Midwest Economy

It’s Labor Day, and my son would love to be part of the labor force.  Having just completed a master’s degree in classical studies, Garth is looking for employment while discerning direction in his career.  After scouring the paper and craigslist.com for just about anything, Garth has come to the same conclusion the rest of us did a long time ago: the economy in West Michigan is struggling.  Michigan has had the highest average annual unemployment rate in the country since 2006.

Our economic woes mirror those of the entire Midwest.  Over the weekend, I finished a fascinating, must-read book, Caught in the Middle; America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, by Richard C. Longworth.  The book was highlighted by Bishop John Hopkins in his Episcopal Address at our North Central Jurisdictional Conference in July.  Longworth claims that the Midwest was utterly unprepared for the impact of globalism on our world.  He writes, “The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci described the crisis of an era when ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born.’  The Midwestern crisis is just the opposite.  The future is already here, but the past refuses to die.  The good news is that globalization is new and can be shaped.  The bad news is that the Midwest is already behind.”

The Midwest was settled in the 19th century by immigrants from northern Europe, who have always been hardworking, solid, family-oriented, religious, and a bit resistant to change.  By the early 20th century, towns and cities were flourishing because of our leadership in manufacturing and the automotive industry.  In 1900, half of everything made in America was manufactured in the Midwest. 

My grandparents’ and parents’ generations were assured of relative prosperity without the need for an education.  Blue collar workers enjoyed high wages and excellent benefits, were able to send their children to college and even had a cottage at the lake.  When the rest of the world began to catch up with us, however, we were unprepared.  The auto industry was more concerned about profits than making necessary changes, and factories realized too late that they could not compete with the economic emergence of China and Third World countries.  The result?  Tens of thousands of jobs have been outsourced, wages and benefits for remaining workers have been drastically cut, and entire factories have closed.  There are simply no longer enough jobs. 

Farming has been transformed as well.  The day of the generalist farmer is long gone.  To survive, Midwest farms have to be high tech, which leaves only small niche farmers and mega-farms, who are beholden to huge agribusiness corporations that control their pricing and their destiny.  The result?  Small towns located in farming areas die if they are not close to a large town or city because people move where the jobs are.  Longworth writes, “Rural America has too many strikes against it.  It’s too small, remote, poor, uneducated, uncreative – too nonmetro.  In a world of the Next New Thing, devotion to biblical inerrancy and traditional values doesn’t cut it.  The global world is diverse, open, multinational, with no loyalty to place or places.” 

I was most discouraged by Longworth’s assessment of education in the Midwest, which was confirmed by an article in Saturday’s Grand Rapids Press, “Report Shows Link Between Economy, Education.”  Our world has been moving toward a knowledge economy for many years, but Michigan is lagging far behind.  The jobless rate in Michigan in July was 8.5%, the highest since 1992.  Jobless rates are highest for the uneducated, and income levels are much lower for those without college degrees.  The high school dropout rate in Michigan was 15% in 2007, and only 26% of adults in Michigan have a bachelor’s degree. 

According to a recent poll sponsored by the Detroit News, just 27% of parents in Michigan believe that a good education is “essential for getting ahead in life.”  By a 2 to 1 margin, parents felt it was more important for a child to be happy than to have a good education.  Many people in Michigan still have the attitude that what was good enough for our parents is good enough for us.  In fact, people with only a high school education can no longer lead the comfortable, middle class life of their parents and grandparents. 

Our education must change.  Communities must create a climate where education is valued, and high schools must do a better job of encouraging and preparing young people for college.  As state funding for universities continues to decrease and tuition increases, community colleges will need to step up to the plate in providing the foundational skills needed to excel in a global world.    

Most important, we must lead the way in lifting up the critical importance of education for our children, especially children in the decaying areas of our inner cities.  In urban neighborhoods where educated whites and African Americans have moved out, impoverished African American residents are left behind, global have-nots, losing their role models as well as their hope and perpetuating generational poverty.

What is the role of the church in the changing face of the Midwest?  Although churches that are not viable occasionally close their doors, the church continues to be one of the most stable organizations and greatest source of hope for our state.  As you consider God’s call to be the hands, feet, head and heart of Christ, I invite you and your congregations to consider these questions.

  • Are you learning about how globalism affects the area where you are located and the people to whom reach out?
  • Do you recognize in yourselves that Midwest desire for security and reluctance to risk and change?  Does the past refuse to die in your church?
  • What can you do to overcome isolationism and collaborate with business, schools, government and other churches?
  • Have you begun to reinvent yourselves and do a new thing in your congregation, not only to survive, but to thrive?
  • Is your church a center of life-long learning?  How do you encourage your children and youth to continue their education?
  • How are you connecting with different ethnic groups together in your community?
  • How can your congregation care for and empower those who have been left behind in this age of globalism?

On this Labor Day, as our children prepare to go back to school tomorrow, my prayer is that some day every person in the Midwest and around the world will have a job that is fulfilling, challenging, and provides the basic necessities of a full and rich life.

Together, we can create that future!

Blessings, Laurie

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