The debate is often framed as between “people” (policies to help individuals affected by economic change) and “places” (policies aimed at communities that are languishing).
“I don’t think we can ignore the role of place in public policy any longer and just allocate investments to people,” said Ross DeVol, president of Heartland Forward, a think tank based in Bentonville, Ark. “Because that creates a hollowing out in places that affects the entire country negatively.
“We can’t as a nation continue to advance our competitive position by concentrating more knowledge-based industries and research just on the coasts,” Mr. DeVol added, saying this results in soaring real estate prices in those coastal markets, as well as underused physical infrastructure and a lack of opportunity in the places left behind.
Federal policy in recent decades has arguably reinforced the disparity.
The federal government itself is based in one of the high-growth coastal metropolises. Nearly half of federal research and development spending in 2018 went to five states — California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Virginia — and Washington, D.C., according to analysis of federal data by Brookings.
The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan incorporates ideas from the bipartisan “Endless Frontier Act,” which, among other things, seeks to spend billions to create regional innovation hubs. The idea is to invest in cutting-edge research with potential for commercial spinoffs, worker training and other steps to create the kinds of virtuous cycles of innovation and jobs that already occur in places like Boston.
That could be a boon to places like Lincoln, Neb.
Its population has grown slowly but steadily in recent years; investments in things like high-speed internet have helped it avoid the cycle of decline affecting many other smaller cities in the Midwest. It is home to the University of Nebraska, which has strong programs in computer science and engineering, and it has a vibrant agribusiness sector.