Home / General / They created an economic revival in the heartland, and nobody cared

They created an economic revival in the heartland, and nobody cared

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I’m not sure if anyone even pretends to believe the “economic anxiety” explanation for Trumpism anymore, but the success of industrial policy under the Biden administration and the fact that he’s gotten zero credit for it should be a dispositive rebuttal:

America’s so-called “left behind” counties — the once-great manufacturing centers and other distressed places that struggled mightily at the start of this century — have staged a remarkable comeback. In the last three years, they added jobs and new businesses at their fastest pace since Bill Clinton was president.

The turnaround has shocked experts. “This is the kind of thing that we couldn’t have even dreamed about five or six years ago,” said John Lettieri, the president of the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank that studies economic distress in the U.S. His group is releasing a report today that details the recovery of left-behind counties.

Those counties span the nation but are largely concentrated in the Southeast and Midwest. In today’s newsletter, I’ll explain how they defied recent trends — including a particularly grim stretch under Donald Trump — to rebound so strongly from the pandemic recession. I’ll also show the one indicator that helps explain why voters there might not reward President Biden for the good news that has happened on his watch.

Under Trump, conversely, the left behind counties remained left behind:

The last two decades were economically cruel for the 1,000 or so left-behind counties in the U.S. — places like Bay County, Mich.; Dyer County, Tenn.; and Lackawanna County, Pa., home to Scranton, Biden’s birthplace. These counties added jobs and people far more slowly than the nation as a whole. Some lost factories to foreign competitors like China. Many lost residents, including educated young workers, as economic activity concentrated in big cities like New York and San Francisco.

As a candidate in 2016, Trump promised to revitalize those areas. In his first three years in office, before the pandemic hit, the national economy was strong. Unemployment was low. Wages were rising. But left-behind counties saw few of those benefits.

In 2018, a colleague and I noted that left-behind counties that voted for Trump had not seen any net job gains the previous year. The new Economic Innovation Group analysis shows that, in terms of job growth, left-behind counties experienced three of their four worst years since the Great Recession on Trump’s watch.

It is comforting to think that providing material benefits to people is the path to political success, but between the Medicaid expansion in the ACA and the broadly distributed gains of the Biden era, it just ain’t so. Which isn’t a reason not to do good policy, just a reminder that good policy has little correlation with political success in this political environment.

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