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Still The Promised Land

Poverty, policy, and hope in the Rust Belt

Out west in gigantic, thriving Chicago, there’s a debate underway between a journalist and an IT consultant over whether regionalism can help the hollowing-out cities of the Rust Belt.

Chicago is the Great Lakes exception. Social thinkers there look west and see the empty Great Plains states that lost their economic mojo a generation ago, and theorize that a back-to-nature Buffalo Commons makes more economic sense than trying to save all those tiny little towns in states like Nebraska and North Dakota. Looking east, Chicago sees the Rust Belt and observes that “the industrial age needed all these towns. The global era doesn’t. Without an economic raison d’etre, no place can keep going forever.”

"Immigrant, Inc.: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (and how they will save the American worker)" By Richard T. Herman and Robert L. Smith (Wiley 2009)

Richard Longworth, who likes regionalism, wrote those words in reference to Buffalo, Cleveland, Dayton and the other rusty towns he discusses on his blog, The Midwesterner. Aaron Renn, the IT guy who runs a blog called The Urbanophile, also writes about the economic challenges of old industrial centers, but Renn prefers localism. Renn finds great quotes from the late urbanist Jane Jacobs to advocate for local rather than regional governance—even when localism in practice gets us the corrupt 50 little fiefdoms of the ward system in Renn’s adopted city of Chicago.

Everybody who discusses governance is more or less advocating a solution to concentrated poverty. But, to quote the Chicago preacher and politician Jesse Jackson, where you sit determines where you stand. Chicago is rich: The level of enduring prosperity and philanthropic strength, coupled with never-ending immigration from every corner of the planet, and huge institutional strength, and depth and sophistication in ethnic communities—including the black community—make Chicago’s poverty problems seem manageable.

Back home in the rest of the Great Lakes, we don’t have much glitter to distract us from the concentrated poverty that seems omnipresent. Maybe that’s because poverty is spreading so rapidly here: The social workers who help the poor get Food Stamps enroll folks in East Aurora and Williamsville, not just on Grant Street and Jefferson Avenue. Food Stamps are only available to people who are at or slightly above the poverty level; nearly one-fifth of the households in Erie County qualify, up from one-seventh of them only a couple of years ago. Scholars like Henry Louis Taylor here have mined the Census data and demonstrated how 50 percent of the black households within the 40 square miles of Buffalo are poor; a little more digging shows that 30 percent of the whites in Buffalo are poor, too. As Buffalo State’s Dr. Wende Mix said last week at the Partnership for the Public Good forum, profiling the economic geography of the whole Buffalo metro region puts our problem in context: Poverty in our region is about our poorest women and children, who are concentrated in the urban core of a suburbanized metro that isn’t making room for them. And as UB’s Dr. Kate Foster said at that same forum, this metro overall has a problem, which is that the region as a whole has become a low-wage place.

We’re a poor Rust Belt metro with a poor core surrounded by low-wage suburbs, with a few rich enclaves populated by business folks who scream about taxes but who gladly pocket economic “development” subsidies. Our former landscape of general prosperity has become a scene of polarized incomes. And yet for some folks the Rust Belt still looks like the promised land.


Two Cleveland writers have laid out some compelling stories and statistics about a happy new reality—which is that there are many cases of immigrant success in cities where the great age of metal industrialism left the worst concentrations of poverty, derelict buildings, racial animosity and brownfields. Richard Herman and Robert Smith work hard to tell the story of the immigrant boys who created Google, but they spend most of their efforts following the stories of recent immigrants, several of them refugees from brutal politics, who are doing well in the Great Lakes region precisely because the barriers to starting anything one wants to start are lower here than elsewhere, simply because everything is cheaper here.

The immigrant phenomenon is real. The authors’ core assertion—which is that immigrants possess most of the magic ingredients that give them a leg up as entrepreneurs—gets nods from Sue McCartney, who directs the Small Business Development Center. She emphatically concurs that the alleged barriers to business—a big public sector, taxes and regulation—are irrelevant to startups. Well-educated English-speaking folks who arrive here from Africa, Europe, East and West Asia and the Americas regard Buffalo as the best place in the world to start a business. They don’t care about taxes. They regard the regulations and bureaucracy here as completely manageable. They are delighted not to have guns pointed at them, or shakedown artists showing up from government offices, or protection rackets hassling them.

Internal immigrants like the Rust Belt too. There is a little buzz happening about our broken towns. The idea of the Snow Belt as a destination for the creative and the adventurous got a nice boost a couple of years ago from New York magazine, which profiled some young hipsters who’d smartly slipped their New York City and Toronto confines and shuffled off to cheap, short-commute, liveable Buffalo. It wasn’t an Empire Zone, an IDA, a Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation corporate handout or loan that brought them here. It was the scent of opportunity.

But there’s the smell of scam in the air, too. Richard Florida, the famous proponent of the “creative class,” has been criticized for going to broken-down, small, out-of-the-way places like Elmira, New York and various towns in Ohio and Michigan, where, for a hefty fee, he provides an assessment of the upsides of coffee shops, gay dual-income-no-children couples, internet artists.

And the Census does not lie. There is virtually zero in-migration to Buffalo or any other Rust Belt metro. The Cleveland authors of Immigration Inc. are surely correct about the entrepreneurial characteristics that energetic immigrants bring. But are there ever going to be enough of them to create enough activity to reshape the economy and bust up concentrated poverty here?

Easy pickings

A slim European man in his early 30s recently found my office at the college where I teach. His English was quite good, especially compared to the nearly non-existent English of the Chinese folks up Elmwood Avenue in Tonawanda who will sell you a whole Peking duck for $18. The slim European is absolutely clear about why Buffalo looks so good to him: Compared to Long Island, a house in Buffalo costs nickels and dimes. And Buffalo is freedom itself compared to his home city, where you have to know somebody to get anything going.

Deep in the despair of Buffalo’s boarded-up, abandoned East Side, there are signs of life, as a multi-ethnic Muslim faith community settles into Sobieski Street in the shadow of St. Adalbert’s basilica. Vietnamese Buddhists now have a former fire hall on Fillmore Avenue near the Broadway Market. Religious activists who are also farmers in from the country have moved onto Wilson Street. All of them recognize the price advantage that abandonment has brought.

Renn of asks the question that brings the issues together: Are you, he wants to know, a producer or a consumer? Are you going to make things happen in the Rust Belt, or are you going to wait for the government to hand you your future?

I like that question, especially from apologists for sprawl like Renn. The answer is this: Of course the government is absolutely central to the future of the Rust Belt—but not in the way that government has been. Government investment in infrastructure created the industrial economy in the first place. A smart government could make immigration to the Rust Belt cities what the smart government in Canada made happen in Toronto, which is such a magnet for immigration that today, 49 percent of the population is foreign-born. It’s no accident that the economic region known as the Greater Toronto Area is governed as a whole as the Greater Toronto Area. It’s no accident that policy-makers in Hamilton clamor for more immigration, and that the smart governments there—whatever their other faults—see regional governance, attracting immigration, and preventing concentrations of poverty as explicitly linked policies.

Yes, we need immigrants. Yes, we need entrepreneurs. No, our taxes and public services are not burdensome or unduly costly. No, the old monolithic industrial structures of the past, like steel mills, nor the new monolithic structures of today, like banks, will not rejuvenate the Great Lakes metros.

Youngstown, Ohio was recently named the most promising place in America for startups by Entrepreneur magazine. Youngstown, Ohio, is the place that has become the signpost for the new way to manage urban decline—by accepting that some streets and neighborhoods should become, if not the Buffalo Commons of the Great Plains, then at least urban forests, or land-banks, ready for the next immigrants, whenever they might come, wherever they might come from.

Buffalo knows where its poverty is. We know where the vacant land is. We know what immigrants can do. What we don’t know is if our government will ever adjust its policies away from handouts to the already rich.

Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and currently visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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