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Longworth proposes solutions to Midwest's decline

Barry McNamara
Richard C. Longworth listens to a question from a Monmouth College student during a Skype session with political science lecturer Robin Johnson’s Politics and Government in the Midwest class on May 7.
Richard C. Longworth, a senior fellow for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told students at Monmouth College that the Midwest has been in decline for 30-40 years, and that it can only come back if states learn to work together as a region.

Longworth spoke via Skype to the class, which is using his book, “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism,” as a textbook.

Longworth joins an impressive list of guests in lecturer Robin Johnson’s classroom this semester. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D.Ill.) and Iowa governor Terry Branstad have also spoken to Johnson’s Politics and Government in the Midwest class, a Citizenship course which Longworth helped Johnson design.

“There’s entirely too much politics and government in the Midwest, so you’ve got a lot to talk about,” quipped Longworth in his opening remarks to the class.

“He said some interesting and provocative things and gave a great endorsement to Monmouth,” said Johnson, who was referring to Longworth’s praise of Monmouth as an institution that is not only teaching about its state, but about its region. The college began doing so in earnest in 2009, when Longworth was on hand to help kick off Monmouth’s “Midwest Matters” initiative.

“I wish there were more colleges like Monmouth and more professors like Robin Johnson and more students like you discussing this important topic,” Longworth told the class.

To illustrate his point about states working together, Longworth pointed to the southern end of Lake Michigan.

“The area from Milwaukee, Wis., to Grand Rapids, Mich., is divided by three state lines,” he said. “We end up being so much less than the sum of our parts.”

Longworth cited that lack of unified effort when replying to a question from biochemistry major Charrina Crawford of Chicago about needing to look outside the region for bio-related jobs.

“Individual states have their own bio plans,” he said. “If we took those resources and merged them together, we’d really have something. We could pool financial resources, which would promote venture capital, helping to get a cluster of big companies started. But right now, you’re right, it makes more sense to go to a place like San Diego, where there are so many bio jobs. Even if your company goes under, you can just walk down the block and find another company. We’ve got a long way to go before we can attract bio employees and keep them here.”

Longworth understands that the type of cooperation he’s promoting won’t come easily.

“Politically, this is really tough. Gov. Branstad realizes what is happening in the Midwest and wants to improve it, but he was elected to serve a specific area, so he’s responsible for Iowa first. What needs to happen is an end run around the states, if you can. Get cities working together, get companies working together. We’re seeing some of this with the Intellectual Property Management Institute, a 50-county economic development initiative which cuts across Iowa and Illinois from Waterloo to Decatur. Monmouth is included in that.”

Longworth wrote “Caught in the Middle” in 2008. He said he is frequently asked if another book is in the works.

“I tell them, ‘Too much of what I wrote in 2008 is still true.’ All the issues still remain. When the book came out, it was just before the recession, but the Midwest had been in a recession for 20-30 years. The rest of the country finally caught up. … What has changed is that there is a terrific conversation going on. I didn’t say anything in the book that people didn’t already know. I just said out loud what they were thinking. But now we’ve got people talking about solutions.”

With commencement right around the corner, it was appropriate that Longworth provided some advice for graduating seniors on how to prosper in this age of globalization.

“Try to get overseas experience,” he said. “That will help you find out how the rest of the world works. What are they doing better than we’re doing here? It’s your life, and this is your challenge for the next 40-50 years. Good luck.”