Despite well-publicized problems that earned it the nickname of the “Rust Belt”, on paper the Midwest possesses some formidable strengths. These include the largest concentration of engineers in America, world class educational institutions, a plethora of headquarters of global champions ranging from Proctor and Gamble to Caterpillar to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the world’s greatest reserves of fresh water, and an expanding immigrant population.
Yet with limited exceptions, these have been around for a while, but haven’t produced much growth across the region. Instead, outside of an archipelago of successful outliers (mostly select parts of major metros or college towns), the region has seen its population, job, and income growth badly trail the nation. During the 2000s US population grew by 9.7%, the Midwest* 3.8%. For jobs, the US lost 1.5% but the Midwest 7.8%.
Reversing this requires not just leveraging strengths and building on assets, but facing the very real and severe structural challenges that plague the region. However, most of the strategies out there remain outside the region’s essential DNA:
- Economic clusters like high tech startups or water industries are in effect attempts to build new success enclaves outside the system.
- Rebuilding downtowns into urban playgrounds for the upscale often takes place against a backdrop of vacant lots, abandoned structures, and depopulation – in other words, empty space.
- The Rust Belt Chic movement suggests that many of the problems are actually the solution. But while there are intriguing and important elements to this, it bypasses core issues.
These are all good as far as they go, but they require little broad-based reform (as opposed to district or enclave based solutions) to structural problems and thus are limited in what they can achieve.
What are these structural problems? Among the key ones are:
1. Racism. The modern history of Midwest cities is enmeshed in the history of race relations, particularly between black and white. Places like Chicago and Milwaukee remain among the absolutely most segregated in America. Race riots have been defining feature of cities ranging from Detroit to Cincinnati (which had a race-influenced riot as recently as 2001). In all of these places, a large population of black residents live in segregated neighborhoods plagued with problems ranging from poor schools to low quality housing to a lack of jobs. Significant social distress has resulted.
There are signs the Great Migration that brought blacks north in search of factory work is reversing, with black residents actually seeing more welcoming environments and better economic opportunities in Southern metro areas like Atlanta, Houston, and Charlotte. As well, historically it’s been the more ambitious who leave, not such a good thing for the people and places left behind.
2. Corruption. Midwest cities ranging from Chicago to Detroit to Cleveland are famous as cesspools of corruption and cronyism. Systems like Chicago’s “aldermanic privilege” tradition that gives city council members almost dictatorial control over their districts produce environments of almost required tacit corruption even if no laws are violated. In other cities, it’s well known that your approvals will go much faster if you hire the right wired-up subcontractors, lawyers, or lobbyists. While this type of environment exists at some level everywhere, it’s very bad in many Midwest cities and badly degrades an already challenged business climate.
3. Closed Societies. Contrary to the assertions of Robert Putnam and Bowling Alone, a lot of Midwest places suffer from an excess of social capital. As Sean Safford noted in Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, excessively dense social networks can create a hermetically sealed environment into which new ideas can’t penetrate or get a hearing. There are many reports of newcomers to Midwest cities saying that they have difficult making friends and penetrating the social networks in places as diverse as Minneapolis and Cleveland. In Cincinnati and St. Louis expect that the first question you’ll be asked is “Where did you go to high school?” which tells you everything you need to know about those cities. Immigration has ticked up in recent years, but overall the Midwest has done a poor job of attracting outsiders.
4. Two-Tier Environment and Resulting Paralysis. Despite the plethora of high end companies, educated workers, and top quality universities, the Midwest economy was traditionally based on moderately skilled labor in agriculture and industry. This forged a work force that places too low value on education and which can even be suspicious of people with too much of it. Today’s agriculture and manufacturing concerns, at least the ones with jobs that pay more than subsistence wages, require much higher levels of skills and education than in the past. What’s more, with the global macro-economy favorable to larger cities and talent based industries, larger metros have comparatively done well while most smaller towns have struggled. As a result, their quality of life and services have so badly degraded they are no longer attractive to “discretionary residents” (those with the means and opportunity to leave), which perpetuates a downward spiral as the educated flock to bigger cities. That’s why manufacturers complain they can’t find workers with skills, even if those skills are just passing and drug test and showing up to work everyday. This produces massive inequities, resentment, and policy confusion. What’s more, realistically many very poorly performing communities may never recover.
Beyond these core issues, many places have aging infrastructure, massive blight issues, a regulatory environment not suited to the 21st century, and severe fiscal problems. All of these are extremely difficult problems to resolve, but that does not mean they don’t need to be faced, and overcome.
Unsurprisingly, the Midwest has not been a particularly competitive region. There will continue to be bright spots ranging Des Moines to Madison to the greater Chicago Loop to the fracking fields of western Pennsylvania, but until the region faces up to its problems don’t expect a major turnaround anytime soon.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile.