Where’s the growth?

by Adam Millsap on March 1, 2016

in Economic Growth, Unemployment

In a famous Wendy’s commercial from 1984, three elderly women are examining a hamburger with a rather large bun when one of them asks “Where’s the beef?” in order to express her disappointment that the burger is all bun and no meat. When it comes to the economy growth is like the beef of a burger – without it all you’re left with is fluff and filler.

For the last 8 years the US economy has been mostly fluff and filler. Sure unemployment is down, but that is largely due to a lower labor force participation rate. Wage growth has been anemic and total GDP growth remains below the pre-recession long-run average of 3%.  GDP per capita growth is weak too.

Within a country as large as the US different regions are going to have different levels of GDP per capita and different growth rates for a variety of reasons including labor force characteristics, industry composition, weather, and geography. In order to examine the differences across the US, the graph below depicts the natural log of real GDP per capita in 2009 dollars for the 9 census divisions from 2001 to 2014. Because the natural log is on the y-axis the slope of the line corresponds to the growth rate between years. The black line is the US Metropolitan Area average and does not include rural areas.

ln real per cap gdp by cen div 2001-14

I created the census division average by generating a population weighted average of the real per capita GDP of the Metropolitan Statistical Areas located in each division. The weights are adjusted for each year in the data. Also, since the averages discussed in this post do not include rural areas one can think of them as the urban average in each census division. The population data for the weights and the real GDP per capita data are from the BEA.

As shown in the graph, the highest average real GDP per capita is in the New England division (orange) while the lowest is in the East South Central (purple), although as of 2014 the Mountain is not far ahead.

The slopes of the lines are steeper on average prior to the recession, indicating that the regions were growing faster during the pre-recession period. This is particularly noticeable in the Mountain and South Atlantic division, where real GDP per capita growth has essentially been zero (flat line) since 2009. Growth has also slowed considerably in the Pacific division (dark blue). Only in the East North Central (yellow) and West South Central (brown) does it appear that growth has reached or eclipsed its pre-recession rate.

The next graph below shows the average real per capita GDP by census division in three separate years – 2001, 2007, and 2014. This makes it easier to see the changes in levels over time.

real per cap gdp by cen div 2001,07,14

Real GDP per capita was higher in 2014 than in 2007 (year prior to the recession) in only three divisions – the Mid Atlantic, West North Central, and West South Central. The rest of the country has experienced either no gain or a decrease in the case of the South Atlantic and Mountain divisions. Together these graphs are hardly evidence of a strong economy.

High per capita GDP is not a perfect measure of economic prosperity but it is strongly correlated with many of the other things people care about. Countries with a higher level of per capita GDP are healthier, freer, and happier. The data presented here show that the US economy is struggling when it comes to growth, especially in the South Atlantic and Mountain divisions where people have become worse off on average. Whoever the next president is, he or she needs to come up with an answer to the question – Where’s the growth?


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