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Patrick Ishmael

When the United States put a man on the moon in 1969, the state of Missouri was the 13th largest in the country in terms of population. Today, it’s the 18th largest. While the rest of the country grew significantly over the last half-century, Missouri has lagged behind its peers to such an extent that had it simply grown like the rest of the country, it’d have had a million more residents than it does today.

What happened? A new paper published by the Show-Me Institute from economists Rik Hafer and William Rogers provides some insight into Missouri’s half-century of stagnation.

Much of the problem can be traced to the underwhelming growth of Missouri’s two major metropolitan areas: Kansas City and St. Louis. Hafer and Rogers found that from the late 1960s to the mid-2010s, the Missouri portions of the Kansas City and St. Louis metropolitan statistical areas (or MSAs) grew by about 20 percent, which at first glance might not seem terrible. The problem is, similar “mid-major” MSAs around the country grew by nearly 90 percent during the same period.

At least in some respects, the issue boils down to job growth and the retention of trained workers in high-growth industries. Certainly, individual states may be more predisposed toward certain industries based on their geography, their natural resources, and other factors, but in the five industries that have seen the largest growth in the U.S. over the last 20 years—information, professional business services, education, financial services, and mining/logging—Missouri has lagged the national average. For years, Missouri has had weak domestic in-migration, and in particular, the state has had weak in-migration of holders of bachelor’s and advanced degrees who might fill the jobs in these fast-growing industries.

Indeed, in at least four of these industries, a bachelor’s or advanced degree might be expected for a substantial number of these jobs, and arguably those jobs tend to be more urban in nature rather than rural. And that brings us back to Missouri’s two major cities: The industries that need these workers aren’t growing as fast there as they are elsewhere in the country. And although Kansas City and St. Louis are generally regarded as the “engines” of the state’s growth, Missouri’s economic horsepower has sounded more like a Pinto than a Porsche over the last few decades, in no small part due to these losses in talent.

But not every part of the state has been caught up in the state’s overall growth malaise. The metropolitan areas of Springfield and Fayetteville, Arkansas—specifically the parts in Missouri—have exceeded the state’s growth averages over this roughly 50-year horizon. And even within Missouri’s mid-major MSAs, places like St. Charles County and Platte County have been bright spots for the state, offsetting some of the weak economic performance seen in places like Jackson County, St. Louis County, and St. Louis City.

What can be done? That question is beyond the scope of Hafer’s and Rogers’ work, but it merits a discussion among the public and by policymakers. Different regions will have to grapple with different problems; last year, for instance, I wrote that St. Louis City’s long-standing woes can be traced back to its dysfunctional educational, crime, and tax policies, all of which incentivize current and prospective residents to put down their roots elsewhere in the region, or beyond it entirely. Similar criticisms can be leveled at Kansas City. Elsewhere in the state, educational and tax issues are perhaps the more pressing issues for long-term economic growth in their regions.

Regardless, Missourians must begin a serious and deliberate process to ensure that the state is creating an environment for people of all educational backgrounds to succeed here. Hopefully, by the next time astronauts set foot on the Moon, the state will have gotten a handle on its growth problems.

About the Author

Patrick Ishmael
Director of Government Accountability

Patrick Ishmael is the director of government accountability at the Show-Me Institute.