A young boy stands in the door of his home in Gary, Indiana.
A young boy stands in the door of his home in Gary, Indiana. Eric Thayer/Reuters

A new Urban Institute report argues that the states surrounding the Great Lakes can make an economic comeback—if they invest in their young people.  

Earlier this year, Urban Institute researcher Rolf Pendall and several co-authors issued a report on industry and labor for the states that surround the Great Lakes—Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Their conclusion: Though the region has long been synonymous with post-industrial decay and an aging, shrinking workforce, it can recover. But its salvation won’t come from luring in those much-sought-after new younger workers that cities are always vying for: “The secret for success,” Pendall told CityLab, “is investing in the kids…who already live there.”

Such investment is particularly important because the Great Lakes region’s residents are older than the rest of the country—and its current younger residents (as well as immigrants) often prefer to head to greener economic pastures on the coasts as soon as possible. As more workers retire in the coming 10 to 15 years, the states will need young people to replace them—as well as fill new jobs. While the industrial posts of yesteryear aren’t coming back, related employment, such as chemical manufacturing and the production of precision metals, is on the rise and requires technical training.

“The region will need to do more with a smaller number of people,” Pendall said. “Investing in children over the course of their young life is the best way to do that.”

Last week, Pendall and five other Urban Institute scholars, including lead author Heather Hahn, published a report that gives Rust Belt leaders a plan to do just that, mapping out policies that encourage the half-million children born in the region each year not only to put down roots, but thrive while doing so.

The report highlights five areas that state and local leaders, as well as philanthropic organizations and the private sector, can focus on to support economic mobility for young people, especially those who are low-income and of color:

  • High-quality preschools and home visiting programs.
  • Reading fluency by the third grade.
  • Smoothing the transition from high school to higher education or the workforce.
  • Reducing criminal and juvenile justice involvement.
  • Meeting the basic needs of low-income families.

Research shows that early experiences significantly impact a child’s ability to learn, as well as to develop social skills, resilience, and self-regulation—competencies that affect long-term social and economic well-being. Home visits, in which professionals guide low-income or otherwise at-risk parents on issues such as care and parenting techniques, aid in a child’s development, as do high-quality preschool programs.

The return on investment in these endeavors is high. Attending a high-quality preschool, for instance, increases the likelihood that a child will graduate from high school, attend college or secure steady employment, and earn higher wages. According to Hahn, every $1 invested in high-quality preschools ultimately yields $2 to 9, and every $1 invested in home visits yields $3 to 5.

The repercussions of a lack of reading proficiency are far-reaching: Hahn noted that children who aren’t reading well by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who are reading well by that age. This achievement gap follows racial lines, with black children the most likely to fall behind.

The authors recommend training teachers to prepare them for a racially and economically diverse classroom, as well as hiring more teachers of color. Research has demonstrated that if low-income black children have just one black teacher, they are more likely to graduate high school and plan to attend a four-year college.

To help high schoolers make the transition to higher education or a job, Hahn recommends that schools hire career counselors and offer career and college pathway programs, including opportunities for students to work or take university classes while still in school.

When schools punish young people—most often those of color—via suspensions and expulsions, the ramifications are severe: Such practices contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and when a teen acquires a criminal record, their lifetime family income is reduced by nearly $23,000. “It creates a domino effect in which their social and economic mobility is significantly curtailed,” Hahn said. She recommends that punishment not lock young people into the criminal system. “It should deal with them in a developmentally appropriate way that doesn’t exacerbate the problem and make it long term,” she said.

Finally, the scholars recommend that policymakers and leaders ensure that low-income families receive supports for which they’re eligible, such as nutrition assistance, health insurance, the earned income tax credit, child care assistance, and paid family leave.

“All of these pay dividends in terms of stabilizing parental employment, increasing educational attainment, and promoting better health outcomes,” said Hahn. Creating a system in which eligible families are automatically signed up for a number of benefits when they sign up for one helps make sure they access the help that increases their chances of a better life.

In many cases, the authors call for communities, states, and organizations to allocate more funds for the five areas of focus, though reallocation can also work. In Michigan, for instance, the state redistributed educational resources from more-affluent communities to less-affluent ones, and the result was improved student outcomes for the lower-income kids (and the same outcomes for affluent students). But even if spending goes up, the report notes that it’s critical to remember that such outlays are a good investment.

Indeed, supporting the early education and basic household needs of the Rust Belt’s low-income residents is not only the decent thing to do, but is also economically beneficial for the region as a whole. “The people living in a place don’t often get the same kind of respect that a corporate business or stadium does,” Pendall said. “We have to keep reminding leaders that it’s a whole lot more effective to invest in vulnerable people. That’s where the yield is.”

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