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America’s Dead Zones: From Detroit to Dyersburg, Why Does Prosperity Pass So Many Places By?

Some regions are recovering, while others across America remain in deep decline. How did this happen and what can we do?

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There are large numbers of dead zones with a highly educated populace (for example. Hood River OR, Ocean Pines MD, and Santa Cruz CA). On the other hand, there are many prosperous areas with low education rates (Dumas TX, Lexington NE, and Storm Lake IA). Since education is only one factor in determining labor quality, and labor quality itself is only one factor determining where a business will base its operations, this relatively weak correlation should come as no surprise.

If a timber, coal, shipping, or farming area is doing well, employment grows. If any of the industries falter, the labor force shrinks. For the vast majority of industries in dead zone areas, higher education is not necessarily essential. The vast majority of the dead and prosperous areas have jobs which do not, for the most part, require significant levels of higher education for the majority of the labor force.

While newspaper headlines note high unemployment rates in Camden and Newark in New Jersey and Los Angles in California, America’s dead zones remain outside the arena of discussion. Few are aware of the troubling trends that make solving the nation’s unemployment problem more difficult than imaginable. Restoring recovery and reversing employment trends in America’s dead zones will not be easy and will take time.

Long-term Solutions Needed

Can more jobs be created in dead zone areas? Not if the solutions offered focus only on the short term. Creating employment opportunities that last cannot be accomplished by just increasing federal grant money for infrastructure or raising budgets for tourism advertising (as suggested by the US mayors association report). While these remedies provide temporary employment, a good thing, they don’t deal with the hundreds of communities that have one-dimensional economies. These communities, even after the temporary solution, are still overexposed to fluctuations in the industry they rely on—so when the funds disappear, unemployment spikes once again.

In dead zones, most people are unwilling or unable to move to other areas with better employment prospects even up to a generation after economic decline sets in. Therefore the only effective solution is to bring jobs to these communities by making them more attractive to a diversified number of industries that require workers with various skill levels. (That is, avoid having communities that can be Apple-ized).

We need to think differently about where we live and work. Too often communities across the nation are given blanket treatment as if their problems are interchangeable. But that is not the case. Each metro/micro area has its own particular geography, resources, population characteristics, etc. that make it hard to generalize about solutions to unemployment. Local governments may be best positioned to understand the needs of their respective areas—and, of course, they may need federal and state money to improve education, make long-term infrastructure changes, and offer industries opportunities to expand. But if local governments continue to focus only on short-termism, dead zones will not fade away. What many proposed solutions ignore is how hard it is to imagine a business relocating or expanding operations—creating jobs—in dead zones that they view as deteriorating.

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Louis A. Ferleger is a Professor of History and Director of the Graduate Program at Boston University.

 
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