It's hard to pick the geekiest group in the federal government, but the Census Bureau is a good bet: Every 10 years, the little agency tucked inside the Department of Commerce gathers a seemingly endless quantity of data about the American populace, which it then cross-references into a mind-boggling group of tables that link race, gender, location and a mass of other information. Using the census, one can find the most populous place in the country (Los Angeles) and the fastest growing (Kendall, Ill.), the youngest state (Utah) and the oldest (Maine). For those looking to expand their dating pool, it can, quite literally, tell you where the boys are (Alaska) and the best place to find all the single ladies (Washington, D.C.).
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.
This isn't to say that there haven't been dramatic moments: Between 1850 and 1860, California statehood and the gold rush propelled the population center 80 miles to the West, its largest jump ever. A decade later, postwar industrialization in New York, Chicago and other northern cities led to the biggest northward shift ever. But for the most part, the movement has been slow and steady. From 1910 to 1920, in fact, it almost stood still, barely moving 10 miles as massive immigration into New York balanced out the call of the West.
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 email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.