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The Emergence of the Global Heartland

Report: Emergence of the Global Heartland

A major shift in the demographic evolution of America is occurring, largely out of sight in the national media, but profoundly affecting communities throughout the Heartland.

The 20 state region, which extends between the Appalachians and the Rockies, has for generations been largely unaffected by the massive movement of people from abroad that has so dramatically transformed the great metropolitan regions of coastal America.

In the national media, the Heartland represented a region, as the New York Times described it, as ’not far from forsaken,’ a depopulating place where the American dream has come and gone. Others have seen the region as an unreconstructed mecca for intolerance, one that had few immigrants and poor race relations and seems destined to suffer for it. As one professor at Vanderbilt suggested recently, the region was “dying from whiteness” and that its “politics of racial resentment is killing America’s heartland.”

Perhaps it is time to change that narrative. Over the past decade, the Heartland’s share of the foreign-born population has risen from 23.5 percent in 2010 to 31.1 percent in 2019. This shift can be seen in many Heartland communities, some such as Louisville, Columbus and Nashville, have seen their immigrant populations swell more than 40 percent from 2010 to 2019, often helping to reverse generations of demographic decline. They are now growing their foreign-born populations faster than such historic immigrant hubs as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia.

The reasons include many factors also seen in our previous studies on entrepreneurs and millennials; lower costs, economic growth and better access to good schools. Perhaps the most underappreciated may be the spirit of friendliness that has been cited by the vast majority of the people we interviewed. For people who have migrated great distances, and sometimes at personal risk, the reception in the Heartland—sometimes described as a hotbed of nativist and xenophobic attitudes—often instead has been both warm and inspiring.

“Each immigrant comes with different potential and dreams,” observes Ahmed Elkhady, a half Palestinian, half Egyptian resident in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, known as the Motorcycle Imam, who works with underprivileged children. “I have big hope in this first migrant generation. They come with unique perspectives from all over the world. They come to grow in a new place they get to help create.” This shift in migration is good not only for the Heartland but also for the nation. Spreading new talent to areas that need it, it also takes the pressure off already overcrowded areas. For too long, essentially since the 1970s, the Heartland, with the notable exception of Texas, was on the sidelines in the nation’s demographic transition, leaving a large part of the country facing much slower population growth and rapid aging. It is on the sidelines no longer.

Download the full report here (PDF).


This piece and the report first appeared at Heartland Forward. Joel Kotkin, Mark Schill, Karla López del Río, Wendell Cox, Alicia Kurimska, and Celia López del Río authored the report.

Heartland Forward is a non-partisan organization that seeks to improve economic performance in the center of the United States by advocating for fact-based solutions to foster job creation, knowledge-based and inclusive growth. Learn more at HeartlandForward.org.

Image credit: Heartland Forward, from the report

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The Death of the American City

When my grandparents migrated to New York from Russia over a century ago, they found a city that was hardly paradise, but one that provided a pathway towards a better life. Life was tough, crowded and always a paycheck from poverty. My relatives were poor, but so was everyone; eventually, they all bought houses or apartments, and entered the middle class. As for crime in their native Brownsville, the home of Murder, Incorporated and other villainous enterprises, it rarely impacted “civilians”; my mother would tell me how a young girl could still walk across Prospect Park without fear of assault.

Today’s urban promise is, however, vastly different — not only in New York, but San Francisco and Los Angeles, London and Paris. No longer cities of aspiration, they are increasingly defined by an almost feudal hierarchy: the rich live well, protected by private security and served by local coffee shops and trendy clubs.

Meanwhile, the working class struggles to pay rent, possesses no demonstrable path to a better life and, as a result, often migrates elsewhere. Crime rates are spiking and homelessness, once an exception, is increasingly widespread. Those very streets once said to be “paved with gold” are now are filled with discarded needles, excrement and graffiti.

Indeed, what we are now witnessing is the decline of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s description of the city as “a luxury product”. Today, that sense of “luxury” has all but vanished, with modern urban economies promoting class divisions rather than upward mobility. Amid all the hoopla about urban revival, the truth is that entrenched urban poverty in the US — places where 30% or more of the population live below the poverty line — actually grew in the first decade of the new millennium, from 1,100 to 3,100 neighbourhoods.

Even the New York Times admits that, in the past decade, cities have gone from “engines of growth and opportunity” to places where class relations are increasing fixed, with only the upper end of the income spectrum doing well. Gotham’s one percent earns a third of the entire city’s personal income. That’s almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country. But such class disparity is becoming the norm; in the tech haven of San Francisco, which has the worst levels of inequality in California, the top 5% of households earn an average of $808,105 annually, compared with $16,184 for the lowest 20%.

Predictably, those at the bottom of this new feudal structure suffer the most; today, the old saying that “the city air makes one free” all too often means freedom to be poor, to experience endemic homelessness, collapsing public infrastructure and rising crime.

And that was before Covid hit. Already many poor urban residents subsisted on transfer payments or worked in service industries. They were paid, usually poorly, to clean now-empty offices or work in restaurants and hotels. The lockdowns, whether justified or overwrought, have since pummelled these low-income workers; roughly 40% of Americans earning under $40,000 a year lost their jobs last March.

Unlike workers who occupy “the commanding heights” of finance, tech, marketing, and media , these people did not have the option of working from their kitchen tables or moving to suburban locations or smaller cities. Nor could they count on education systems to work their magic; most schools in American inner-city districts, in contrast to many suburbs and smaller cities, remained closed.

All of which meant America’s urban districts were ripe for civil unrest when George Floyd died last May, and these festering conditions exploded into the worst national rioting in decades. Parts of many cities went up in flames, the damage of which was obscured by mainstream media’s mantra of “mostly peaceful protests”. The constant rioting and demonstrations in Portland, once seen as a paragon of new urbanist-led revival, has all but destroyed its downtown, which is now largely bereft of pedestrians.

Read the rest of this piece at UnHerd.

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Christopher Michel via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

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