Immigration is bringing new life to the Heartland — and Des Moines leads the way

May 27, 2021

Joel Kotkin

Washington Fellow

Places like Des Moines are challenging national media portrayals of the Heartland as stagnant or in decline.

Des Moines, like many cities throughout the Heartland, is undergoing a demographic transformation. One could be forgiven for missing it. After all, the narrative surrounding the Heartland in the national media frames states like Iowa as demographically stagnant flyover country, at best, and stubborn pockets of intolerance, at worst.

It’s time for that narrative to change. Des Moines is chief among a growing number of Heartland cities that are becoming vibrant hubs for immigration, as our think tank, Heartland Forward, finds in its latest report. Over the last decade, Des Moines has attracted more immigrants than any other Heartland city, increasing its foreign-born population by nearly 50% — the second-highest rate in the nation. In light of the country’s looming demographic challenges underscored by the 2020 Census, Des Moines and its counterparts should continue to embrace immigration as a driver of economic dynamism.

This trend is a long time in the making. During the 20th century, many Heartland states lagged the rest of the country in population growth. Economic stagnation followed as residents left and few newcomers arrived to replace them, with most immigrants settling in large coastal cities.

Now, Heartland metropolitans are outcompeting major coastal cities for foreign-born residents. The Heartland’s share of the foreign-born population in the U.S. rose from 23.5% in 2010 to 31.1% in 2019. Meanwhile, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles have seen their share drop — outpaced by Heartland cities like Houston; Dallas-Fort Worth; Nashville; Des Moines; Louisville, Kentucky; and Columbus, Ohio. Heartland cities also lead the way in refugee resettlement per capita; Nebraska and North Dakota top the national list, resettling refugees at three times the national rate.

The surge in immigration comes at a critical time for the Heartland — and America. Labor shortages increasingly challenge the industries on which the Heartland relies, especially manufacturing. And a declining U.S. birth rate, driven to a 35-year low in part by the pandemic, threatens to further reduce the working-age population and exacerbate labor shortages in the decades to come. That would mean higher prices for everyday goods and declining revenues for states and municipalities.

Immigration offers a lifeline with which the Heartland can avert these problems. Already, immigrants comprise half of the manufacturing workforce in Texas and an outsize share of the industrial labor pool in Nebraska and Illinois. In cities with declining populations like Toledo, Ohio, they’re the only new source of manufacturing labor. Rather than compete with native-born workers for jobs, immigrants fill gaps that employers struggle to fill otherwise. Further, while many immigrants are attracted to the Heartland’s well-paying blue-collar jobs, increasingly the immigrants relocating to Heartland communities are also highly skilled and highly educated, helping spur innovation.

In cities throughout the Heartland, immigration is the primary force preventing population decline and the economic stagnation that follows. It has certainly been central to Des Moines’ impressive economic trajectory. Des Moines’ population has grown 15.3% since 2010, more than double the rate for the U.S. overall and faster than any other city in Iowa. The area has also weathered the pandemic better than other metropolitan areas, in part due to its dynamic manufacturing sector — an industry for which immigrant labor is essential. Moreover, refugee- and immigrant-owned businesses in central Iowa contribute $4.1 billion to the state economy and pay $349 million in state and local taxes annually.

Heartland cities and towns should take pride in their newfound status as the premier destinations for newcomers from abroad. Places like Des Moines are challenging national media portrayals of the Heartland as stagnant or in decline. With demographic challenges on the horizon, leaders throughout Iowa should follow Des Moines’ example and embrace immigration as a strategy for long-term prosperity.

Originally published by Des Moines News.