One of the most interesting pieces of data is also one of the wonkiest: The nation's center of population. Essentially, this is the average location of all Americans, the spot where a population map of the United States would perfectly balance. With every census, the center moves a few miles west, pushed along by territorial expansion, economic rumblings and mass migrations. In a single, slightly meandering line, the ever-shifting population center manages to encapsulate over 200 years of American history, while giving a shadowy glimpse into the country's future.
To make it even clearer, the fine folks at the Census Bureau have tabulated 220 years of population center data into a single, interactive infographic:
History Writ Large
Often, American history is presented as a disconnected series of episodes -- Westward Expansion! The Civil War! The Great Depression! -- that are custom-made for social studies classes, but not all that useful for constructing a larger narrative. But the slow movement of the population center tells a different story, showing the steady progress of the country as America has expanded ever westward and -- for the last 90 years -- southward.
And what about now? Over the last 10 years, with jobs fleeing from the pro-labor, union-friendly North to the right-to-work South, the population center has had its sharpest southward movement in history. While booming housing markets in Nevada, Arizona and Utah have drawn millions of new residents, the biggest shift has been in Texas, where a combination of cheap labor and tax incentives have pulled in more than 4 million new residents.
The Texas surge, in fact, may be the biggest trend revealed by the population center's latest move. Culturally, America has tended to focus on its coasts, but California's budget woes and deflating real estate bubble seem to be putting some tarnish on the Golden State. Meanwhile, with industrial disinvestment and high land values holding back expansion in the Northeast, it seems unlikely that New York's anemic 2.1% population growth will provide a counterbalance to the emerging South. The big question is: With money, the economy and the population heading South, will America's cultural center of gravity follow?
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.