SUN BELT comprises the states of the South and the Southwest. The term was coined to describe both the warm climate of these regions and the rapid economic and population growth that have been characteristic since the 1960s. The Sun Belt stretches approximately from Virginia south to Florida and west to California but also includes western mountain states, such as Colorado and Utah, that have experienced similar economic growth.
Historically, most of the nation's population and economic power was based in the Northeast and the upper Midwest. The Southeast had a smaller population, a less robust economy, and hot, humid summers that many northerners considered uncomfortable. Much of the Southwest was settled later and remained sparsely populated well into the twentieth century because of its remote location and an inhospitable desert climate that regularly reached triple-digit temperatures in summer. With the advent of air conditioning, however, year-round comfort became possible in both regions.
A shift from northeastern dominance was evident by the early 1970s. The term "New South" came into use to describe economic progress and social changes in the Southeast. California and oil-rich Texas had established themselves as thriving economies, and newer regions of prosperity had begun to emerge throughout the West. This pattern intensified in following decades as many states in the North lost industries, population, and representation in Congress. The Sun Belt attracted domestic and international businesses for many reasons, including lower energy costs and nonunion wages, state policies favorable to business, and, in the West, proximity to the increasingly important Pacific Rim nations. A national emphasis on developing domestic fuel sources in the early 1970s stimulated growth in Texas, Colorado, and other states. The lifestyles and natural beauty of Sun Belt states also attraced many newcomers. As populations grew, southern and western states gained increasing political and economic power. All seven winners of U.S. presidential elections between 1964 and 2000 were from the Sun Belt, reflecting the increased representation in Congress of key states like Texas, Arizona, and Florida, which helped Republicans win majority representation in Congress during the 1990s. Southern culture and values became influential, such as the nationwide popularity of country and western music. Hispanic cultures of the Southwest and Florida gained prominence.
The Sun Belt also faced difficult issues, including social problems that many migrants had hoped to escape. Despite areas of prosperity, the Southeast continued to have many sections of poverty. Texas and other energy-oriented states experienced a steep, if temporary, economic decline in the mid-1980s because of a fall in oil prices. California suffered serious economic recession and social stresses in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which caused a significant migration of businesses and residents to nearby states. The impacts of growth and development became matters of urgent concern as many Sun Belt communities experienced suburban sprawl, congestion, and pollution, along with an erosion of their traditional regional characteristics and identities. These trends provoked many controversies, which continued into the 1990s. Some people opposed the changes, but others saw them as positive signs of progress and prosperity. Nationally, experts predicted that the economic growth and increasing influence of the Sun Belt marked a permanent change in the demographic, economic, and political structure of the nation.
De Vita, Carol J. America in the 21st Century: A Demographic Overview. Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, 1989.
Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds. Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
The "Sun Belt" region of the United States comprises fifteen southern states, extending from Virginia to Florida in the Southeast, and westward through Nevada, including southern California. Because of the expansion of inexpensive residential retirement communities, the Sun Belt region has seen a 93 percent overall growth of population between 1970 and 1990, well above the national average. To many people in the United States, the Sun Belt offers inexpensive living, year-round recreational activities, mild climates, and an inexpensive non-union labor pool for the creation of new business enterprises. A large migration of people to the Sun Belt, as well as a high birth rate and a decline of migration from the region have all contributed to the rapid growth of the Sun Belt's population and manufacturing activities. Overall improvements in transportation, communications, living conditions, and services have all made the Sun Belt an attractive area for retirees, workers, and business.