Editor’s note: This article was adapted from the Winter 2013 issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.
The Washington, D.C., region has long been considered recession-proof, thanks to the remorseless expansion of the federal government in good times and bad. Yet it’s only now—as D.C. positively booms while most of the country remains in economic doldrums—that the scale of Washington’s prosperity is becoming clear. Over the past decade, the D.C. area has made stunning economic and demographic progress. Meanwhile, America’s current and former Second Cities, population-wise—Los Angeles and Chicago—are battered and fading in significance. Though Washington still isn’t their match in terms of population, it’s gaining on them in terms of economic power and national importance.
In fact, we’re witnessing the start of Washington’s emergence as America’s new Second City. Whether that’s a good thing for America is another question.
During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Washington metropolitan area overachieved on a variety of measurements versus its peer metro areas—that is, the rest of the ten largest metros in the country, plus the San Francisco Bay Area. Among these regions, Washington ranked fourth in population growth from 2000 to 2010, trailing only the three Sunbelt boomtowns of Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. Washington is currently the seventh most populous metropolitan area in America.
The region has performed even more impressively on the jobs front. Since 2001, Washington has enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate of its peer group. Over the course of the entire decade, it ranked second in job growth, trailing only Houston. That wasn’t just because of the federal agencies and gigantic contractors of Washington stereotype. The region has also been a hotbed of entrepreneurship—much of it, to be sure, dependent on federal dollars. During the 2000s, it had 385 firms named to the Inc. 500 lists of fastest-growing companies in America, according to Kauffman Foundation research—by far the most of any metro area. From 2000 through 2011, according to rankings developed by Praxis Strategy Group, Washington’s low-profile but powerful tech sector had the country’s second-highest job growth, after Seattle’s. The region is also one of America’s top life-sciences centers.