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Caught in the Middle
By Richard C. Longworth
307 pp. Bloomsbury, $17.13
Richard Longworth’s Caught in the Middle delivers a tough love message to rural and urban Midwesterners: “Get moving. The world economy has globalized. You can’t keep doing things the same old way and survive.”
Longworth, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, travelled from Ohio to Iowa, visiting places, interviewing people, and learning about conditions in cities and towns across the region. What he found was, in many cases, pretty depressing. What he offers as solutions might work for some places but will inevitably leave a lot of communities behind.
Based on his travels, Longworth presents a litany of significant issues:
“¢ people and communities are already being battered by globalization and now wanting nothing to do with it;
“¢ obsolete processes of democracy, rooted in agrarian times, are still in place;
“¢ state and local governments are engaging in petty bickering that stifles regional cooperation;
“¢ the rural-urban political divide is fracturing states and their polarizing citizens on economic, political, and moral lines;
“¢ governments are too small and too bulky to participate in economic decision making;
“¢ poor schools are ill equipped to prepare students for a global economy;
“¢ the Midwestern workforce has not been successful at retooling itself.
In Longworth’s travels, he interviewed business and community leaders across the Midwest about how their communities were faring. He found dead and dying center cities, such as Dayton and Detroit, both particularly hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs, especially in the auto industry. He documented economic decline in smaller cities, like Muncie, Indiana, where the Ball family employed large numbers of workers in its jar factories and supported philanthropic causes that raised the quality of life.
When discussing rural America, Longworth does not mince his words:
Rural America has too many strikes against it. It’s too small, remote, poor, uneducated, uncreative ““ too nonmetro. In a world of the Next New Thing, devotion to biblical inerrancy and traditional values doesn’t cut it. The global world is diverse, open, multinational, with no loyalty to place or places. The rural world is still white-on-white, local, fixed on itself as the homeland of all virtue.
The rural Midwest, in truth, existed for one era, and that era has passed. It responded to the economic demands of a single century, from 1850 to 1950, and has been withering ever since. Globalization only finishes the work of earlier decades. There is no place in a globalized world for the small town and the family farm (p. 98).
Longworth doesn’t stop there. He predicts the global economy will hold no meaning for future residents of the Midwest. This “economy won’t discriminate against these people; worse, it will ignore them. The industrial era at least took some responsibility for them, through welfare and social programs; the global era, accepting no blame for their plight, may not even do this (p. 174).”
Longworth is in no way cruel; empathy shows in his writing. And he is more than a messenger, reporting on how large parts of rural America have become scattered slums across the landscape. He offers prescriptions:
“¢ development of a Midwestern regional identity, such as a Global Midwest Forum, to focus on issues and move leaders to action;
“¢ creation of Midwestern think tanks to generate ideas;
“¢ regional linking of venture capital creation and opportunities;
“¢ increased support for higher education and linking of these institutions so they can share and focus on what they do best, instead of being duplicative and relatively isolated from each other;
“¢ dedication of scarce state resources to ameliorate changes, with a focus on building good education systems — making public schools the top priority;
“¢ identification of common issues across the region so the Midwest can speak with one voice nationally and globally;
“¢ developing infrastructure, both high-speed rail to enhance face-to-face networking and digital connections for day-to-day networking at a distance.
Longworth has already started moving toward his vision. According to the Chicago Tribune online (October 9), the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has already held a Global Midwest Initiative meeting. That is good news, because large parts of the Midwest are in trouble. But the discussion needs to be widened.
Longworth’s approach raises a number of related questions from the perspective of social justice, geography, and the nature and role of community and local and state government in a globalized economy:
1) What is the measure of social justice in a global political and economic system that in fact does discriminate against (abandons) people because of geography, whether rural or urban slum?
2) What’s in it for democratic processes? If significant decisions continue to be made based on economics by people who live in domestic cities or other urban places around the world, what type of accountability is there? Is democracy obsolete for those who do remain out on the margins?
3) In facing the realities of globalization, what’s can be the future for rural people and places? Is Longworth’s approach a form of economic triage that will continue to depopulate the countryside while letting successful urban areas sprawl across the landscape and intensify their resource use? What are the economic and social costs of lost investments when towns close their shutters? How can state and local governments that have lost their tax bases continue to help their increasingly poor constituents?
4) What will be environmental impacts of this approach? Will it urban congestion and large-scale monocultural agriculture that now depletes soil and pollutes waterways with fertilizer and pesticides?
Heading out of Jasper County, Missouri
Longworth and leaders across the Midwest need to consider a parallel strategy, one that fosters sustainable smaller places and sees them as viable players in the global economy. The continued demise of rural areas and small cities is not inevitable.
If Longworth is correct that local, state, and national governments are dwarfed and somewhat obsolete in an age of globalization (and he is), there are roles for them beyond amelioration for the victims: put simply, the new role of government is to build sustainable, global communities in smaller places, principally by building and maintaining infrastructure and providing education. If global businesses are going to bypass government and smaller communities in their decision-making, it becomes a matter of state government self-interest to enhance both democracy and regional and statewide tax bases.
A state-level rural development policy in the twenty-first century eschews smokestack chasing and support for the largest businesses. It focuses instead on intensive community and economic development and might include a number of elements: leaders across the Midwest should consider the following:
“¢ recognition that rural communities can create opportunities in a global economy, with state support for political, economic, social, and educational processes and financial incentives to help them take advantage of these opportunities;
“¢ high-quality broadband connectivity that is on a par with what cities have to offer;
“¢ reorganized state and local government units based on watersheds or existing commuting patterns that link rural economic and environmental subregions with their urban and suburban cores;
“¢ use of two-way technology to bridge distance and increase citizens’ interactions with their governments and enhance decision making;
“¢ an ethic of good government that is transparent, encourages citizen participation, responsive, and well managed;
“¢ significant incentives and technical assistance for governments at all levels to promote intergovernmental cooperation that represents backyard interests in open, public debates within a regional, national, and global context;
“¢ realignment of tax systems based on regional governments to increase regional equity and protect and enhance public and private investments in rural communities and regions that may be viable and sustainable;
“¢ world-class public schools in smaller communities that are well managed and technologically savvy so they can increase their course offerings by sharing with other schools and organizations;
“¢ effective government partnerships with local and regional nongovernment organizations to foster planning and implementation of rural community development;
“¢ intensive efforts through public schools, community colleges, and private businesses to provide opportunities for displaced workers to adapt existing skills or find new ones that they can use in their communities;
“¢ policies that support existing businesses, especially small ones;
“¢ policies that promote local small business development that is well-connected to markets locally and around the world;
“¢ incentives for young people to stay and to attract new residents;
“¢ clear guidelines that protect local environments to make them more sustainable, even if decisions are being made elsewhere.
Longworth is on the right track with this provocative book. We are long overdue for a discussion about the Midwestern political economy in a period of continued globalization that now dates back more than a generation. We need regional discussion and cooperation. But there is no reason to tell government to get out of the way. If anything, the recent economic downturn that has occurred since Longworth’s book was published escalates the need for this discussion about the role of communities and government. The need to include rural residents is all the more important because disenfranchisement, either politically or economically, should not be part of our legacy.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.