something else.
But for now and the foreseeable future, the reality is that most of this country’s people have come to live far from the old centers of political and economic power. The nation’s capital does happen to be in the South, albeit in a corner of the region close to the Northeast and quite distant from the South’s main growth centers. The entertainment industry is headquartered along the West Coast, as are the giant technology companies that are remaking the media, retailing and lots of other industries. Compared with, say, France or the U.K., the U.S. has quite a decentralized economy and political system.
Yet, a lot of important institutions, from top universities to the financial sector to the news media, remain concentrated in the Northeast in particular. In fact, the troubled economics of newsgathering have led to a rising share of news jobs being located in New York and Washington in recent years (and yes, I am writing all of this from a desk in midtown Manhattan). I have to think that at least a little part of the widespread and growing distrust of institutions in the U.S. can be ascribed to this disconnect. The country has moved. Large parts of its elite haven’t.
(This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.” You can contact him at [email protected].)