Urban Wire Three ways the Great Lakes region can find home-grown solutions to its challenges
Rolf Pendall, Erika C. Poethig, Mark Treskon
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From 1999 to 2009, the Great Lakes states—Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin—lost nearly 1.6 million manufacturing jobs, accounting for more than one-third of the region’s manufacturing employment. After 15 years of stable manufacturing employment, this shocking collapse devastated millions of families and hundreds of communities. They’re still reeling, with employment growth since 2010 largely confined to low-wage jobs.

Much of the political rhetoric surrounding the Great Lakes has portrayed the region as a victim of global forces. Although that may be true, the region’s recovery depends more on investments in the region’s considerable strengths than on looking for answers or scapegoats beyond national borders. Drawing from our recent report on the Great Lakes, we highlight three key principles for a home-grown regional recovery.

1. Support the Great Lakes economy by preparing workers for complex manufacturing jobs

Even after the crash, the Great Lakes region remains the nation’s durable manufacturing heartland, with a dense network of firms, expertise, and logistics infrastructure. The number of people employed in manufacturing has declined with globalization and automation, but manufacturing still contributes mightily to payroll and added value in the nation and especially in the Great Lakes. We should expect it to remain an important part of the national and regional economy for the foreseeable future.

But the region won’t see the prosperity these jobs can deliver if its workers aren’t better prepared for complex jobs in engineering, skilled trades, and production. Gaps in skills and training mean that the United States may fail to realize as many as 2 million of the 3.5 million manufacturing jobs that could grow nationwide from 2015 to 2025.

For these jobs to materialize, the private and public sectors should improve their workforce development and training systems. They will also need to invest more in young people who grow up in or move to the region.

2. Invest in children and immigrants so the region can thrive even as population growth slows down

Children and immigrants are a key asset for the region. Every year, over 600,000 children are born in these six states. Most will pursue higher education in the same region where they grew up. If their families and communities prepare them for healthy and productive lives, they will earn more over their lifetime.  

Too many of the region’s kids don’t receive that kind of investment, and this will cost the region in the long run. Investing more in families and kids would also help more young adults decide to stay in the Great Lakes rather than moving to states with nicer climates and stronger economies.

New births will support population growth in Great Lakes

Early education can pay dividends for social and economic mobility, especially for young people of color. Excellent public schools, well-supported institutions of higher education, and functioning workforce development systems are also part of the answer.

Supports for young working families, ranging from assurances of adequate health care (including maternal and child health), family leave, and other policies that help balance work and family are also important. Such investments would be more likely to pay off for the region and the rest of the United States than tax breaks for footloose businesses, and they promise bigger benefits to the rest of the country.

Foreign-born people also help sustain population and prosperity in the Great Lakes. From 2007 to 2015, about 150,000 foreign-born people moved to the Great Lakes from abroad each year. These new arrivals contribute to their communities’ social fabric and economies.

Local, state, and national policies, programs, and practices can reinforce immigrants’ integration in the US English–learning programs, alignment of education and certification requirements between countries of origin and state requirements, child care support, and support for acquisition of driver’s licenses and health insurance can all make a difference.

3. Strengthen older neighborhoods and county seats

Communities across the Great Lakes have been eroded, but not erased, by decades of deindustrialization. The impacts of disinvestment are most pronounced in the most distressed neighborhoods of racially and economically segregated metropolitan areas like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Growing up in those neighborhoods means living too close to unacceptably high levels of gun violence, deteriorating housing and infrastructure, and pollutants and living too far away from good schools, good jobs, and healthy food.

The latest manufacturing crisis has also undermined small cities and villages. About half the region’s 524 county seats lost population between 2000 and 2013. Almost 70 percent either had poverty rates over 20 percent in 2013 or had experienced at least a 5 percentage point rise in poverty from 2000 to 2013. 

But these neighborhoods, villages, and cities have assets worth preserving and building on. The most important roads and rails converge there. Courthouses, colleges, and hospitals anchor them. Older shops and office buildings provide a unique sense of place to their historic downtowns.

Focusing economic development and infrastructure improvements in these communities and fostering them as inclusive, mixed-income, multigenerational communities can anchor the future of a region increasingly diverse in age, nationality, and race.

Looking forward

Reflecting its powerful past and its important place as the hub of US manufacturing, the Great Lakes states—along with Western New York and Pennsylvania—are often referred to as the “Rust Belt.” Although this label may reflect the region’s proud heritage, it does not do the region's future justice. 

Just as manufacturing has modernized, the Great Lakes’ story must be updated to draw on its considerable educational assets, relative affordability, and opportunities to contribute to greater economic prosperity for its residents and the entire country.


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Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Community and economic development
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center