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‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author J.D. Vance, economic development experts discuss the heartland

CLEVELAND — It was all about middle America at a City Club of Cleveland forum entitled, “The New American Heartland,” held at the Global Center for Health Innovation.

The big draw was author J.D. Vance, whose book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” is in its 41st week on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Vance delivered a keynote address and was then followed by Michael Lind, co-founder of New America, who talked about an optimistic report he helped write called, “The New American Heartland: Renewing the Middle Class by Revitalizing Middle America.”

The “New American Heartland,” as defined in the report, extends from the Great Lakes and the upper Great Plains to the Gulf of Mexico, and is viewed by the report authors as the region that will drive the nation’s economy going forward.

The forum concluded with a panel discussion by economic development experts from around the country.

Watch the event:

Here are several takeaways from the event.

1. Vance, 32, who grew up in Middletown, Ohio, said the “hillbilly” culture he writes about in his book traps children on the bottom rung of society. He got out, however, spending time in the Marine Corps before graduating from Ohio State University and Yale Law School. Vance was living in the San Francisco area where he worked for a venture capital firm, but has since returned to Ohio.

2. A conservative, Vance said a lack of economic opportunity is part of the problem in Appalachia, but so is separation from the many civic and religious organizations that help provide a nurturing base. He also said families like his frequently experience trauma that stays with a person for a long time.

3. Vance said he recently started a non-profit organization, to help battle the opioid crisis that has ravaged the state and that he also has been working with entrepreneur Steve Case on the Rise of the Rest initiative with the goal of getting venture capital into areas like Cleveland.

4. He said the startup economy needs to take hold in heartland industries such as biotechnology, transportation and logistics to help provide good jobs that will provide a paycheck and return dignity to workers.

5. He said he worries about kids that go off to college and lose their cultural and geographic connection to the place where they grew up.

6. One of the most gratifying reactions to “Hillbilly Elegy,” he said, has been from people who grew up poor and black in the city and said, “This is my story, too.”

7. Lind said that goal of “The New American Heartland” report was to challenge that idea that middle America is a “derelict wasteland” where people leave to write apps in San Francisco and take financing jobs on Wall Street.

8. While the digital economy has captured the low-hanging fruit, in areas such as phones, personal computers and automated tellers, Lind said, it’s time to digitize “old laggard industries” such as agriculture, manufacturing, trucking and retail. “We’re looking at a fascinating new world and this is going to be the epicenter of it,” he said, speaking of the heartland

9. Panel moderator Joel Kotkin, executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, which produced “The New American Heartland,” asked panel members to name the biggest obstacle to the heartland’s comeback.

“I think it’s the term Rust Belt,” said Rick Platt, president and CEO of the Heath-Newark-Licking County Port Authority.

10. Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., said that New Orleans was a mess before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But since then it has been one of the fastest growing economies in the country thanks to investment and better management, along with the “psycho-social impact of saying we can do better,” he said. That and the New Orleans Saints winning a Super Bowl.

11. Others on the panel included India Pierce Lee; chair of the visiting committee, Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs; Aaron M. Renn, senior fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research; Pete Saunders; urban affairs contributor, Forbes; and Mark Schill, vice president of research, Praxis Strategy Group.

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Photo credit: Cole Goldberg via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 license.