Tag Archives: State of Metropolitan America

The State of Metro America


Editor’s note: This post was written by Alex M. Parker, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist. Parker is very familiar with the industrial Midwest, having written for The (Lorain, Ohio) Morning Journal and The (Toledo) Blade. You can read a recent analysis of Ohio politics he wrote for Salon.com here. -KG

A native of Indianapolis, I could always tell that there was a difference between my hometown and Cleveland, where I lived for several years. Both were Midwest, working-class types of towns, but Indy was more suburban, less dense, kind of like Cleveland without the hard edges.

According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, The State of Metropolitan America, understanding the differences between Indy and Cleveland — or Columbus, or Pittsburgh, or Minneapolis — is a crucial part of understanding each city’s individual fix. The 172-page report, which already has received praise from mainstream pundits such as David Broder, compiles data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to paint a demographic portrait of the United States, focusing on the 100 largest metropolitan areas.

The report also creates new categories to define cities, and supplant the regional definitions — Rust Belt, Midwest, etc. — that we’ve grown so used to over the years. The Midwest is carved up into three metropolitan types — the New Heartland, the Skilled Anchors, and the Industrial Cores.

New Heartland cities are actually mostly in the South, but they include Midwest cities such as Des Moines, Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. With service-based economies, they have high growth, sort of through self-selective middle-class migration. So, their citizens are generally wealthier and better educated, but have less diversity, especially when it comes to Hispanics or Asians.

Next you have the “Skilled Anchors,” which haven’t seen the type of growth as the New Frontier cities, but have developed new post-industrial economies which attract high levels of education. These cities include Akron, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, St. Louis, along with east-coast cities like Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Then you have the “Industrial Cores”—the Youngstowns, Clevelands, and- Detroits — as well as some northeastern cities such as Providence, R.I. These cities have been hit with the triple-whammy — their populations have decreased, they remain less educated and diverse than other metro areas, and their residents are getting older. Despite massive population drops, their outer suburbs continued to grow.

On top of all that, you have Chicago, a “Diverse Giant”—basically, a mega-city like New York or L.A., which continues to attract large populations of immigrants, but has seen an overall drop in its growth over the past decade. (If you’d like to see more examples of the different categories, check out the report.)

According to the report, America got poorer, bigger, more diverse, and more economically divided over the past ten years. But the Midwest saw a different pattern. For the most part, immigrants did not flock to the Rust Belt or the Great Lakes states, and economic growth remained stagnant. While most of America recovered somewhat from the recession in 2001, according to the report, the recession never really stopped in the Midwest. Household incomes continued to dwindle, people (especially African Americans) continued to move out, and the overall population continued to get older. That is, except for the New Heartland cities, which managed to attract a certain type of person due to largely service-based economies.

As the report sees it, the biggest challenge facing New Heartland cities is keeping a well-educated workforce after Americans become less mobile due to the recession. Without an influx of middle-class, college-educated people, those cities will have to grow that talent themselves — and that means creating better school systems in urban and inner-suburb regions.

Skilled Anchor and Industrial Core cities face the opposite problem — keeping an aging workforce working. With a lack of young people due to the famous “Brain Drain,” the report recommends “efforts to keep the boomers connected to the labor market, even as they reach retirement age.” In the meantime, those cities should focus on re-centralizing their communities around core anchors, even though — in the case of the Industrial Cores — that could require “radical land-use interventions.”

The policy prescriptions are interesting, but for the most part have been heard before. And I’m a bit curious to hear how the different cities ended up as they are — why is Cleveland still stuck as an “Industrial Core,” while Pittsburgh has managed to transition into a “Skilled Anchor?” After all, Cleveland has spent millions trying to refashion itself as the medical capital of the Midwest, with the Cleveland Clinic as its anchor. Is it just dumb luck, proximity to Detroit and its auto industry, or are there policy decisions which lead to different outcomes? I suppose those types of “lessons learned” might come in a future report. But please, Brookings, take your time. With nearly 200 pages to pour over here, we’re plenty occupied with this one.

The report spills a lot of ink examining the suburbs, and the way they’ve changed over the past decade. The report strongly implies that our classic image of suburbia — a place where rich white people hide from the poverty of the cities — is out of date. While a suburbanite is still more likely to be white, and more wealthy, than a city-dweller, the picture is becoming much blurrier. Suburbs became more diverse during the 00’s, and they also became poorer. Try to wrap your head around this one — in Cleveland, the median household income of those living in the suburbs was nearly $30,000 more than those living in the city, which is nearly twice the average disparity in the nation. But during the past decade, Cleveland also saw more poverty (i.e., people below the poverty line), in its suburbs than it its urban areas. So did Baltimore, Detroit, Minneapolis, and San Diego.

Since the beginning of the recession, the cities have gained back part of what they lost to the suburbs. But overall, in the Midwest, the past decade is a story of expansive sprawl into metropolitan areas’ outer regions — even when the metro area, as a whole, is shrinking. Take this example: Excluding New Orleans, the metro area with the single largest drop in population last decade was Youngstown, Ohio. The city is also the country’s leader in the percentage of commuters who drive, alone, to work. Go figure. (The city also boasts the nation’s lowest income inequality, a truly perplexing statistic.)

“More than ever, the lines between cities and suburbs—and the long, fruitless history of battles and mistrust between them—must be transcended,” the report states. “Cities and suburbs increasingly share challenges like poverty, growing elderly populations, and influxes of new Americans.”

Unfortunately, most of the report’s policy recommendations — such as increased alignment between transportation planning and housing, reducing the deductibility of mortgage interest to slow the spread of housing, and increasing regionalism in metropolitan areas — are as well-known as they are politically unfeasible. As a policy prescription, it doesn’t cover much new ground. But the work by the Brookings Institution is invaluable as a portrait of how America is changing, and what might be in store for the Midwest.

-Alex M. Parker


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