Chart: A small Texas oil city has richer households than New York

A pumpjack in West Texas. Image: public domain.

When we think about the economy of a modern city, we generally think about services: if you want to get really rich, stop making things, start consulting and move some money around. This is why, when the Globalisation & World Cities Research Network publishes its annual list of “global cities”, their most important criterion is the volume of business services operating there.

This is fair enough, as far as it goes – but there are other ways to get rich, too. This chart compares the median household incomes of two service-led cities, New York and San Francisco, with three oil-led ones. Historically, the latter have had consistently lower-incomes. But over the last couple of years, the tiny Texan city of Midland has started to get very, very rich. 

Median annual household income in oil metro areas (Midland, Houson, Dallas) and service metro areas (New York, San Francisco). Source: CityMetric Intelligence.

You’ve probably never heard of Midland, a city in Western Texas with a population of just 120,000. At some point in 2013, however, its average household income surpassed that of New York City. Forbes estimates that between 2010 and 2014, its median income climbed from $53,965 to $69,610: an increase of 29 per cent in just four years.

Midland has two things to thank for the surge in incomes. One is the Permian Basin, one of North America’s largest oil reserves; the other is the controversial process of fracking – using high pressure liquids to shake oil and gas free from the rockface – which has freed up thousands of gallons in an area once thought exhausted.

As a result of this, Midland is also the US’s fastest-growing metro area: the most recent census data shows a population increase of 4.6 per cent in a single year. In the great tradition of the rising American metropolis, the city is now considering investing in a 50-storey building, the Energy Tower, to show off its newfound wealth; at the moment its tallest structure is the Bank of America building, which stands at 24 storeys.  

Of course, Midland is a great deal smaller than New York, so adding a relatively small number of highly paid jobs can more easily move the median. That’s not possible in a city of 10m people.

In New York, indeed, income varies wildly, depending on which part of town you’re in. Median household income in Manhattan is $66,739; in Brooklyn, it’s just $44,850; in East and Central Harlem, it’s less than $20,000. This colour coded map reflecting 2012 census data gives some idea of the income range:

Source: US Census.

In Midland, there are disparities too – the eastern part of the city has a median income around $27,000 a year, while in the centre there’s an area with a median income closer to $100,000:

Source: US Census.

But Midland has fewer stretches of the ultra-pale colours that cover New York’s poorer districts. Unless someone uncovers oil under Harlem, the Big Apple may not overtake Midland again for some time.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.