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Countering the geography of discontent: Strategies for left-behind places

The 2016 election revealed a dramatic gap between two Americas—one based in large, diverse, thriving metropolitan regions; the other found in more homogeneous small towns and rural areas struggling under the weight of economic stagnation and social decline. This gap between two American geographies came as a shock to many observers. While it is true that some members of the media and policy analysts had grown disconnected from a significant portion of the country, something else had happened, too: the nation’s economic trends had changed. For much of the 20th century, reality conformed to economists’ predictions that market forces would gradually diminish job, wage, investment, and business formation disparities between more and less developed regions. As recently as 1980, the wage gap between regions was shrinking while growth in rural areas and small towns led the country from recession to recovery in the 1990s. Recent decades, however, have witnessed a massive shift in the relationship between the nation’s biggest, most prosperous metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. Globalization has weakened the supply chains that once connected these regions. The rise of the information economy has boosted the returns to urban skills and diminished the importance of the resources and manual labor that non-metropolitan areas provided during the heyday of the manufacturing economy.1 And for that matter, high-tech manufacturers that still depend on supply chains to produce physical goods—and might once have sourced from the American “heartland”—have instead moved production and assembly functions overseas.