The Ascent of the Second World: U.S. South Edition

See my post The Ascent of the Second World for international examples. In 1929, the U.S. South (as well as North Dakota and surrounding states) was very relatively poor, while the U.S. North (especially New York and Illinois) was very relatively rich. The four richest states in the country were New York, Illinois, Delaware, and California, with the exception of Delaware, all home to the largest cities of America. Today, things are very different. Due to greater mobility of labor and capital and institutional convergence of the U.S. South and North (at least partly due to Federal legislation), the U.S. is a much more regionally equal country than it was in 1929, or even 1979. As I discussed in the Ascent of the Second World post, Puerto Rico is also much closer to U.S. income levels than it was in 1950.

Lighter states are richer. In 1929, regional inequality in the United States was at a point unimaginable today. South Carolina and Mississippi, the poorest states in the Union, had less than 40% of the U.S. average per capita income. Today, no state has a per capita income of less than 70% of the U.S. average.

PNGs (bummer WordPress does not allow SVGs):

Animated GIF:

I did not enter the data I used to make the maps into a spreadsheet (I got it all from FRED2), but might do so a few days from now.

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

8 thoughts on “The Ascent of the Second World: U.S. South Edition”

    1. Some. North Dakota and Wyoming are so light-colored in the 2014 picture mostly because of the shale boom. But most states aren’t huge shale producers. North Dakota had ceased to be very backwards by the 1950s, long before shale. But it was nowhere near so high above the U.S. average as it is today until recently.

      Much like most of southern Europe, some (most?) of the South was more converged in incomes with the rest of the U.S. in 1995 than today. Don’t know for sure why. Nevada falling below the U.S. average is pretty recent.

      1. Hmm, that’s quite interesting as well. For the case of southern Europe, viewed in isolation, my first thoughts would turn to increased economic integration with the rest of the continent, as trade and banking etc. opened up in anticipation of monetary union. (The latter, of course, turned out to be a disaster, but in 1995 none of its ill effects would have realized yet.) But if the southern European phenomenon is part of a broader context, a new interpretation is necessary.

        In the US, internal migration to the sunbelt is a big datapoint in the mid-to-late 20th century. I wonder if intra-European migration flows were net north-to-south as well? (I could imagine this is a structural consequence of increasing per capita income in the developed world post WWII, as wealthier people chose to live in places where their marginal productivity is lower in order to enjoy better weather, a form of labor-leisure tradeoff. But that’s just a hypothesis of course.)

        Then again, in the US at least I’m pretty sure net internal migration to the south has continued apace for the last 20 years, so there’s still a mystery as to why income convergence between north and south would have reversed.

        1. “But if the southern European phenomenon is part of a broader context, a new interpretation is necessary.”

          -It’s sort of difficult to generalize about the southern European situation since 1990. Italy’s relative decline was, until the late 2000s, similar to that of the other Axis powers. Portugal did extremely well in the 1980s, well in the 1990s, and poorly in the 2000s and later. Spain had a good 1980s, an okay 1990s, but a U.S.-style housing bubble in the 2000s. Greece had a stagnant 1980s, a so-so 1990s, then a massive bubble and bust.

          I suspect migration was far more important in the U.S. than in Europe overall. It plays an important role in Kevin Erdmann’s explanation for the housing boom and bust in the U.S.

          “In the US, internal migration to the sunbelt”

          -That’s basically Florida, Arizona, California, Texas, and, to a lesser extent, Georgia and Virginia.

          Mississippi, Puerto Rico, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Carolina experienced relative population decline between 1940 and 1970 (look at electoral college maps). Migration in Europe was, I’m pretty sure, always net South to North during the twentieth century (or at least until the 1970s; not sure what happened after that). Greece and Portugal had a lot of out-migration.

          As Scott Sumner once pointed out, differences in state income taxes seem to encourage migration between U.S. states.

          1. I don’t have any facility with the relevant data, but I think that North Carolina is growing now. (Raleigh is on the up-and-up, I’ve heard.) Not sure if that’s more recent, or dates back to the ’90s.

            FWIW, I was surprised to see that Louisiana has become relatively wealthier since the ’30s. Post-Katrina, I thought the prevailing narrative about that state was that it’s an economic basket-case. But maybe its tourism industry boomed back in the 70s or something, so its appearance on the map is just noise. Or maybe I’m missing some part of the story (Gulf oil?).

            1. Louisiana experienced rapid convergence in the 1930s and 1940s. Its per capita income soared in 2005-8 as a result of oil and Katrina, which made a lot of low- and no-income people leave. See



              North Carolina is certainly growing in population faster than US average. This phenomenon dates after 1980. I think its peak per capita income relative to the U.S. was in the late 1990s.

  1. It’s not widely known, but the Union government set up a punitive system of rail freight fees in the South following reconstruction (or so I am told). This system lasted until the 2nd WW. Cities like Birmingham were able to grow rapidly despite this system; Birmingham would have been even more successful without this system holding it back.

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