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Midwest Economic Expert Calls Economic Development In Industrial Communities 'An Urgent Job'

Multi-ethnic team of workers wearing overalls and protective helmets using lathe in order to machine workpiece, interior of spacious production department on background
With many Midwest industrial communities struggling as jobs disappear, economic expert John Austin says leaders need to be focused on turning new automation and other technology into opportunities for job growth.

A summit between leaders from the United States, Canada and several European nations this week is looking at ways to revitalize economically depressed areas. The conference includes regional and international experts and elected officials — including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

John Austin is the director of the Michigan Economic Center and helped organize the event. He’s written about how the economy in the Midwest has changed over the last few decades and how that change influences the way swing states like Wisconsin vote. He says that Donald Trump’s presidential victory five years ago in the Midwest is just one example of a political shift brought on by economic disparities.

“You’re playing against the understandable anxieties and fears of people whose life isn’t, maybe, and their community, not what it used to be and are anxious about big changes in society,” he says.

He says that leads people to support politicians like Trump, Maren La Pen in France, or campaigns like Brexit in the United Kingdom, who blame immigrants and the increasingly interconnected nature of the global economy for lost jobs. According to Austin, it doesn’t just lead to support on the right but on the left for candidates like Bernie Sanders and policies like Medicare for All which seek to distribute wealth to poorer individuals as the solution to economic anxiety.

The biggest difference between the right-wing and left-wing solutions to these worries, says Austin, is the fear that right-wing politicians attempt to stoke. He says increasing economic development is one way to counteract the fear-based politics that gain popularity.

“It’s so important that we accelerate economic development for people that are feeling left behind and communities that are being left behind by big forces of global change. Because when we do see success and older industrial communities have turned the corner, folks, they don’t react with the same way. They’re a little more optimistic,” he says.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only sped up factors like automation that are changing what Wisconsin’s economy looks like and Austin says that means leaders need to be focused on how new technology can be used to create new jobs.

“It’s an urgent job for all of us because if we don’t accelerate economic change, and opportunity for a good life and a good job,” he says. “We’re going to keep seeing the responsiveness to the kind of dangerous right-wing populism that is, again, undermining and eating out our democracies.”

From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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