Small-Town America Booms with Shale

The nation’s oil and gas boom is driving up income so fast in a few hundred small towns and rural areas that it’s shifting prosperity to the nation’s heartland, a USA TODAY analysis of government data shows.

The 261 million people who live in cities and suburbs still haven’t recovered earning power lost in the economic downturn. Average income per person fell 3.5% in metropolitan areas between 2007 and 2011 after adjusting for inflation, according to data released Monday by the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

By contrast, small-town America is better off than before: Inflation-adjusted income is up 3.8% per person since 2007 for the 51 million in small cities, towns and rural areas.

The energy boom and strong farm prices have reversed, at least temporarily, a long-term trend of money flowing to cities. Last year, small places saw a 3% growth in income per person vs. 1.8% in urban areas.

Small-town prosperity is most noticeable in North Dakota, now the nation’s No. 2 oil-producing state. Six of the top 10 counties are above the state’s Bakken oil field.

“Give us a little shale, and we’ll show some pretty good income growth, too,” says Bill Connors, president of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce in neighboring Idaho.

The Boise area’s rank in income per person plummeted from 139th to 251st among metro areas from 2007 to 2011, the biggest drop of any place except Las Vegas, which suffered largely because of high-tech layoffs and a real estate price collapse.