While the presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic have dominated the news cycle for months, a story with deep long-term regional implications continues bubbling away: the impending loss of congressional representation for many of the “Frostbelt” states of the nation’s old industrial and financial heartland. It appears that likely winners include Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida. The likely losers are almost exclusively East Coast states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island or Midwestern states like Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota, according to the Census Bureau’s December 2019 forecast.
These regional differences in population growth have continued since the 1960s. Though hardly breaking news, the story underscores that our region’s federal and state elected leaders — whatever their party affiliation, wherever their place on the ‘insider-outsider’ spectrum — will need to renew their commitment to regional unity in Washington. That commitment was first made in the bicentennial year 1976 when bipartisan coalitions of governors and members of the House of Representatives were founded with members agreeing to work closely to advance policies and marshal financial resources to meet the needs of old industrial communities, the Great Lakes and the region’s river basin eco-systems, and distressed rural areas.
Then, as now, a regional economic structure characterized by high energy costs, wrenching changes in the manufacturing base, high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, environmental degradation, and inefficient governmental systems, posed grave regional challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic with its epicenters in the New York, Detroit, Chicago, and other smaller metro areas combined with the mitigation measures by the region’s governors under federal guidance are creating a tsunami of non-recoverable state and local tax and fee revenue shortfalls that can predictably exacerbate the structural problems plaguing the region.
Then, as now, correctly naming and effectively addressing the challenges required action by well-informed policy-makers. Now, many of the structural problems facing the nation and the region in 1976 have suddenly become more acute in the face of the pandemic and such other challenges as rising global competition and climate change.
The combination of non-partisan policy research by such entities as the Northeast-Midwest Institute, the Coalition of Northeastern Governors, and the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, and bipartisan cooperation by congressional caucus organizations produced some solid results in such areas as invasive species prevention in the Great Lakes, watershed and river basin protection, productive recycling of brownfield sites, constructive reuse of older commercial and industrial structures, clean energy generation and energy efficiency, rail corridor improvement and support for urban and rural public transit.
Never has there been more at stake in fiscal policy than there suddenly is now with the current and future allocation of federal money pouring out of Washington to both public and private sector recipients under the pandemic-related relief and stimulus programs. In the ‘70s billions were at stake — now those allocational stakes are in the trillions.
Ad hoc groups of governors in both the Northeast and Midwest have recently coordinated their pandemic responses and economic restart action plans. Today’s "Frostbelt" leaders need to convene as their predecessors did in 1976 to update a broader health care, social, economic, and environmental agenda addressing the region’s underlying challenges and commit themselves to a unified approach to ensure the fair, equitable allocation of federal resources replacing their pandemic-induced tax and fee revenue shortfalls and assisting small- and medium-sized businesses.
Thomas H. Cochran is senior fellow at the Northeast-Midwest Institute and Lewis B. Kaden is chair of the Board of Trustees at the Markle Foundation. Their views are solely their own.
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