Column: Two Midwests, the old and new

Column: Two Midwests, the old and new

Richard Longworth

There’s a new Midwest taking shape and it doesn’t look much like the old one.

That old Midwest boasted a network of mighty industrial cities, with a lot of small farms in between. In time this decayed into a corroded landscape of bombed-out factory towns and shrinking farm towns. This was the Rust Belt and, for 40 years, it’s what most people pictured when they thought about the Midwest.

That’s changed. There are two Midwests now. The wreckage of the old Rust Belt remains, of course: some of these relics may never recover.

But while the nation was focused on this old Midwest, the new Midwest has taken shape. It’s a Midwest that lives on brains, not brawn. It produces ideas and services, not ingots and autos.

Most of the great cities that powered the old Midwest — Detroit, Cleveland, Flint, Youngstown — still struggle. Of these old powerhouses, only Chicago and Pittsburgh thrive now, and both are transformed, no longer industrial.

The capitals of the new Midwestern economy are places like Des Moines and Iowa City, and like Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Columbus or Madison. They have a lot in common. Many are state capitals or university towns or both. Few had a legacy of heavy industry to overcome. Their major industries — such as insurance, education, publishing or health — have made the transition from the industrial to the knowledge economy. Indeed, Des Moines and Iowa City are the only metros in the region with population growth rates above 10 percent.

What’s happened here, for better or worse, is globalization. The old Midwestern industries moved first to the American South, and then overseas, taking jobs and prosperity with them. This global competition, coupled with automation, finished off much of the old Midwest.

But it opened the door for the new Midwest. These cities had the industries, the educated residents and the vision to make a place for themselves in a globalized world. Mostly, they had leaders who understood that the world had changed and their cities had to change with it.

Most of all, all these places know where they stand on the global supply chain — how their economies connect with other global cities around the world.

In the old Midwest, the mighty industrial cities acted like locomotives, pulling their hinterlands behind them. A factory in Cleveland or Detroit needed parts or raw materials from factories in the cities that surrounded them. They were all part of one economy.

That’s no longer true. Even Chicago and its suburbs, for all their economic verve, can’t enrich the rest of Illinois, let alone the Midwest: in fact, the dynamism of the Loop dwindles even before it reaches the South and West sides.

This same holds true in other states. If Des Moines is booming and Scott County is growing, most Iowa counties are losing population. Almost all the economic growth in Indiana comes from Indianapolis and its suburbs. Most of the time, these new hubs are growing by sucking in money, businesses and especially bright young people from the states around them.

In other words, what’s been happening in the Midwest is the same thing that is reshaping so much of the globalized world. The cities exist in one economy, based on globalization, and the rest of the Midwest exists in another, the industrial past. The cities become richer, more educated, more innovative, more global, while the hinterlands lose the assets that could help them compete. They remain left behind, and angry.

The urban-rural split has always been there but now it’s deeper and more politicized. Not only Chicago but all the economic centers of the new Midwest voted Democratic in the 2016 election. And all the hinterlands, with few exceptions, voted for Donald Trump.

All this is a process only half completed. If present trends continue, the new centers will continue to grow and dominate, and the backwaters will slide into bitter irrelevance.

A new study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, called "A Vital Midwest," charts these trends but urges action at the federal, state and local level to revitalize as much of the Midwest as possible. This includes federal and state investments in infrastructure and in the growing sectors of energy, water, food, health care, and other areas where the Midwest has an edge. It means regional or state venture capitals funds to promote new industries. It means education, both college and vocational, and the promotion of industries to make use of educated Midwesterners. It means leveraging the region’s greatest natural resource, the fresh-water treasures of the Great Lakes.

But mostly, the Midwest’s towns and cities are on their own. They will thrive only with enlightened local leadership, political and economic, to plug more of the Midwest into the new global economy. Some cities — Grand Rapids, Michigan, is an example — have done this. Most haven’t and, until they do, the New Midwest is likely to remain the Two Midwests.

Richard Longworth, a former Chicago Tribune reporter from Iowa, is a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


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