Defining the Heartland

The American Heartland is often considered a monolith, but a new report analyzes the region's dynamic, diverse opportunity zones for business development near some of the nation's hottest housing markets for Millennials and families

By Kate Carsella, Associate Editor | January 4, 2019
Wall that says 'we all live here'
Unlocking the opportunity grist mill of the Heartland, home to affordable, growing housing markets / Photo: Unsplash/Brandi Ibrao

As the Heartland goes, so goes the nation. Encompassing about 1.1 million square miles over 19 states and covering roughly one-third of the U.S. landmass is America’s Heartland. Fly over it and you risk missing its dynamism and variety.

On the national stage, the Heartland has been cast as monolithic, standing in stark contrast to other U.S. regions. Yet, many recent conclusions drawn from the region are disproving (or at least refining) that perception.

Recently, the public policy research organization, the Brookings Institution, in support of the Walton Family Foundation’s inaugural Heartland Summit, compiled a factbook aiming to offer clarity through facts and figures.

The factbook is geared toward “Heartland changemakers”—policymakers and entrepreneurs with an interest in investing in the region who need to be fully aware of current conditions and the road ahead during what the report calls a “crucial” time, in order to take best advantage of the region’s assets and unique challenges.

Labeling it “a country within the country,” the report redefines the Heartland as a 19-state mash-up encompassing the bulk of four U.S. Census Bureau regions (East and West North Central regions, and East and West South Central regions), per overall and state-level socioeconomic performance since the Great Recession.

First of the report’s key takeaways is that the Heartland’s economy is in better shape than it appears. Prosperity markers such as standard of living, average wage, and productivity are rising in most, if not all, 19 states. Both jobs and output have seen sustained growth since 2010, with all states adding jobs and all but one increasing output.

Secondly, the Heartland is no monolith, according to the factbook, but rather a “checkerboard of sub-regions, states, and local communities.” Unique to the Heartland is “an impressive base of crown jewel export industries,” such as advanced manufacturing in the eastern half and agribusiness in the western half. Overall, according to the report, the Heartland states “constitute a manufacturing super-region and export powerhouse outperforming the rest of the country on [several] core economic indicators.”

Finally, the report outlines the Heartland’s primary challenges: assets of innovation and human capital. Just 5.2 percent of venture capitalists’ overall national spending is concentrated in the Heartland states, while the most VC deals are being made and money invested in coastal states, such as California, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, and in Colorado. Also, just 25 of the top 100 tech universities are located in the region.

Meanwhile, the Heartland’s dual health epidemics of growing obesity and increased opioid use “pose the greatest hurdles to changemakers,” the report says.

In closing, the authors challenge: “There is surely grist for unlocking the Heartland’s full potential—and in doing so unleashing America’s.” 

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