WASHINGTON — Economists with a major think thank have a message for folks in the Midlands:
Things aren't as bad as you think.
The great recession has ravaged South Carolina's central urban region less than most other large metropolitan areas in the country.
So says a new study from the Brookings Institution, which compared key economic indicators over the last year in the 100 most populous cities and their environs.
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The Columbia Metropolitan Area, a federally defined jurisdiction with about 650,000 people that encompasses most of the Midlands, was the 27th-strongest performing area, the study found, followed by the Greenville area at No. 51 and the Charleston area at No. 58.
The Charlotte, N.C., Metropolitan Area, which includes most of York County in South Carolina, ranked No. 59.
Alan Berube, a Brookings economist who co-authored the study, said Columbia is among a number of state capitals that have been spared the worst impacts of the economic crisis.
"Columbia stands apart like a lot of other state capitals do because it specializes in an industry that hasn't been hit hard by the downturn yet, and that's state government," Berube said. "Having the flagship state university there helps as well. Education is a mainstay in this recession for a lot of metro areas."
Nationwide, four of the 10 top-performing metropolitan areas are anchored by state capitals: Oklahoma City; Austin, Texas; Little Rock, Ark; and Baton Rouge, La. None of the 10 worst-performing urban areas are centered around state capitals.
Despite $1 billion in state government budget cuts and Gov. Mark Sanford's efforts to slash spending still more, Columbia and its outskirts are staying afloat.
"If the governor wants to take down state government, he should know that he's going to take down the Columbia regional economy," Berube said. "That's the bright spot on the South Carolina map."
All metropolitan areas examined by Berube and Brookings colleague Howard Wial have populations of at least 500,000.
Together, the Columbia, Charlotte and Greenville metro areas -- plus the portion of York County in the Charlotte region -- have about 2 million residents, almost half of the state total.
Bill Hauk, a USC-Columbia economics professor who reviewed the Brookings report, said the study's results skew somewhat in South Carolina's favor partly because of its methodology.
The report examined changes in economic performance based on three main indicators -- employment, gross production of goods and services, and housing prices -- over the course of a year, from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009.
South Carolina's economy was already in some distress by early 2008, Hauk said, so the decline since then has been less dramatic than in other states.
But the Brookings study also highlights significant economic disparities between South Carolina's larger cities and its rural areas, Hauk said.
Largely urban Lexington, Charleston and Richland counties have the state's lowest unemployment rates, among all 46 counties, he said, while the highest jobless levels are in rural Chester, Allendale, Marlboro and Marion counties.
Noting that many people go back to college when times get tough, Hauk agreed that USC and the Statehouse are softening the blow for Midlands residents.
"The two major economic anchors in the Columbia metropolitan area are the state government and the University of South Carolina," he said. "Government jobs and academic jobs tend to weather recessions relatively well."
Berube acknowledged that the study leaves out most of rural America, but he defended the approach.
Three-quarters of the country's gross domestic product, he said, comes from the 100 largest metropolitan areas probed in the study.
"We're not arguing that these places, and these places alone, should be the sole focus of national or state policymakers," Berube said. "But the fact of the matter is that here, as in other industrialized nations, the economy is organized around our labor markets and housing markets, and those are predominantly in metropolitan areas."
Shelter from the storm
A Brookings Institution study probed economic performance over the last year in the country's 100 largest urban areas:
In the top third
1 San Antonio, Texas
2 Oklahoma City
4 Austin, Texas
6 Little Rock, Ark.
7 McAllen, Texas
8 Baton Rouge, La.
9 Tulsa, Okla.
10 Omaha, Neb.
32 Raleigh, N.C.
In the middle third
59 Charlotte, N.C. (includes most of York County)
In the bottom third
73 Greensboro, N.C.
91 Toledo, Ohio
92 Jacksonville, Fla.
93 Modesto, Calif.
94 Lakeland, Fla.
95 Palm Bay, Fla.
96 Bradenton, Fla.
97 Tampa, Fla.
98 Stockton, Calif.
99 Cape Coral, Fla.
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