Spreading growth across Midwest can help heal our politics

Spreading growth across Midwest can help heal our politics

After Iowa officially kicks off the 2020 presidential campaign next week, and after short detours to New Hampshire and South Carolina, the nation’s eyes will be locked in on the residents of Michigan and our sister political battleground states in the Midwest. 

The outsiders' view, particularly since the 2016 election, is of a region of hollowed-out former factory towns and rural hinterlands. A place of anxious residents who are nostalgic for a simpler time and our economic heyday, hostile to immigrants and spooked by changing cultural norms and demographics.

There clearly is this Midwest — communities where globalization and new foreign competitors are accelerating technological change and automation drove a dramatic restructuring of the region’s industries over several decades, obliterating a huge number of well-paying assembly line jobs and shuttering many factories.


But the true picture is much more nuanced. Never an economic monolith, today there are really two Midwests. We have many older industrial cities that have lost their anchor employers and are adrift in a globalized economy. But others have successfully evolved from their industrial and farming roots and are winning in a world where tech, talent and innovation rule.

Most of the region’s major metros – from the Twin Cities in the West to Indianapolis at the nation’s crossroads to Pittsburgh in the East – are diverse, thriving hothouses of knowledge work.

All of the communities anchored by one of the region’s numerous top-flight research universities (such as Iowa City, Ann Arbor and State College) are thriving in an economic era where talent and innovation dominate.

Still other Midwest communities like Rockford, Illinois, Kalamazoo, Michigan and Columbus, Indiana – none of which is a major metro or home to a top research university – have found paths to new success by embracing the forces of economic change and building on their particular strengths to create a new era of economic vitality.

An urgent national and Midwestern priority is to foster more broadly shared economic growth so that fewer people and communities feel abandoned, isolated and unable to control their economic destiny. Leaders within the region, as well as those seeking the presidency, need an effective, positive, forward-looking vision to counter isolationism, protectionism and nostalgia as fixes for residents’ economic woes.

That is the vision and blueprint for action offered by the new Chicago Council on Global Affairs report: A Vital Midwest: The path to a new prosperity.

The council itself was created almost 100 years ago to push back when the region and the nation were facing the pulls of nativism, protectionism and retreat from the world after the seismic shock of World War I. Today the council works to reprise its founding role, and offer a positive, outward-oriented and tangible new economic vision for the Midwest and our country.

As detailed in the report, the blueprint to meaningfully spreading economic opportunity, security and a newfound optimism about the future to more people in the Midwest and their communities entails modeling existing Midwestern community paths to success. It also entails putting to work a set of bold state and local programs, policies and public-private partnerships including:

Emerging-sector innovation hubs: Increase federal R&D investment through innovation institutes in emerging sectors like energy, water, food systems, mobility, health care and information technology, which will be naturally “won” by the our top-tier Midwestern research universities.

Capital for communities in transition: Create additional state, local and public-private innovation funds. as part of a new federal place-focused economic development agenda.


Green leadership: Mayors, governors and the next president can set a goal of 90 percent clean energy by 2050 by driving Midwest-based clean energy innovation, new technology development and business and job growth.

“GI Bill for Workers”: Push for state policy leadership and create federal flexibility to allow states to deliver a financial guarantee for postsecondary credentialing for today’s workforce, which is at risk of dislocation and is concentrated in the Midwest.

Portable pensions and health care: Support federal policies that create incentives for states to develop public-private portable pension, savings and health care programs to maintain worker security and support mobility in a changing labor market.

Community-based free college: Catalyze community-based higher education funding programs similar to the Kalamazoo Promise through a new federal-state-local investment matching program.

Heartland visas for Communities in Transition: Support immigration policies that increase the flow of high-skill immigrants, refugees, entrepreneurs and guest workers to newly designated Communities in Transition (including in the Midwest) and support paths to citizenship for “Dreamers.”

Today the eyes of the country and much of the world are focused on the economic position, attitudes and disposition of Midwest voters heading into the 2020 election. This makes it a very good time to debate and discuss what would be most powerful to both accelerate our economic transformation from the “Rust Belt” of yore and spread the emerging new economy to more people and places. In doing so, we would help create a politics that pulls us together instead of driving us further apart.

John Austin is director of the Michigan Economic Center and a nonresident senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Brookings Institution and the Upjohn Institute. @John_C_Austin.