A marketing slogan or a geographical reality?

The Sunbelt is a term first coined by Kevin Phillips in his book, ‘The Emerging Republican Majority’. “He (Philips) coined this term to describe what he believed was an enormously important shift in United States political and cultural geography to the Florida – Texas – Southern California Sunbelt.” (Browning & Gesler 1979, p.66). Since this book, many different forms of media have used the term and now many companies use it as a slogan. Many scholars have argued over where the Sunbelt is and if there is one at all.

One definition of the Sunbelt is that it is the former cotton belt, States in the south of America that were once the worlds leading cotton producers. Before the invention of the cotton gin the labour intensive industry of cotton picking and shelling relied heavily on slavery. “When slavery disappeared so did the south’s main source of collateral” (Schulman 1991, p.3). Without slaves, cotton and tobacco prices plummeted and the south fell into debt. In 1932 cotton prices were at an all time low of 6.5 cents, but by 1935 prices had risen and stabilised at 11.09 cents. This was all thanks to the Agricultural Adjustment Act initiated by President Roosevelt who had plans to equalise development throughout the United States.

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“The Agricultural Adjustment Act had strengthened southern planters. Unlike southern manufacturing they could afford to drop their guard and welcome federal intervention” (Schulman 1991, p.20). William Faulkner believed that this ‘drop in their guard’ led to the downfall of the cotton region and the beginning of the Sunbelt. “Our economy is no longer agricultural, our economy is the Federal Government”. (Schulman 1991, p.135). Schulman claims that it was this area, with its unique political and economic phenomenon that led to the term ‘Sunbelt’. Today, the Sunbelt is seen as much more than just an area in southern America. “The Sunbelt came to be seen as the new frontier of economic development and political power” (Sawers & Tabb 1984, p.7).

Several academic writings have pointed at four categories for identifying the Sunbelt: sunshine, population change, federal involvement and economic well being. (Rice 1981, Browning & Gesler 1979). This criteria is appropriate for defining the Sunbelt because of what the Sunbelt is commonly regarded as. Sunshine hours are important for it is the defining factor and what gives the belt its name. Population change is important because the Sunbelt States are popular for retirees and other migrants. One example of this is Florida, which in 1950 contained less than three million people, had a population of 16 million by 2000

“In 2000, the Sunbelt accounted for 40 percent of the nation’s population in an area comprising roughly a third of the lower 48 States. Where the nation was once top-heavy from cities in the Northeast and Midwest, it is now bottom-heavy from the booming Sunbelt. That shift, in just a half-century, shows how much the Sunbelt has gained against the once unchallenged population dominance of the nation’s original urban-industrial core.” (www.fanniemaefoundation.org/programs/pdf/census/SunbeltNote.PDF accessed 19/11/03)

Federal involvement is an important definer, because as fore mentioned the government helped the cotton belt recover from the great depression though large amounts of federal investment and policies. Finally economic well being is important because the retirees that arrive in large numbers are financially stable, and also because tourism which is widespread in the Sunbelt is extremely lucrative.

Using these criteria, the top ten states most likely to be in the Sunbelt are, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Mississippi, Florida, Hawaii and Virginia. These states are mostly in the southwest and do not form any sort of ‘belt’ which led Browning and Gesler (1979) to dismiss this idea as “Sloppy regionalizing”. This technique most likely failed because it is expected that an area as large as the United States would have regional differences. Given the Sunbelt’s large size and its diverse environment and economy, it is easy to understand how these factors could vary across the region. This is very interesting in showing that there is no defined ‘Sunbelt’ and therefore it is not a geographical reality but a marketing slogan.

Sawers &Tab believe the Sunbelt is more than a marketing slogan. They established the thought in their book, ‘Sunbelt / Snowbelt’ that economic development is what made the Sunbelt what it is today.

“The growth of the sunbelt also combined technological political environmental and economic forces. Innovations in air travel, information processing and other forms of communication and the development of air conditioning made major differences to the attractiveness of the South.” (Sawyers & Tabb 1984, pp.6-7)

If history or statistics cannot identify a geographical region that is the Sunbelt, then one must look at popular views of the Sunbelt. ‘Sunbelt’ is a popular term used for businesses. Such businesses include, ‘Sunbelt software’ based in Florida, ‘Sunbelt Telecommunications’ based in Texas and ‘Sunbelt coffee’ based in Ohio. Rice (1981) researched the thousands of companies who call themselves by Sunbelt. Rice set out to prove that the Sunbelt is where people believe the Sunbelt is. “The result is, indeed, a convergence of attitude with latitude. It is hard to find a Sunbelt listing north of the 37th parallel. But they abound south of that border”.

If it is merely perception and company’s names that can identify where the Sunbelt is then surely this must lead one to believe ‘Sunbelt’ is merely a marketing slogan.

“The Sunbelt does not emerge as a distinct region, especially for these characteristics with which it is generally associated… The Sunbelt is a reminder of other ‘belts’: The Corn Belt, The Cotton Belt, The Manufacturing Belt, and The Bible Belt. Most of these ‘belts’ on close examination were found not to be as homogenous as the name suggested.” (Browning & Gesler 1979 p.73)

Since the original use of the word many American’s have come to believe that the Sunbelt is in the American south, an area that has lots of sunshine, continually rising population mostly from migration, long term federal involvement and economic well being. The casual use of the term and the lack of a defined region suggests that this term is not one which suggests a pacific place but more of an idea of place. The Sunbelt inspires ideas of all that is great about America. This is why many companies now use it within their name or part of their marketing slogan. As Rice (1981) believed, the Sunbelt is, “A convergence of attitude with latitude”.

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