Rays of Sunshine
In a lump of coal you sometimes find a diamond. In an oil slick, you find patches of clear water. And in a recession, there are success stories that can change how we think about our country in the modern era. The United States is a vast country whose different regions vary so much in terms of climate, population, and business environment that it can be hard to determine exactly what one city is doing to achieve success that another is not.
But while conditions are difficult in every part of the country, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of some of our large and medium-sized cities. With a population as diverse and dynamic as we have in the U.S., innovations in striking the right balance between quality of life and economic opportunity will ensure that at the very least, Americans will always experiment with making their cities the most desirable as they can.
Putting a Number on Progress
To put together this list, we looked at U.S. Census data on a handful of metrics, broken down by metropolitan area, looking for indicators of progress in an otherwise bleak economic environment.
First we look at unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, focusing on the three places with the most significant increases in employed persons, to find that the biggest gainer in the year up to last December improved their employment rate by only half a percentage point. In this day and age, however, any positive change is a positive sign.
We also looked at economic indicators like the change in wages and the change in personal income for different parts of the country based on Census data to see who has been doing well economically, and we took two measures of population growth to determine where people are going as they look to go where the living is good. Looking at both population growth and migration gives a more general picture of where our most up-and-coming cities are.
By looking at the leaders in these various indicators, we get an idea of what's working in the U.S., and what places we should watch for perhaps the first signs of economic recovery after a recession that has made most people in most parts of the country suffer.
3rd Biggest Increase in Employment: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Increase in Employment, December 2008 — December 2009: 0.2%
It's a bleak situation when the city with the third-highest increase in employment only experienced 0.2% of growth. While a borough of New York City, Brooklyn has long had its own life and character, and has become increasingly popular with the up-and-coming young professionals in the greater metropolitan area.
2nd Biggest Increase in Employment: Bronx, N.Y.
Increase in Employment, December 2008 — December 2009: 0.2%
North of Manhattan, the borough of the Bronx in New York takes second spot on the list, having seen an increase in employment of 0.2% in the last year. If the Bronx, home to a large immigrant population that has historically thrived in the city that never sleeps, is posting positive numbers during the depth of recession, it bodes well for the area's recovery during more positive economic times.
Biggest Increase in Employment: Arlington, Va.
Increase in Employment, December 2008 — December 2009: 0.5%
During the past several years of recession, government bailouts of failing corporations and increased financial aid to the country's poorest have helped keep the nation out of a full-blown depression. In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., do we find the city with the largest increase in employment from the year to last December.
With only a half-percent increase in employment in Arlington, the community is more staying afloat than showing vigorous growth, and it might be all thanks to Uncle Sam for a town that feeds off of the federal government infrastructure across the Potomac river.
3rd Fastest-Growing City: Austin, Texas
Change in Population, 2000-2008: 32.2%
The capital of Texas, also known as the "live music capital of the world" for events such as the Austin City Limits annual music festival, Austin ranks as the third fastest growing city in the nation by population. Increasing in population by almost a third from 2000-2008, the city is home to a number of major corporations such as Dell (NasdaqGS: DELL - News) and Whole Foods (NasdaqGS: WFMI - News), and a recent deal inked with Facebook promises to bring even more attention to this up-and-coming city.
2nd Fastest-Growing City: Las Vegas
Change in Population, 2000-2008: 35.6%
We've all heard the expression "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," but it would appear that some are taking it literally, as more and more people decided to stay and live in the city of sin. Its population increased by more than 35% in the first eight years of this decade. While they may have been feeling lucky then, only time will tell if Las Vegas can continue to build on that momentum and build even more, bigger casinos to keep the crowds coming. Right now, the situation doesn't look very promising.
Fastest-Growing City: Raleigh, N.C.
Change in Population, 2000-2008: 36.6%
The "research triangle" of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill has long given some vigor to the economy of North Carolina, with Duke and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill leading employment in the area. As student populations grow and more choose to stay in the area after graduation, the city has risen to first place by increase in population from 2000-2008. All of this is good news for Democrats, as the city of Durham has voted for the democratic candidate in every presidential election since the town's founding in 1869.
3rd Biggest Increase in Wages: Durham, N.C.
Change in Average Weekly Wage, December 2008 — December 2009: 9.5%
Comparing cities by the increase in wages they experienced between December of 2008 and 2009 sees Durham (part of the same broader community of Raleigh and Chapel Hill, N.C.) also doing well. With almost a 10% increase in the average weekly wage from December of 2008 to the same time a year earlier, Durham has seen a population increase occur along with rising wages.
Good news for any city struggling with providing for its residents during a recession, Durham has seen a significant increase in unemployment recently, which will surely dampen the city's rapid growth in recent years.
2nd Biggest Increase in Wages: Alachua, Fla.
Change in Average Weekly Wage, December 2008 — December 2009: 10.1%
Alachua, a suburb to the northwest of Gainesville, Fla., has done well to engage in interesting projects to promote itself. Pushing solar energy via special tariffs and education in a city that has a high proportion of college graduates (the University of Florida is nearby), residents have a number of reasons besides the 10% increase in wages to be proud of where they live. This increase, occurring as it did during some of the worst months of recession so far, bodes well for the city's resilience as the economy struggles to revive itself nationwide.
Biggest Increase in Wages: Douglas, Colo.
Change in Average Weekly Wage, December 2008 — December 2009: 26.1%
For a city that came of age thanks to a vibrant ranching economy, Douglas County, Colorado has become a vibrant suburb of Colorado's two largest cities, Denver and Colorado Springs, both less than an hour away in either direction. Perhaps because of the city's makeup of people who go to the city nearby to earn a living, Douglas tops the list of American cities by change in average wages last year, posting a 26% increase.
3rd Highest Migration City: Dallas - Ft. Worth
Increase in Population from Migration, 2000-2008: 573,584
When looking at the popularity of different cities, migration is an excellent metric, since migrants tend to go where the living and opportunities show most promise. Texas's largest urban hub in Dallas - Ft. Worth saw more than half a million people move there up to 2008. Perhaps that can be attributed to the large number of major companies in operation there, including Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN - News), Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM - News), AT&T (NYSE: T - News), Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV - News) and of course American Airlines, the largest employer in the city.
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