What Happened to the American Boomtown?

State Street, Chicago, 1900. CreditLibrary of Congress

Chicago in 1850 was a muddy frontier town of barely 30,000 people. Within two decades, it was 10 times that size. Within another two decades, that number had tripled. By 1910, Chicago — hog butcher for the world, headquarters of Montgomery Ward, the nerve center of the nation’s rail network — had more than two million residents.

“You see these numbers, and they just look fake,” said David Schleicher, a law professor at Yale who writes on urban development and land use. Chicago heading into the 20th century was the fastest-growing city America has ever seen. It was a classic metropolitan magnet, attracting anyone in need of a job or a raise.

But while other cities have played this role through history — enabling people who were geographically mobile to become economically mobile, too — migration patterns like the one that fed Chicago have broken down in today’s America. Interstate mobility nationwide has slowed over the last 30 years. But, more specifically and of greater concern, migration has stalled in the very places with the most opportunity.

As Mr. Schleicher puts it, local economic booms no longer create boomtowns in America.

At a small scale there are exceptions. Some of the fastest-growing counties this decade were in corners of North Dakota, riding an oil boom. And it’s true over the last two generations that several once-modest cities have grown into vast metro areas in the Sun Belt. But what’s drawing people there has more to do with cheap housing than high wages.

The places that are booming in size aren’t the economic boomtowns — the regions with the greatest prosperity and highest productivity. In theory, we’d expect those metros, like the Bay Area, Boston and New York, to be rapidly expanding, as people move from regions with high unemployment and meager wages to those with high salaries and strong job markets.

That we’re not seeing such a pattern suggests that something is fundamentally amiss. The magnets aren’t working.

The metro areas that offered the highest pay in 2000 have grown by some of the slowest rates since then, while people have flocked to lower-wage metros like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C. Similarly, the metros with the highest G.D.P. per capita are barely adding workers relative to much less productive areas.

(This chart draws on data about metropolitan statistical areas, which align better with local labor markets than arbitrary city boundaries do. The population chart above uses city data, given that historical metropolitan estimates aren’t available from the census.)

Some people aren’t moving into wealthy regions because they’re stuck in struggling ones. They have houses they can’t sell or government benefits they don’t want to lose. But the larger…

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