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People, Geographic Distribution of U.S. Population

West Coast states, original states, northern Great Plains, Rust Belt, hookworm

In 2000 almost two-thirds of the U.S. population lived in states along the three major coasts—38 percent along the Atlantic Ocean, 16 percent along the Pacific Ocean, and 12 percent along the Gulf of Mexico. The smallest numbers lived in the area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, particularly in the central and northern Great Plains. While the Rocky Mountain and plains states account for about half of the landmass of the United States, only 34 percent of the population resides in these areas.

Americans are highly mobile and move an average of 11 to 13 times in their lives, although in the 1980s and 1990s Americans moved less often than they did in the era immediately following World War II. At the beginning of the 21st century the fastest-growing areas were in the Southeast, especially Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida; in the Rocky Mountains, including Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho; and along the West Coast. Washington State was the fastest growing of the West Coast states.

Since World War II, people have moved to the Southeast, Southwest, and West Coast for many reasons. The economies of these areas were growing. The South and California, in particular, received a disproportionate share of military and government spending during the Cold War. These expenditures created many jobs. A relatively cheap, nonunion labor force in many parts of the South also attracted industry from other parts of the country. In addition, the increasingly widespread ownership of automobiles made moving to rural areas easier. Air conditioning made the South more attractive, as did low housing costs and improved public health conditions, once malaria, hookworm, and other diseases associated with warm climates were reduced or eliminated.

Starting in the 1950s, the areas around the Great Lakes and in the Northeast, which had been major manufacturing centers, lost jobs as industries moved overseas or to other parts of the country. This trend accelerated in the 1970s. The area around the Great Lakes became known as the Rust Belt because of its closed, deteriorating factories. Some of the region’s major 19th-century industrial towns—Detroit, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; Akron, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Buffalo, New York—lost significant population. The cities that suffered the greatest declines were the ones most dependent on manufacturing. Other cities in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes—New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Chicago—retained their importance as centers of finance, service, government, education, medicine, culture, and conventions, even though population growth slowed or stopped once the industrial base disappeared.

The older cities have a number of problems. Roads built decades ago cannot easily accommodate today’s commuter traffic and commercial trucking. School systems designed to train the next generation for industrial jobs, which are now disappearing, have struggled to meet the educational requirements of new technology-based occupations. Housing, commercial offices, and manufacturing facilities are outmoded, and the cost of land and building is relatively high. In spite of these problems, about one-third of all Americans at the beginning of the 21st century still lived around the Great Lakes and in Northeastern states, and the corridor stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C., remained the most densely settled part of the United States.

During the latter part of the 20th century, the largest streams of migrants within the United States were from New York to Florida, New Jersey, and California; from Texas to California; from California to Washington State, Arizona, Texas, and Oregon; and from New Jersey to Florida and Pennsylvania. These streams were not one-way: About 20 percent of these people later returned to their original states, so that many states are losing some people and gaining others. In the 1990s a third of Americans lived in a different state than the one in which they were born, up from a quarter of the population in the late 19th century. Others moved within states.

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