Missouri’s economy has been in the slow lane for decades. Unfortunately, unless things change, Missourians will likely be left behind by their peers in states with relatively booming economies.
Over the years, we have marked the progress (or lack thereof) that Missouri has made by reporting new data on gross domestic product (GDP) released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). If you pick out a single year’s data, Missouri seems to do okay. From 2015 to 2016, for instance, real GDP in Missouri increased at a 1.15 percent rate, ranking 31st out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Washington recorded the fastest growth rate, at 3.7 percent. It was a bad year for states that rely on natural resources: Louisiana, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota all reported declines in real GDP from 2015 to 2016. So, it looks like the recent decline in oil and coal prices helped push Missouri up into the middle of the pack. For reference, in the United States as a whole, reported real GDP increased at a 1.54 percent rate in 2016—much faster than in Missouri.
But year-over-year data doesn’t reveal larger, more important economic trends; any given year can be dominated by business cycle fluctuations. Growth is focused on long-term trends. When you look at the entire 1997–2016 period, the picture is quite different from 2015. Little wiggles in the year-over-year data get smoothed out and show the economic fundamentals operating within a state. Over the full two-decade period, we see that Missouri’s growth has been paltry.
During this period, Missouri has grown at half the pace of the United States as a whole (1.024% compared to 2.05%). Out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Missouri ranks 48th in economic growth; we trailed Mississippi by 0.001%—we were almost 47th. For an idea of the impact of Missouri’s poor performance, imagine you and a friend had started at the same job in 1997, each making $50,000 a year. If your friend’s salary grew at the rate of the country as a whole, and yours grew at Missouri’s rate, the friend would have made about $72,800 in 2016 while you’d have made roughly $60,400!
In a recent essay, Joe Haslag and Michael Austin identified some policies that could help explain why Missouri took a nosedive after 1997. There was the corporate income tax rate hike in 1993. There was a shift of spending from education and infrastructure to social services. There was the sharp increase in the state’s tax credit programs. And, though more difficult to measure, there was the regulatory burden that seems only to have increased over time. (Do you remember a time when the state government eliminated a regulation?)
The bottom line is that state government needs to take a thoughtful approach to policy if it is to boost economic growth. Lower tax rates, for example, result in higher returns on capital and labor. The state should look for high returns on its own investments as well, just like a private citizen or business would. Common-sense adjustments to emphasize education and infrastructure over policies that transfer wealth from one group of citizens or businesses to another are needed unless Missouri’s policymakers are satisfied with 47th place.