Could COVID Exodus Speed the Heartland Revival?

Over the past two decades America’s largest urban areas enjoyed a heady renaissance, driven in large part by the in-migration of immigrants, minorities and young people. But even as a big-city dominated press corps continued to report on gentrification and displacement, those trends began to reverse themselves in recent years as all three of those populations started heading in ever larger numbers to suburbs, sprawling sunbelt boomtowns and smaller cities and out of the biggest ones.

That shift preceded the COVID pandemic, but has rapidly accelerated with the expansion of remote work, which has undermined the economic basis for high-end urban and post-industrial economies. Meanwhile, the severe lockdowns Democratic governors and mayors favored devastated the service and small business economies that had provided sustenance to immigrant and minority entrepreneurs and workers.

The same “canaries in the coal mine” that spurred America’s urban renaissance have been leaving its big cities in growing numbers since 2014, notes demographer Wendell Cox. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have all begun to lose population while people have flocked to new employment hubs like Austin, Dallas, Phoenix, Columbus and Nashville that have led the way in terms of both overall new jobs and high-end business and professional service jobs.

Nowhere is this shift more evident than with immigrants. The share of the foreign born settling in big coastal “gateways” has plunged from 44 percent in 2010 to barely 35 percent in 2019. Foreign-born populations, notes Cox in research for the think tank Heartland Forward, stagnated or even declined in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago as they surged in Houston (over 25 percent growth), Dallas-Ft Worth (30 percent) Charlotte (nearly 40 percent) and Nashville (a remarkable 44 percent).

Houston, in fact, is now the most diverse major metropolitan area in the country. In 1960, Harris County, which includes Houston and many of its suburbs, was 70 percent white, non-Hispanic and 20 percent African American. Today, the county’s total population is 31 percent white and non-Hispanic, 42 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Black and 8 percent Asian. The share of foreign-born Houstonians now approaches one-fourth of the population—almost twice the average for the nation’s 50 most populous metros.

More surprising still has been the equally rapid move of immigrants to smaller cities such as Fayetteville, Ark., Knoxville, Tenn,; Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Springfield, Mo., and Fargo, N.D. The fastest growth in foreign-born populations has been in areas with traditionally low immigrant concentrations. Where the foreign-born population grew by 10 percent nationally in the last decades, in states like Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and the Dakotas it has expanded by 30 percent.

Racial minorities, too, are heading increasingly to the sunbelt boom towns, the south and to smaller cities. The surges in Latino, Asian and African American growth are not in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or the Bay Area, according to an analysis by Wendell Cox for the Urban Reform Institute, but in Atlanta, Boise, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Again, economics is a key factor. Middle-class job creation has been generally stronger in these communities and, due to less regulation and lower taxes, costs are lower. African-American real incomes in Atlanta are more than $60,000, compared to $36,000 in San Francisco and $37,000 in Los Angeles. The median income for Latinos in Virginia Beach-Norfolk is $69,000, compared to $43,000 in Los Angeles, $47,000 in San Francisco and $40,000 in New York City. The highest Asian median household incomes are in Raleigh, Jackson, Fayetteville (AR-MO) and Austin.

Read the rest of this piece at Daily Beast.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo: Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 License.

The Looming Democrat Civil War

The Democratic Party has always been a loose confederation of outsiders — poor farmers, union members, populists, European immigrants and southern segregationists. As the actor Will Rogers said in 1924: “I am not a member of any organised political party. I am a Democrat.” Yet despite being unwieldy, it was often effective, and usually beat the more homogeneous country-club-led Republicans.

Today, the Democratic Party seems more united, still glowing in the aftermath of the defeat of Trump. But that is just an illusion: Joe Biden’s first hundred days in office are almost up — and the internal conflicts of his party are bound to surface soon.

These divisions are not petty, or merely personal, but based on demands from a number of incompatible constituencies and ideologies. Take the Democrats’s newest supporters: America’s tech oligarchs, Wall Street financiers and urban real estate speculators. They may act “woke” on issues surrounding gender, race and the environment. But such “virtue signalling” is no substitute for the drastic policies pushed by the party’s Left: the confiscation of vast wealth, the break-up of monopolies and the introduction of ever-higher taxes. Big business, after all, is the clear winner in the status quo that the Left, with good reason, despises.

But the impending Democratic civil war is more than, as some conservatives see it, a two-dimensional conflict between “the establishment and the radicals”. Largely ignored in this narrative is the most unappreciated, least articulate yet arguably the largest Democrat-voting bloc: middle and working-class moderates who make up roughly 50% of the party. These voters may often favour populist economics, but remain threatened by the cultural, economic and environmental policies pushed by the other two factions.

All of which leaves Biden in an unenviable position: if he seeks to placate both the corporate woke and the activist Left, the Democrats could sever their last connections with the vast majority of the country, and allow the GOP, even in the wake of the Trump disaster, to recover political momentum.

For what it’s worth, Biden has often been associated with this largely neglected group of what might be called FDR Democrats. His reputation as a moderate “reasonable guy” helped secure the votes of older Democrats, Independents and African-Americans in the recent election. In the primaries, it gave him an edge over both the radical Sanders, whose program frightened many older voters, and the candidates of the corporate elite, notably the well-financed former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. These voters may be fading in the numbers, but still constitute up to 44% of the total electorate, easily the largest identifiable class constituency.

Certainly, parts of Biden’s program — expanding health coverage as well as investments in basic infrastructure and manufacturing — could appeal to these voters, who are now generally supportive of an activist government. But Biden has also backed measures on cultural and environmental issues that are unlikely to win over the traditional working and middle classes. For example, fracking bans, already endorsed by Vice President Harris, could, according to the US Chamber of Commerce, cost 14 million jobs, far more than the eight million lost in the Great Recession.

Belying his regular guy image, Biden has also expressed support for programmes that would force suburban areas to densify. It is likely few suburbanites, the majority of all Americans, would welcome federal overseers deciding how their communities should be changed. Meanwhile, attempts to force residents out of their cars and into transit, something they were abandoning well before Covid, seems quixotic as well as politically stupid. The President’s Transportation Secretary has even suggested a tax on “vehicle miles” travelled, a measure almost calculated to alienate middle and working-class families outside a few dense urban cores.

Read the rest of this piece at Unherd.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Homepage photo: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz via Flickr under U.S. Government Work.

What Happened to Social Democracy?

In a world that seems to be divided between neoliberal orthodoxy and identitarian dogmas, it is possible to miss the waning presence of traditional social democracy. Born of the radical Left in Marx’s own time, social democrats worked, sometimes with remarkable success, to improve the living standards of working people by accommodating the virtues of capitalism. Today, that kind of social democracy—learned at home from my immigrant grandparents and from the late Michael Harrington, one time head of the American Socialist Party—is all but dead. This tradition was, in retrospect, perhaps too optimistic about the efficacy of government. Nevertheless, it sincerely sought to improve popular conditions and respected the wisdom of ordinary people.

In its place, we now find a kind of progressivism that focuses on gender, sexual preference, race, and climate change. Abandoned by traditional Left parties, some voters have drifted into nativist—and sometimes openly racist—opposition while more have simply become alienated from major institutions and pessimistic about the future.

The revolution in class relations

Social democracy was a product of the inequities of the industrial era and the consequent solidarity that flourished among working people. This often resulted in greater justice for racial minorities. The German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein developed an “evolutionary” ideology based on gradualism, practical results, and a commitment to democratic norms. Observing late-19th century Britain, where unions were accepted even in business circles, Bernstein noticed that working conditions, contrary to Marxist dogma, were steadily improving. He believed that the proletariat was evolving from an oppressed underclass into a more upwardly mobile group, whose goal was to find “an appropriate status in industrial society.” For their efforts, Social Democrats were denounced as “social fascists” by Stalin, and Antifa’s predecessors—the German Antifaschistische Aktion—spent at least as much time fighting them as fighting the Nazis. A fatal error.

After the Second World War, however, social democrats enjoyed considerable success while the remarkable productivity of the private sector helped transform the once-forlorn proletariat into something more bourgeois in aspiration. A study covering the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States shows that all three saw a rapid decline in the concentration of wealth until the 1970s. Their program focused on physical needs such as boosting access to electricity and improving public health and education.

Never before had so much prosperity and relative economic security been so widely enjoyed. By the 1960s, the American labor movement could boast of “developing a whole new middle class,” said Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers. Industrial laborers could afford to buy homes, send their kids to college, and live the kind of life only the affluent had previously enjoyed. Western Europe benefited from the same process—economic growth helped finance a welfare state that provided greater security and improved the prospects of most families; the rapid growth of export industries, in particular, was an integral part of the original Swedish social model of increasing wages without inflation.

Starting in the 1970s, such things as foreign competition, mass immigration from developing countries, automation, and the growing financialization of economic power undermined this progress. In the United States, data from the Census Bureau show that the share of national income going to the middle 60 percent of households has fallen to a record low since the 1970s. Wealth gains in recent decades have gone overwhelmingly to the top one percent of households, and especially to the top 0.5 percent. Social mobility has declined in over two-thirds of European Union countries, including Sweden. Across the 36 wealthier countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the richest citizens have taken an ever-greater share of national GDP while the middle class has shrunk. Much of the global middle class is heavily in debt—mainly because of high housing costs—and “looks increasingly like a boat in rocky waters,” suggests the OECD.

Parties repositioning

One might assume that this concentration of wealth would energize traditional working class parties—Labour in Britain and Australia, the Liberals in Canada, the Democrats in the US—but they shifted their focus away from blue-collar and lower-middle-class workers. Instead, leftwing parties are increasingly peopled by, and cultivated support from, the well-educated professional class—now an estimated 15 percent of the US work force—along with the corporate elites and academic clerisy. These classes have done well over the past few decades, while the traditional lower-middle and working classes have languished.

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Nicolas Nieves-Quiroz via Unsplash under CC0 1.0 License.

Trust the Science: The Blue State Surge is Real

For months the conventional wisdom among Democrats, amplified by their obliging claque in the media, was that lockdowns played an essential role in containing COVID-19. The great heroes, in addition to Anthony Fauci, were hardline governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, California’s Gavin Newsom and, most of all, New York’s Andrew Cuomo.

Yet now, more than a year later, the lockdown states—starting with New York and New Jersey—are again leading the nation in coronavirus infections and deaths per capita.

By contrast, some of the states with Republican governors who were routinely castigated for unlocking things and supposedly killing their residents, most notably Florida, Georgia and Texas, did indeed suffer an increase in fatalities last summer. But since then, even after opening their economies, these states continue to suffer fatality rates per capita well below those of the locked-down Northeastern states and about equal to California, which has maintained one of the nation’s strictest lockdowns.

What emerge from these trends are some clear issues with transmission that transcend lockdowns, mask mandates and other punitive measures. However justified, such actions have not addressed the fundamental reasons why some geographies and populations have suffered so much more than others. That’s to say that while the blue state governors aren’t necessarily to blame for the surges their states are experiencing, it’s clear that the economically and personally disruptive measures did not have the expected impact.

What did make a big difference, it turns out, is not so much the severity of lockdowns but pre-existing conditions. The likely cause here can be best identified as “exposure density” brought on by crowded housing, transit, and office environments.

That helps explain why, after New York City’s suburbs were hit hard in the first wave, the current surge has hit the outer boroughs, where a much higher share of workers have had little choice but to continue taking the subway or other transit.

Nationwide, urban exposure to the pandemic also reflects their greater inequality. Higher rates of poverty and overcrowded housing accentuate the worst effects of the pandemic, which tore through impoverished parts of New York, Houston, Los Angeles County, Chicago’s poor south side, and similar areas. The Bronx, for example, has suffered an 80 percent worse death rate than denser yet wealthier Manhattan, while Brooklyn’s rate is 50 percent worse than Manhattan’s.

This can be seen also in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, whose sunshine-blessed and auto-dominated society suffered a fatality rate 60 percent below that of transit-oriented metro New York. Yet while fatality rates have been very low in affluent areas with fewer crowded households, such as west Los Angeles and Irvine, they have been much higher in areas like east and south Los Angeles. In Orange County, the fatality rate in affluent, single family dominated Irvine is 22 per 100,000 compared with 195 in neighboring Santa Ana, which is heavily Hispanic, poor and suffers crowded housing conditions.

This is an international phenomenon seen across the world’s great urban areas. During the first lockdown, almost 20 percent of the Parisian population fled to the countryside, accelerating an escapist trend that had been underway for years: the core city of Paris has lost 700,000 residents (nearly 25 percent of its population) since 1954, while millions of new inhabitants have swelled the suburban population. Meanwhile, the densely packed Department of Seine-Saint-Denis, a place synonymous there with inner ring suburban poverty, had a staggering 130 percent excess mortality rate when the virus first hit last year.

Read the rest of this piece at The Daily Beast.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston, a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Photo credit: Matryx via Pixabay under CC0 1.0 License.

The Death of the American City

When my grandparents migrated to New York from Russia over a century ago, they found a city that was hardly paradise, but one that provided a pathway towards a better life. Life was tough, crowded and always a paycheck from poverty. My relatives were poor, but so was everyone; eventually, they all bought houses or apartments, and entered the middle class. As for crime in their native Brownsville, the home of Murder, Incorporated and other villainous enterprises, it rarely impacted “civilians”; my mother would tell me how a young girl could still walk across Prospect Park without fear of assault.

Today’s urban promise is, however, vastly different — not only in New York, but San Francisco and Los Angeles, London and Paris. No longer cities of aspiration, they are increasingly defined by an almost feudal hierarchy: the rich live well, protected by private security and served by local coffee shops and trendy clubs.

Meanwhile, the working class struggles to pay rent, possesses no demonstrable path to a better life and, as a result, often migrates elsewhere. Crime rates are spiking and homelessness, once an exception, is increasingly widespread. Those very streets once said to be “paved with gold” are now are filled with discarded needles, excrement and graffiti.

Indeed, what we are now witnessing is the decline of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s description of the city as “a luxury product”. Today, that sense of “luxury” has all but vanished, with modern urban economies promoting class divisions rather than upward mobility. Amid all the hoopla about urban revival, the truth is that entrenched urban poverty in the US — places where 30% or more of the population live below the poverty line — actually grew in the first decade of the new millennium, from 1,100 to 3,100 neighbourhoods.

Even the New York Times admits that, in the past decade, cities have gone from “engines of growth and opportunity” to places where class relations are increasing fixed, with only the upper end of the income spectrum doing well. Gotham’s one percent earns a third of the entire city’s personal income. That’s almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country. But such class disparity is becoming the norm; in the tech haven of San Francisco, which has the worst levels of inequality in California, the top 5% of households earn an average of $808,105 annually, compared with $16,184 for the lowest 20%.

Predictably, those at the bottom of this new feudal structure suffer the most; today, the old saying that “the city air makes one free” all too often means freedom to be poor, to experience endemic homelessness, collapsing public infrastructure and rising crime.

And that was before Covid hit. Already many poor urban residents subsisted on transfer payments or worked in service industries. They were paid, usually poorly, to clean now-empty offices or work in restaurants and hotels. The lockdowns, whether justified or overwrought, have since pummelled these low-income workers; roughly 40% of Americans earning under $40,000 a year lost their jobs last March.

Unlike workers who occupy “the commanding heights” of finance, tech, marketing, and media , these people did not have the option of working from their kitchen tables or moving to suburban locations or smaller cities. Nor could they count on education systems to work their magic; most schools in American inner-city districts, in contrast to many suburbs and smaller cities, remained closed.

All of which meant America’s urban districts were ripe for civil unrest when George Floyd died last May, and these festering conditions exploded into the worst national rioting in decades. Parts of many cities went up in flames, the damage of which was obscured by mainstream media’s mantra of “mostly peaceful protests”. The constant rioting and demonstrations in Portland, once seen as a paragon of new urbanist-led revival, has all but destroyed its downtown, which is now largely bereft of pedestrians.

Read the rest of this piece at UnHerd.

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Christopher Michel via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Battlefield ‘Burbs

America’s political culture has been shaped by its rural and urban environments, each of which tends to be dominated by one party. Urban Republicans are now as rare as rural Democrats.

Yet the political future of the country lies in the suburban and exurban rings that dominate every metropolitan region. These voters are made up predominately neither of woke city hipsters nor gun-toting rubes, the stereotypes that dominate our competing cultural memes. The suburbs are the last contestable geography in the country. Read more

Economic Civil War

Our national divide is usually cast in terms of ideology, race, climate, and gender. But it might be more accurate to see our national conflict as regional and riven by economic function. The schism is between two ways of making a living, one based in the incorporeal world of media and digital transactions, the other in the tangible world of making, growing, and using real things.

Read more

Environmentalism is the New War on the Working Class

“There should be a real liberal party in this country, and I don’t mean a crackpot professional one.” – Harry Truman.

John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s new climate czar, took a private jet to accept an environmental award in Iceland in 2019. “It’s the only choice for somebody like me, who is traveling the world to win this battle,” he unironically told a reporter when asked about it.

If this sounds like a clueless joke, it’s not. President Biden’s chief environmental officer took the least carbon-efficient means of travel known to man because it was “the only choice” he could think of for a member in good standing of the indulged upper classes.

But this is no anomaly when it comes to liberal climate activism; it is a perfect encapsulation of what it has become: a vanity project of the jet set that directly harms working-class interests. And it’s this green agenda that directly threatens the working class that Biden has prioritized as he has taken command of the federal government.

The first victims of this agenda include the upwards of 10,000 people, many of them union members, who expected to work on the now cancelled Keystone XL Pipeline. But this draconian climate agenda that cost so many jobs should not have come as a surprise. As a Rasmussen Reports poll found, most Americans—52 percent—predicted that Biden’s decision to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement “will cost American jobs and force households and small business to pay higher utility bills.”

Regions from the Appalachians to the Rockies could experience massive job losses, particularly if Biden embraces the green demand to ban all fracking, even on private land. In Texas alone, as many as a million good-paying jobs would be lost. Overall, according to a Chamber of Commerce report, a full national fracking ban would cost 14 million jobs, far more than the eight million lost in the Great Recession. That could turn even vital smaller towns into instant slums. And in places like New Mexico, where spending on public programs hinges on the oil industry—now experiencing a 60-day moratorium on new permits, thanks to President Biden—even issues like education will be impacted.

What has happened to the party of the people?

The climate story is just one part of a bigger one, which led Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan to complain that the party of the people increasingly resembles the old , with lockstep support from Wall Street, the celebrity circuit, Silicon Valley and other elite sectors like professional service and law firms. Put simply, the Democrats have won the battle of the elites, with Democratic campaign spending more than tripling in recent years.

Read the rest of this piece at Newsweek.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Homepage photo: screenshot from CSPAN video

Peak Progressive?

In the minds of most progressives, as well as some horrified conservatives, California is the harbinger of America’s future. Governor Gavin Newsom sees his state as a model, claiming California is “the envy of the world” and the great bastion of social justice. “Unlike the Washington plutocracy,” he boasts, “California isn’t satisfied serving a powerful few on one side of the velvet rope.” Read more

Ownership and Opportunity: A New Report from Urban Reform Institute

In a new report from Urban Reform Institute, edited by Joel Kotkin, J.H. Cullum Clark and Anne Snyder explore what happens when opportunity stalls. Pete Saunders and Karla Lopez del Rio tell the story of how homeownership enabled upward mobility for their respective families. Wendell Cox quantifies the connection between urban containment policies and housing affordabilty.

The introduction, authored by Charles Blain, President of Urban Reform Institute is excerpted below:

The middle-class way of living is under constant threat as housing costs increase, eating away larger shares of the average American’s income.

Homeownership, which has been a critical source of advancement for middle-class, immigrant, and ethnic minority families and an asset that people can pass down from one generation to the next, is under threat. For many families, this means that instead of building wealth, they are seeing opportunity erode before their eyes.

As housing costs are the biggest driver of variation in living costs across metropolitan areas, the relentless housing cost increases of the last two decades have undermined standards of living for many Americans in the nation’s most expensive cities. If home prices continue to outpace household incomes for ordinary Americans in coming years, the American Dream will move ever further out of reach for millions of families. This is especially the case for Millennials and Gen Zers for whom high and rising housing costs are the single largest obstacle to accumulating wealth and achieving a financially sustainable life.

The COVID-19 crisis presents America with enormous challenges, but also new opportunities to move forward in rethinking policy on the future of housing and work to improve affordability and advance opportunity – particularly for our most disadvantaged communities.

A fresh policy agenda can breathe new life into the American Dream and protect middle-class standards of living. This agenda should prioritize new housing supply at all price points, particularly in growing, high-opportunity places. Cities should relax urban containment policies that have had the clear effect of making urban real estate scarce and expensive. State governments should reform tax codes that make it more cost effective to leave land stagnant than to build upon it.

If we want to protect the ability to climb the socioeconomic ladder from one generation to the next, we must face the crisis of unaffordable housing and declining homeownership. We must protect the biggest opportunity for advancement and scale back the rules and regulations that continue to snatch this opportunity away from millions of Americans.

Click here to download/read the full report.

Join the discussion on a new policy agenda for home ownership and opportunity in our post-pandemic economy.

Date: December 4, 2020
Time: 11:30AM – 1:00PM (Central Time)

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