If newspapers and cable television provide the rough first draft of history, it takes the think tanks about two years to produce the fact-checked revisions. We are now two years after the 2016 election, and just days before the 2018 election, and several new analyses of the economic circumstances of voters in the middle of America are emerging from the Brookings Institution right on schedule. New books and papers about the experiences of workers in the American Heartland have just been released, including a deep data dive by the Brookings Metropolitan Policies Program designed to inform local leaders and policy makers as they make plans to grow the regional economies of the parts of America that have been economically falling behind.
The 2016 election surprised many people in Washington DC, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles who were unaware of the economic anxiety, pain, fear and frustration taking hold in the middle of America. Unseen in the fast growing coastal cities, talk of an Obama recovery seemed completely out of touch with daily experiences of voters in many towns in the American Heartland surrounded by closed factories, shuttered stores on Main Street, declining populations, diminished hope for the future, and a rise in alcohol and opioid misuse and suicide rates.
Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Carol Graham, was less surprised by the election result than most people due to her research into new metrics to measure national happiness, well being, and optimism; and their counterparts, unhappiness, ill-being and despair. She saw large concentrations of ill-being and despair, especially among poor whites, in the interior of the country, and started alerting colleagues. “I picked it up here in my office in 2015, going ‘what the hell is going on with poor whites?’”
Since the election Carol Graham has continued to study well-being metrics mapping the disparity between high economic growth areas that voted for Clinton and areas of economic stagnation and decline that voted for Trump. She has also been studying community resilience, and illuminating the factors that help support the pockets of optimism and hope she is finding throughout the middle of America.
Brookings Senior Fellow in Economic Studies, Isabel Sawhill has just released a new book called “The Forgotten Americans“ and an accompanying essay based in part on focus groups she conducted in Syracuse, New York; Greensboro, North Carolina; and St. Louis, Missouri. Sawhill found that jobs are not only central to family incomes but also to workers’ sense of identity and self-worth. In the groups, people rejected talk of systemic inequality in favor of talk about self-reliance. “In my conversations, I heard over and over again that people want to be self-supporting. Above all, they want decent jobs. They believe they are responsible for what happens to them and rarely blame ‘the system’ or outside forces for their plight.” As one participant put it, “I don’t trust anybody to take care of me but me.”
The finding that Heartland Americans are looking for a good job not a government handout comports with other research into the views of non-urban Americans, including our own. An economic message that places heavy emphasis on government benefits in areas such as health care, child care, and college tuition may miss the mark unless these benefits are in the service of a plan to grow the economy and create more better paying jobs.
Brookings Senior Fellow and Policy Director Mark Muro, and others at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program including Alan Berube, Robert Maxim, and others, have been studying the geographically unequal patterns of economic growth in the US over the period following the 2008-2009 downturn. Despite national statistics showing a slow recovery, the county-level data revealed that most of that growth was concentrated in a small number of big cities and technology centers on the coasts, while most of the country was struggling to stay even or continuing to fall behind.
Just after the election, the team highlighted the strong relationship between Trump support and economic stagnation. Clinton won more votes, but she won them, mostly, in the same cities and other densely populated areas where job growth has been the fastest. Trump won by large percentages in the sparsely populated areas of the country that are growing more slowly. Since the election the team has continued its work to define strategies for regional economic development especially in the mid-sized cities and smaller towns that have lost a significant portion of their manufacturing base.
Last week the team released a new “State of the Heartland Factbook“ and interactive tool that provide a lot of data to help illuminate what is working and what isn’t state by state, and town by town, and also compare the region to the rest of America. The study is limited to 19 non-coastal “Heartland” states which covers the middle third of the country. This definition splits the “rust belt” by leaving out many towns in western Pennsylvania (e.g. Erie) and western New York (e.g. Rochester) and it splits the Appalachian region by excluding all of West Virginia and the western edges of Virginia and the Carolinas.
No definition of the region would be perfect from all perspectives, and most of the criticisms one could make of the dataset are simply calls to expand the project to include more states and to extend more of the data points that are available at the state level to make them available at the community level. The project was funded by the Walton Family Foundation to support their just completed Heartland Economic Summit.
It is natural to look first at the broad comparisons between the region and the rest of America but the real value of the data and the report are in the statistics for smaller geographic areas. Thus, we can see that the 19 Heartland states have been growing and adding jobs but doing both at a slower rate than the non-heartland states. But it is more interesting to look at the southern heartland states like Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas where poverty rates are high and college degrees are relatively rare compared to northern heartland states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.
But the real strength of the data set, and interactive tool (scroll down to the middle of the page to “Check out your place” and select different areas to see changes in the “Outcomes” and for states but not for finer regions, the “Drivers”) is the ability to compare communities at a granular level. At this level we can see that Akron, Ohio has been growing jobs while the Youngstown, Ohio area has seen job declines, but both of these Ohio towns have been falling behind Lexington, Kentucky in new job creation. Average wages are lower in Youngstown than in these other two areas, but the gap is shrinking as Youngstown incomes were increasing the fastest of these three areas between 2010 and 2016.
If you do not know the communities covered by this report or have a personal level understanding of the human experience, the anxiety, fear, frustration, and hopelessness, (as well as the resilience and pockets of hope) of many people’s lives in the once thriving, but now hollowed out industrial towns in the middle of America, the statistics in this report can not really give you this understanding. But if you do know what life is like for people in America’s Heartland, this data set can help you find statistics to make your case and guide your priorities. Mayors and other regional leaders can use the data to set priorities, and a data savvy job seeker willing to relocate to another area could also use the tool to research places with rising incomes and a lower cost of living.
We have been traveling through the American Heartland, talking to voters, Mayors and other community leaders paying particular attention to local efforts to plan for long term regional economic development. All across the country, Mayors, City Councils, and County Executives are convening planning groups, including business and labor unions, universities, colleges, community colleges, school systems, and worker training facilities, local community leaders, faith leaders and the nonprofit sector. Their goal is to identify areas of relative weakness and strength, plan infrastructure projects, invest in education and job training and revitalize Main Street areas to help local businesses grow and compete and to attract new businesses to the area.
This new data heavy report and tool are perfectly positioned to support this activity. By highlighting the overall strengths and the weaknesses of the region, and the specific challenges and relative strengths for the scores of local ecosystems dotting the landscape to create a balanced perspective on what local communities are experiencing, the Heartland Factbook provides a major step forward.