Reestablishing American prosperity by investing in the 'Badger Belt'

Reestablishing American prosperity by investing in the 'Badger Belt'
© Getty Images

Top of mind for voters in 2020 is how to spark America’s economy as it struggles to rebound from COVID-19, yet the stakes go well beyond recovery. Our government faces a historic opportunity to rethink ways to promote prosperity for the long haul.

Bipartisan legislation recently introduced in Congress, calling for targeted government support of technology, holds tremendous promise for reversing a trend toward what is increasingly becoming a nation of haves and have nots.

For the past 50 years, the boom in U.S. technology has been most pronounced in so-called “superstar cities” on the coasts, places such as San Francisco, Seattle and Boston. Just five of the top innovation centers in the United States have generated a staggering 90 percent of innovation-sector growth.


The result has been soaring incomes and abundant jobs in those cities, while wide swaths of the country remain neglected, fueling income inequality. At the same time, people living in booming cities have suffered prohibitive living costs, declining quality of life, and social problems such as homelessness that have befuddled their politicians.

We have an opportunity to fix this.

The Brookings Institution has argued that a targeted federal effort could transform heartland metro areas into centers of economic expansion. Their economists concluded last year that government investment is needed to break the cycle where innovation-based companies tend to congregate near each other in pursuit of talent and hothouse thinking.

There is evidence that such bold acts can work. Seventy-five years ago, Vannevar Bush authored one of the most pivotal reports in U.S. history: “Science — The Endless Frontier.” The policies based upon his call for investing in innovation propelled the United States to become the undisputed leader in many scientific fields. But recently, amid fierce global competition, we have started to lose this edge.

Inspired by this postwar victory, Sens. Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerCongress holds candlelight vigil for American lives lost to COVID-19 The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers investigate Jan. 6 security failures Senate confirms Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador MORE (D-N.Y.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungRepublican 2024 hopefuls draw early battle lines for post-Trump era Senate Democrats approve budget resolution, teeing up coronavirus bill House will have to vote on budget second time as GOP notches wins MORE (R-Ind.), along with Reps. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaDemocrats offer bills to boost IRS audits of rich, corporations Biden's move on Yemen sparks new questions Khanna calls for further action from Biden on Yemen MORE (D-Calif.) and Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherLawmakers to roll out legislation reorganizing State cyber office House Republicans gear up for conference meeting amid party civil war Back to the future: America must renew its commitment to scientific inquiry MORE (R-Wis.), introduced the Endless Frontier Act in May, legislation to invest $100 billion in 10 tech opportunities. New investment in the most promising technological areas — think artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced manufacturing — has the potential to boost the American economy and promote key areas of national interest.


Critical to this approach will be ensuring that the benefits of federal investment are spread across the country, not just along the coasts, which is why the Endless Frontier Act includes money for 10 regional technology hubs. No place in the country offers a greater payoff for this type of government investment than the “Badger Belt,” a string of Wisconsin communities across a state filled with abundant natural resources, world-class universities, and hard-working families.

Wisconsin can be the centerpiece of a revitalized American heartland. We earned our nickname in the 19th century when pioneers were moving west. A few industrious souls burrowed into the Midwestern soil as miners, making Wisconsin their home and eventually turning the state into an innovative powerhouse. Today’s Badgers are just as industrious and even more diverse.

Our initial focus begins with a segment of the Badger Belt anchored in Madison. Like the supercities, we have a powerhouse university that puts tremendous effort into transferring ideas into real-world technologies. We are a national leader in stem cell research and digital health technology. Madison also has a young, educated professional workforce and was identified by Moody’s as one of the top 10 cities to weather the pandemic crisis.

The Brookings report last year called for “10 more Madisons,” but we need all of Wisconsin to get this right. Most importantly, we are able to draw on the manufacturing heritage of communities along Lake Michigan, from Green Bay to Milwaukee to Kenosha, and the incredible potential such partnerships provide. 

Progress on the Endless Frontiers Act has faltered, in part because of the pandemic-related turmoil and tight budgets of 2020. Congressmen Gallagher and Khanna continue to advocate for this legislation; they know reinvigorating this discussion must be a priority for the incoming Congress.

Political and industry leaders alike should endorse this bold first step toward broadening economic growth in the United States. This kind of targeting funding, when combined with other efforts such as workforce development, tax and regulatory benefits, business financing, and infrastructure support, could transform vital centers for economic growth.

The strength of American ingenuity once belonged to the American Midwest. With a smart technology policy from Washington, we are ready to take it back.

Erik Iverson is CEO of the nonprofit Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which manages the transfer of technology and innovation coming out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The foundation would not directly benefit from the Endless Frontier Act, though the university’s researchers could be among those applying for grants.