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Midwestern swing states are critical for winning the presidency this year, but despite lingering popular misconceptions the Midwest is no longer just a “Rust Belt,” a new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggests. Instead, today there are two Midwests, one of cities that look nothing like the “Rust Belt” of old and are thriving, alongside communities still struggling to find their place in today’s economy.

“Many Midwestern communities have found the right strategies to turn the economic corner and as a result, their residents are thriving anew,” report author and Council nonresident fellow John Austin said. “But in communities still struggling to move forward, residents are anxious about the future and their economic nostalgia makes them ready to blame immigrants or “others” for their struggles.”

The new report, “A Vital Midwest: The Path to a New Prosperity,” aims to accelerate and replicate the Midwest’s economic transformation by identifying the paths communities have taken to thrive in a new economic era. 

“Big, bold actions are needed to leverage the Midwest’s unique strengths while treating its unique deficits in order to accelerate growth and expand economic opportunity to reach more people and places in the region,” Austin said.

Highlights from the report are included below. For more findings, download the full report

Successful communities include:

  • Columbus, IN; Midland, MI; and Rochester, MN thrive as their anchor employers stay on the cutting edge of innovation.
  • Rockford, Il, and Troy, MI succeed by engaging economically and socially with the world and welcoming immigrant talent and new populations.
  • Grand Rapids, MI, and Milwaukee are reinvigorating their communities and economies by building a foundation in environmental sustainability and smart-water technologies.
  • Kalamazoo, MI, and Georgetown, KY succeed by equipping workers equipped with the skills needed to compete in a changing economy.
  • Minneapolis-Saint Paul is accelerating growth by forging more creative, inclusive communities.

For Midwestern communities that remain stuck in the industrial past, the way forward requires state and local partnerships and federal policies that foster more inclusive economic opportunities.

Recommendations detailed in the report include: 

  • Driving innovation in the growth sectors of tomorrow
  • Forging inclusive growth
  • Building and investing in talent
  • Enhancing global engagement
  • Remaking infrastructure 
  • Harnessing place-based assets