The Midwest Tells Us an Interesting Growth Story

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Midwest and the Northeast are the slow-growing regions of the U.S., with estimated population increases of 1.9 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively, from 2010 through 2017, according to the Census Bureau (compared with 7.9 percent for the South and 7.6 percent for the West).

They’re growing slowly in very different ways, though. As I discovered last week while working on a column about booming Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the Midwest has 23 metropolitan areas that have matched or exceeded the national population growth rate of 5.5 percent since 2010, while the Northeast has just two, Boston and State College, Pennsylvania. Yet population is growing faster overall in the Northeast than in the Midwest. That’s pretty weird.

What’s behind the disparity? My first thought was that perhaps the rural Midwest is still losing lots of residents to cities and their suburbs, while in the Northeast that process has mostly played out already. But it turns out the population outside of metropolitan areas has actually fallen faster in the Northeast since 2010 than in the Midwest.

No, the difference seems to be mainly that more than half the Northeast’s population lives in just three metropolitan areas, and all three have grown at or faster than the regional 2.2 percent rate since 2010.

The Midwest Tells Us an Interesting Growth Story

The only other top-10 Northeastern metropolitan areas that are growing faster than the region — Bridgeport and Worcester — are on the fringes of the New York and Boston metropolitan areas, respectively, and included in the broader New York and Boston combined statistical areas (the same goes for Providence with Boston). In the Northeast, then, population growth is mainly about the big getting bigger.

The Midwest is more complicated, and more interesting. Two of its most populous metropolitan areas are barely growing, and the region’s population was less concentrated in its biggest metros to begin with.

The Midwest Tells Us an Interesting Growth Story

There are lots of winners and lots of losers in the Midwest, then, and it’s not just a case of the big getting bigger. Ten of the 12 fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the region have populations of less than 500,000.

The Midwest Tells Us an Interesting Growth Story

Population growth isn’t everything, of course. Some fast-growing areas don’t generate lots of economic value; some slow-growing or even shrinking ones do. Metropolitan Pittsburgh may be losing population, for example, but its rate of real gross domestic product growth is tops among the big Northeastern metros since 2010 (U.S. GDP grew at a 2.1 percent annual rate over this period).

The Midwest Tells Us an Interesting Growth Story

Here are the GDP growth rankings for the big Midwestern metros. (I’m not sure why the lines are fatter in this chart; a quirk of our charting software, I guess. Also, I’ve followed Bloomberg’s style guide in determining whether to include the state name or not.)

The Midwest Tells Us an Interesting Growth Story

Overall, the Midwest’s real GDP rose at a 1.7 percent annualized pace from 2010 to 2017; the Northeast’s, 1.1 percent. That’s partly just because GDP fell much more during the Great Recession in the Midwest and thus had further to bounce back. But I do keep getting the impression that the Midwest, after having a generally awful time of it in the 2000s, now has a lot of interesting things going on economically and demographically. Did you know, for example, that the region is home to more than half the counties in the U.S. where the population got younger from 2010 to 2017? The Midwest: Some stuff is going on there.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. 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.”

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