I’ve only visited Buffalo, New York once in my adult life, to speak at a conference in 2009, but between meeting lots of interesting folks, downing a humongous portion of buffalo wings at the Anchor Bar that claims to have invented them, and seeing Niagara Falls for the first time since childhood, I’ve got great memories of the place.
So I was initially thrilled to see The New York Times run a lengthy piece July 3 reporting that this grand old city is enjoying a strong comeback from decades of Rustbelt-type industrial and therefore economic decline. The article, moreover, seemed especially encouraging given the appalling massacre of ten residents in May in the city’s heavily African American East Side neighborhood.
When I finished reading, though, I wasn’t so sure how on target the piece was. That’s both because it was almost entirely data free, and because I’m not convinced that the kinds of economic activity that are emerging as new growth engines for Buffalo – like “city-wide initiatives to pour billions into parks, public art projects and apartment complexes,” “office and educational complexes,” and food halls, gyms, and craft breweries – can enable it to regain the kind of prosperity created by its now-shiveled industrial base.
So I looked at the data – from the U.S. Commerce Department – and the relatively few of the findings sure don’t scream “Renaissance!” to me, or even close. And this observation holds whether the comparison is between Buffalo and the rest of the country, or between Buffalo during the last decade and Buffalo during roughly the previous decade.
I focus on these timeframes because the only hard statistic presented by the Times reporters to show progress in Buffalo was the finding that “Its population of 278,000 in the 2020 census was up 7 percent from 261,000 in 2010.”
The following statistics don’t cover just Buffalo. The closest approximation permitted by the Commerce Department numbers is what the U.S. Census Bureau (a part of Commerce) calls the Buffalo Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes smaller neighboring cities like Cheektowaga and (yes!) Niagara Falls. But let’s call it “close enough.”
First I looked at how the Buffalo metro area economy overall, and some major portions of it (including some emphasized in the Times article), have grown (or not) in inflation-adjusted terms versus how their counterparts in U.S. metropolitan areas have fared. The individual sectors are construction, manufacturing, retail, real estate, professional and scientific services, and the arts-recreation-accommodation- and-food-services cluster.
Unfortunately, this analysis shows that Buffalo continues to be a serious laggard. Between 2010 and 2020, its MSA increased its output of goods and services by just 4.13 percent after adjusting for inflation – versus 17.69 percent for urban America as a whole. Buffalo also trailed its national metro area counterparts in real growth during this period in every one of the six individual economic sectors examined. Indeed, in three (construction, manufacturing, and the arts etc cluster), real output shrank during that decade, whereas for all metro areas, such decline took place only in the arts cluster. Moreover, in all cases (including that arts cluster) Buffalo not only lagged – it lagged badly.
The Buffalo MSA fared much better in terms of its residents’ income. In pre-inflation dollars (the only data tracked at this level of national detail), its total personal income rose by 43.55 percent between 2010 and 2020, versus 55.78 percent for U.S. metro areas as a whole. On a per capita basis, the results were almost equal: 44.82 percent current dollar growth for the Buffalo MSA versus 45.39 percent for its all U.S. MSAs.
The big takeaway so far: The Buffalo region’s growth has been sluggish at best over the last decade, but area residents made awfully good money.
Comparing Buffalo area growth and income between 2010 and 2020, and during the previous decade, yields even stranger (at least to me) results. In all the categories I examined except one, its growth performance was worse during the latter decade than during the former (even taking into account that data for the Buffalo MSA only goes back to 2001).
Overall, it was much worse, with real gross product improving by 13.94 percent during that earlier decade – more than three times faster than from 2010 to 2020. In addition, in the six individual sectors examined, decade-to-decade improvement was registered only in construction – which contracted much more slowly in price-adjusted terms than in 2000-2010. That decade, remember, featured the great national housing bubble and its bursting.
In terms of income, though, Buffalo’s between 2000 and 2010 grew more slowly than during the ten years after according to both the aggregate (32.43 percent) and per capita (35.86 percent) figures.
Curiously, on a national level, metro area economic growth in toto between 2001 and 2010 and in 2010-2020 were about the same (17.12 percent in the former and 17.69 percent in the latter). Further, on the whole, expansion in the six specific sectors examined (except for the contractionary arts cluster) was less dramatically different than in Buffalo and environs, too. Yet both income indicators increased significantly more slowly for all U.S. metro areas during that latter period, too, despite the slightly better economic growth.
Gauged by total income, the Buffalo MSA fell behind U.S. metro areas overall during both decades at about the same pace. Yet measured by per capita income, the Buffalo region generated modest catch-up during the stronger growth 2000-2010 decade but fell back during the much weaker growth decade that began in 2010. Could that be partly because its population rebounded, even modestly?
To me, the big picture looks like this: During the last decade, the typical Buffalo-nian somehow figured out better than the typical U.S. metro dweller how to generate considerably more income even though his region was producing goods and services at a considerably slower rate. That could account for the optimism expressed by so many in the city to the Times reporters. I just wonder how much longer they can pull this off?