The Sunbelt of the Southern and Western United States

Phoenix, Business district
Brian Stablyk / Getty Images

The Sun Belt is the region in the United States that stretches across the Southern and Southwestern portions of the country from Florida to California. The Sunbelt typically includes the states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Major U.S. cities placed within the Sun Belt according to every definition include Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Orlando, and Phoenix. However, some extend the definition of Sun Belt as far north as the cities Denver, Raleigh-Durham, Memphis, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco.

Throughout U.S. history, especially after World War II, the Sun Belt saw abundant population growth in these cities as well as many others and has been an important area socially, politically, and economically.

History of Sun Belt Growth

The term "Sun Belt" is said to have been coined in 1969 by writer and political analyst Kevin Phillips in his book The Emerging Republican Majority to describe the area of the U.S. that encompassed the region from Florida to California and included industries like oil, military, and aerospace but also many retirement communities. Following Phillips' introduction of the term, it became widely used in the 1970s and beyond.

Although the term Sun Belt was not used until 1969, growth had been occurring in the southern U.S. since World War II. This is because, at the time, many military manufacturing jobs were moving from the Northeast U.S. (the region known as the Rust Belt) to the South and the West. Growth in the South and West then further continued after the war and later grew substantially near the U.S./Mexico border in the late 1960s when Mexican and other Latin American immigrants began to move north.

In the 1970s, Sun Belt became the official term to describe the area and growth continued even further as the U.S. South and West became more important economically than the Northeast. Part of the region's growth was a direct result of increasing agriculture and the earlier green revolution which introduced new farming technologies. In addition, because of the prevalence of agriculture and related jobs in the region, immigration in the area continued to grow as immigrants from neighboring Mexico and other areas were looking for jobs in the U.S.

On top of immigration from areas outside the U.S., the Sun Belt's population also grew via migration from other parts of the U.S. in the 1970s. This was due to the invention of affordable and effective air conditioning. It additionally involved the movement of retirees from Northern states to the South, especially Florida and Arizona. Air conditioning played an especially significant role in the growth of many Southern cities like those in Arizona where temperatures can sometimes exceed 100 F (37 C). For example, the average temperature in July in Phoenix, Arizona is 90 F (32 C), while it is just over 70 F (21 C) in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Milder winters in the Sun Belt also made the region attractive to retirees as much of it is relatively comfortable year-round and it allows them to escape cold winters. In Minneapolis, the average temperature in January is just over 10 F (-12 C) while in Phoenix it is 55 F (12 C).

Additionally, new types of businesses and industries like aerospace, defense and military, and oil moved from the North to the Sun Belt as the region was cheaper and there were fewer labor unions. This further added to the Sun Belt's growth and importance economically. Oil, for example, helped Texas grow economically, while military installations drew people, defense industries, and aerospace firms to the desert Southwest and California, and favorable weather led to increased tourism in places like Southern California, Las Vegas, and Florida.

By 1990, Sun Belt cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, and San Antonio were among the ten largest in the U.S. In addition, because of the Sun Belt's relatively high proportion of immigrants in its population, its overall birth rate was higher than the rest of the U.S.

Despite this growth, however, the Sun Belt did experience its share of problems in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, the region's economic prosperity has been uneven and at one point 23 out of the 25 largest metropolitan regions with the lowest per capita incomes in the U.S. were in the Sun Belt. In addition, the rapid growth in places like Los Angeles caused various environmental problems, one of the most significant of which was and still is air pollution.

The Sun Belt Today

Today, growth in the Sun Belt has slowed, but its larger cities still remain as some of the largest and fastest-growing in the U.S. Nevada, for example, is among the nation's fastest-growing states due to its high immigration. Between 1990 and 2008, the state's population increased by a whopping 216% (from 1,201,833 in 1990 to 2,600,167 in 2008). Also seeing dramatic growth, Arizona saw a population increase of 177% and Utah grew by 159% between 1990 and 2008.

The San Francisco Bay Area in California with the major cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose still also remains a growing area, while growth in outlying areas like Nevada has decreased significantly due to nationwide economic problems. With this decrease in growth and outmigration, housing prices in cities like Las Vegas have plummeted in recent years.

Despite recent economic problems, the U.S. South and West (the areas that comprise the Sun Belt) still remain the fastest growing regions in the country. Between 2000 and 2008, the number one fastest growing area, the West, saw a population change of 12.1% while the second, the South, saw a change of 11.5%, making the Sun Belt still, as it has been since the 1960s, one of the most important growth regions in the U.S.

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Briney, Amanda. "The Sunbelt of the Southern and Western United States." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Briney, Amanda. (2023, April 5). The Sunbelt of the Southern and Western United States. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "The Sunbelt of the Southern and Western United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).