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Why population growth isn't always an economic boon

Texas Map

A map showing the seven cities in Texas with the greatest rate of population growth between July 1, 2012 and July 1, 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Texas is leading the way in U.S. population growth. The Census Bureau said Thursday that seven of the top 15 fastest-growing cites are in Texas. They’re clustered around big oil and gas boomtowns like Dallas and Houston, or tech hubs like Austin.

Sometimes population equals prosperity.

“They go hand in hand,” says Luis Bettencourt, who studies cities at the Santa Fe Institute. “You add a person, and you get more money per capita.”

Income growth in the booming suburbs of Austin is high because of the types of jobs there. But Bettencourt says there are caveats. This past decade wrecked all the economic models; the housing bubble was making people move.

“There was cheap housing available, and the actual construction of that housing created jobs,” says Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, which monitors cities' economic growth. But some economists say even without the housing bubble, the theory that growth begets growth is off. Consider Las Vegas. People are moving there for jobs.

“Naturally if there’s a lot of hiring you would expect people to migrate in," says Paul Gottlieb, an economist at Rutgers. "But the jobs have not necessarily been very high paying.”

Gottlieb says, sure you have new people and new jobs, but they don’t have fat wallets. They don’t bring growth and prosperity. Gottlieb says, in some big, northeastern cities, income is rising much faster than population.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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