In its 2006 report, "The Vital Center," the Brookings Institution in Washington contributed mightily to the discussion on what ails the Midwest as a region. Now a major new Brookings report, "The State of Metropolitan America" seems to call that regional concept into question.
This new report is must reading for anyone concerned about American cities, Midwestern and otherwise. One of its conclusions is that a few Midwestern cities are economic oases, doing relatively well despite overall regional decline. But a close study shows that Midwestern cities and their problems remain unique, alas, and the regional approach still holds.
(For a different take on this, see a typically intelligent and provocative posting by Aaron Renn on www.urbanophile.com. Renn stresses the differences between cities that all carry the "Rust Belt" label: he's right, of course, even though stressing the differences can defeat a serious attempt at a regional policy.)
The Brookings report, which it bills as a preview of the 2010 census, focuses on demographic forces and changes in 100 American metropolitan areas -- cities and their suburbs. It then breaks these demographic factors down into five "new realities:"
- Growth and outward expansion. Is your city growing, and is sprawling?
- Diversity, especially ethnic diversity. Is your city drawing immigrants?
- Aging. Is your city mostly old or mostly young, or a mix?
- Different educational levels. Does your city have lots of college grads, or lots of dropouts?
- Income polarization. Is your city middle-class, or is there a growing gap between rich and poor?
There's a mass of data here, but Brookings sorts out the numbers to come up with seven different types of cities, based on three of those five "realities" -- population growth, educational attainment and diversity. This is the core of the report, the part that will pit regionalists vs. non-regionalists.
Here are the seven "typologies," ranked from top to bottom in order of desirability:
- Next Frontier. These nine booming metro areas rank above the national average in growth, diversity, and educational attainment.
- New Heartland: These 19 metros, mostly service-based, are fast-growing, have high educational attainment, but aren't drawing many immigrants.
- Diverse Giant: These nine metros are mostly big cities, like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. They have high diversity and educational achievement but growth below the national average.
- Border Growth: These are 11 metros, along the nation's fringes, destinations for immigrants. They show high growth and diversity but lower levels of education.
- Mid-Sized Magnet: These 15 places are less populous and generally older. They mix high growth with low diversity and educational attainment.
- Skilled Anchors: These 19 metros are mostly old manufacturing cities or ports that are becoming service based. These show low growth and diversity but relatively high educational levels.
- Industrial Cores: Where you don't want to be. These are 18 struggling old industrial metros with low everything -- low growth, low diversity, low educational attainment.
Brookings argues that little of this can be broken down on a regional basis. "Do you live in the 'Rust Belt' or the 'Sun Belt?" it asks. "Are you a West coaster, an East coaster, or a resident of 'flyover country?' .....Does any of that matter? Maybe not as much as you think. Our new report........finds that who metropolitan areas are is in many ways more important than where they are." In other words, it says that cities everywhere are different from each other, that geography is not destiny, that different regions can show examples of each "typology."
Not so fast. A look at Brookings' maps show huge regional differences. Maybe geography (not to mention history and culture) still count for something. Let's take those "typologies" again.
- Next Frontier cities are all in the West and Southwest, except for Washington, D.C. -- a special case if there ever was one. The others are Albuquerque, Austin, Dallas-Fort worth, Denver, Houston, Sacramento, Seattle-Tacom and Tucson. No Midwesterners.
- New Heartland cities are the real mixed bag, scattered across the American map, and do include some Midwestern cities. They stretch from Portland and Salt Lake City in the west to Richmond and Atlanta in the southeast. But they include Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Madison, Kansas City, Des Moines and Columbus. There's some commonalities here, and we'll come back to them in a minute.
- The Diverse Giants include Chicago, plus one eastern city (New York), one southern city (Miami), and no less than five California metros.
- The Border Growth cities are just what the name implies -- five metros in California, plus Orlando and a clutch of southwestern immigrant gateways like McAllen, Texas. No Midwesterns.
- Mid-Sized Magnets are largely in the middle states -- Chattanooga, Little Rock, Oklahoma City -- or in the South, with a couple of Far West outliers. No Midwesterners.
- Skilled Anchors are old factory towns that are beginning to make the transition to a more moderate economy, and here's where the Midwest begins to dominate. There's one Southern city, Jackson. All the rest are Midwestern -- Akron, Cincinnati, Rochester, Syracuse, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis -- or New England -- Boston and Hartford, for instance.
- Industrial Core cities are the old factory towns that haven't made the transtiion. Again, there are a few in the South, such as Birmingham and New Orleans. All the rest are in the Midwest or New England. The Midwestern members of this grim caucus are Buffalo, Cleveland, Dayton, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Toledo, Wichita and Youngstown.
Let's add this up. There are 23 Midwestern metros in these seven categories, and all but Chicago, that Diverse Giant, are in three of them. Fifteen, in fact, are in the bottom two -- old factory towns that either are or are not clawing their way back. Given the fact that heavy industry is what the Midwest has always done for a living, there's no surprise here. If Brookings thinks that geography isn't defining the reality of these 15 cities, it isn't looking at its own map.
But wait! There are those other seven among the New Heartland metros -- Columbus, Des Moines, Indianapolis, the two Kansas Cities, Madison, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Omaha-Council Bluffs. That's a lot of success stories for a region that is supposed to be in long-term decline. Does this mean we have to rethink the whole concept of a Midwestern regional economy?
I don't think so, and the reason lies in the fact that most of the Midwestern metros cited by Brookings still lie at the bottom of the heap, seeking recovery. All the New Heartland metros share one common characteristic -- none was dominated by heavy industry, so none has had to overcome this Rust Belt legacy, as places like Cleveland and Detroit have. Each has a history of service industries, like insurance, or of more modern industries, like chemicals. Think of the companies that have always powered Minneapolis -- Cargill, 3M, Medtronics. None has taken the hit in the global economy that General Motors, Delphi and Maytag have.
Interestingly, five of the seven are state capitals. You can outsource auto-making, but you can't outsource legislatures or the many other government jobs. (With most Midwestern states in deep deficit, state governments might not be such steady earners in the future.)
As Brookings said, these seven cities are experiencing high growth but low diversity. Perhaps diversity is overrated as a plus for economic development. Or perhaps the economies of these cities just don't offer the jobs that attract immigrants.
Finally, all have high educational attainment. Some of them -- Madison, Columbus, Minneapolis -- are the seats of first-class state universities, which spin off both brains and jobs. While the others all have respectable colleges or universities -- Butler, Creighton, Drake and the like -- these aren't the sort of schools that energize an entire urban economy. It's more likely that places like Indianapolis and Des Moines offer the kind of white-collar jobs that draw in college grads.
There's another important factor here, and a look at the map makes clear what it is. It also raises a very important issue for policymakers.
Almost every Midwestern state has one successful city represented either among the Diverse Giants or New Heartlanders. (Michigan is the only exception.) This is odd when you think about it. Chicago remains strong while other Illinois cities -- Rockford, Decatur, Danville -- decay. Indianapolis thrives but the rest of Indiana -- Muncie, Kokomo, Terre Haute, South Bend -- treads water. All of Ohio is locked in a long-term decline except for one city at its very heart, Columbus.
Does this mean that the Midwestern economy as a whole remains so weak that there's no room in any state for more than one prosperous city? Does it mean that there's little hope in the global age for any city except those who played little part in the industrial past?
More to the point, the Midwestern economy in the past was supported by a lineup of prosperous cities, big and small, in each state. Ohio had Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Akron and many other smaller industial powerhouses. Small factory towns dotted the landscapes of Illinois and Indiana and succored the regions around them. Iowa didn't have to depend on Des Moines: it had big moneyspinners in the Quad Cities, Dubuque and Waterloo. Michigan, of course, throbbed to the beat of the Auto Age.
All that's gone, and we're left with one productive outpost in states that have otherwise gone fallow. But none of these isolated cities is strong enough to support the rest of its states. Des Moines and Indianapolis can bring energy to the metro regions beyond them, but no more. Even Chicago can't prop up the rest of Illinois, let alone the Midwest.
It's no secret that Chicago and the handful of other success stories have been bleeding their hinterlands dry -- of jobs, of finance, of talent, especially of the best young people who could be reviving their home towns. With the departure of heavy industry, these towns have nothing to keep their resources -- human and financial -- from decamping to the nearest vibrant city.
Policymakers, both state and federal, will be tempted to pump money into the thriving cities, from Columbus to Omaha, if only because it makes sense to spend funds where they are most likely to work. But this policy, while guaranteeing the growth of Midwestern cities like Indianapolis and Chicago, also guarantees the continuing impoverishment of all those semi-abandoned places in between.
The debate on this has not begun. The Brookings report should be the spur to get it started.