The Heartland and the Delta

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 308 views 

Now we’re not just located in the Delta, but we’re also in the Heartland.

Congress in 2000 created the Delta Regional Authority, the agency whose mission is to help improve the lives of the 10 million people who reside in 252 counties and parishes in eight states along both sides of the Mississippi River. Perhaps it wasn’t officially recognized as “The Delta,” but we’ve always known where we lived and worked, and known that generally, we don’t make as much money or have as many opportunities as some of the other places in these United States.

The DRA tries to make life better by putting federal money into efforts to improve transportation and basic public infrastructure and to strengthen the workforce development system and local business environments. The DRA tries to grow local and regional leadership, increase access to quality healthcare, and boost opportunities for entrepreneurs to secure affordable capital.

For 2018, DRA approved 18 projects for investment of $3 million in federal dollars, $4.8 million in public investment and $11 million in private investment resulting in job creation and workforce education in the project areas.

Late last month, a Walton family-backed research institute, Heartland Forward, opened its doors with the mission of spurring economic growth in 20 states in the central U.S., which has been slower to recover from the last recession than other parts of the country. Arkansas and its neighbors Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas are included in the Heartland designation. This Heartland region includes not just Delta counties but entire states in the middle of the country.

Economist Ross DeVol came over from the Walton Family Foundation to serve as the first executive director of Heartland Forward. When announcing the opening of the institute, DeVol said, “For too long, Heartland communities and economies have been an afterthought in the national policy discussion. The Heartland faces more economic challenges than the rest of the country, but it also holds immense potential.”

The Heartland is perhaps not an afterthought but a neverthought (if that’s a word) by some folks who make their homes and their livelihoods on the East or West coasts of this great nation. Indeed, if we’re thought of at all in the great metropolitan areas, we are sometimes lumped together under that derisive term “flyover land,” meaning a vast wasteland that one should view only from 30,000 feet through the window of a jet going from one coast to another.

While there are other economic think tanks in some states and metropolitan areas in the middle of the country, DeVol said Heartland Forward is “the only ‘think and do’ tank dedicated specifically to economic renewal in this region.” The Walton Foundation said in February that the Walton Fellows resident research program would move to the Heartland Forward research organization to “improve economic performance in the center of the United States by advocating fact-based solutions to foster job creation, knowledge-based and inclusion growth, and improved health status.”

DeVol has called the research a means to an end. He said the institute will be independent and non-partisan and will reach out to policymakers and officials to present its research and its recommended solutions.

In the short term, Heartland Forward plans to release reports on some of its research projects, including a report on Millennials moving back to the heartland to be released in about a month. In January or February, DeVol said the institute will release a detailed study of how startups are affecting heartland economies.

Heartland Forward in April will host the second Heartland Summit in Bentonville and will “showcase the exciting innovation happening between the coasts, spark frank conversations about the challenges the region is facing, and build networks to sustain economic growth and power problem solving across the country.”

The first Heartland Summit, held in October 2018, attracted about 350 investors and business leaders. The accompanying State of the Heartland Factbook 2018 is chock-full of data and information about economic outcomes and drivers of strong outcomes in the overall region and the document allows the engaged reader to pull information about his own state and metropolitan area.

One point the factbook makes is that the region is hard to define, by those of us who work and live here and by the rest of the country. “The national debate purveys conflicting, distorted images that often portray the region either as a vast ‘flyover’ interior where jobs have disappeared and anger is pervasive, or else as an idyllic expanse of wheat fields, reviving factories, and mid-sized cities filled with startups.”

The report’s executive summary provides three overall takeaways from its analysis of the region.

First, the economy of the heartland is doing better than it is sometimes portrayed, and second that the heartland is not “monolithic,” that is, the economy varies widely from place to place.

The third big-picture takeaway, however, may be the one with which many of us are already familiar: “Serious deficits in the region’s human capital and innovation capacity pose the most serious challenges to improving future prosperity … Slow population growth — including among prized young workers — limits the region’s overall growth prospects.”

In addition, the report notes that the region’s percentage of workers with college degrees is lower than in other regions making the heartland unprepared for an increasingly digitized workforce. And the reports said obesity and opioid abuse are “substantial drags on productivity and output.” These are problems with which Delta leaders have been wrestling for years.

I’m ready for Heartland Forward to provide the research and recommendations to help us solve them.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. The opinions expressed are those of the author.