5 Things America's Strongest Cities Have in Common

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The United States did not experience an even, cross-country recession. The downturn descended like a tornado twisting its way from Miami through Michigan, lifting over the midwest, and returning with vengeance in Nevada, Arizona and California. The entire country felt the gusts, but the recovery has taken root where the tornado didn't strike: in Texas, up through the central time zone, and across the country's state capitals.

Who's getting up off the ground the fastest? Every quarter, the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution identifies the 20 strongest major metro areas, based on a variety of factors including economic activity, housing and employment. Listed in alphabetical order they are:

Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY

Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC

Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX

Baton Rouge, LA

Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY

Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX

El Paso, TX

Jackson, MS

Kansas City, MO-KS

Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, AR

Madison, WI

McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX

Oklahoma City, OK

Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA

Rochester, NY

San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX

Syracuse, NY

Tulsa, OK

Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC

Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV


What do these cities have in common? I count five things.

1. Eds and Meds

When the private sector shrinks and the federal government grows, handmaidens of federal spending, like education and health care, stay alive. Many of the cities on this list specialize in health care (McAllen) education (Austin) or both (Albany, Augusta, San Antonio). The eds and meds have outpaced the private sector in growth through the downturn, into the recovery, and they will continue to cast a long shadow over job creation in the next decade. Six of the top eight jobs with the fastest projected growth are in the health care or medical science industries. Three of the top five jobs with the largest projected growth are in health care.

2. Also: Enlisteds

The rock of federal spending has helped military towns stay steady, too. Look at DC, Virginia Beach, San Antonio, and Augusta. Pentagons and forts, galore. Many of the cities on this list have been buoyed by consistent government spending on military bases and tech contracts.

3. Capitals

In the good times, the strongest cities were close to capital that came from rising home prices and exotic financial products. In the iffy times, the strongest cities are close to capitals, to City Halls, the most dependable arteries to government spending. Count the capitals on Brookings list: Albany, Austin, Baton Rouge, Madison, Little Rock, Jackson, and Oklahoma City.

4. Texas (Or at Least Its Time Zone)

As I've written, Texas and the Great Plains have run away with the recovery for a few reasons: (1) They avoided the housing bubble; (2) They're led by local-based businesses like health and insurance that were insulated from the global meltdown; (3) High energy prices both delayed and cushioned the recession; and finally...

5. Cheap labor

Eighteen of Brookings' 20 "strongest cities" (all except Washington and VA Beach) have average or below average cost-of-living, according to a new Wall Street Journal story. At a time when Washington can't seem to get employers and employees together, employment has been sticky where wages and living have been cheap.

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 THE NEXT ECONOMY

A series of articles about education and job creation trends that will impact the next decade.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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