Make Ohio Great Again?

The state’s next governor faces an uphill climb to counteract some serious foundational problems.

Illustration by Chris Madden

Next month Ohio will choose a new governor, either Democrat Richard Cordray or Republican Mike DeWine. The candidates can point to some big differences on big issues, and they’re locked in a close race. The election, says Kyle Kondik, author of a book on Ohio politics, “seems like a true toss-up.” But here’s the thing: Ohio’s core problems loom larger than any one office or election. No matter who moves into the governor’s mansion, he and his administration need to be ready to think really, really big—because right now statewide trends are really, really bad.

Ohio has a proud history, pumping out eight presidents and solidifying its role as the one state that sums up the variety and vitality of American life. When Kondik needed a title for his Ohio book, he chose The Bellwether.

Still, Buckeyes are likely feeling less pride with each passing year. From 2000 to 2016, Ohio’s median household income plummeted, from 19th best down to 35th. Since the recession ended in 2009, Ohio has lagged behind the rest of the country in creating new jobs—and the jobs it has created haven’t paid as well. “The Buckeye State,” writes Noah Smith, a columnist at Bloomberg, is “suffering a long, grinding slide into the lower ranks of U.S. states.”

Both Cordray and DeWine served in Ohio government during this period, so they know the causes behind that slide. The state’s residents are getting older and unhealthier. Important industries like manufacturing and farming suffer from automation and outsourcing. Opioids have swept in like a prescription-driven plague.

The question is whether either candidate has solutions. Economists point to several reasons why certain states have thrived. You could travel back in time and draw your state lines around a huge cache of natural resources (good thinking, North Dakota!) or, more realistically, you could focus on education and immigration, ideally concentrating them in your largest cities. The country’s most successful economic hot spots today—think New York City, Austin, even Raleigh, North Carolina—focus less on making stuff than on making ideas, and to make ideas you need lots of talent, diversity, and energy, with all of it easily linked to the global economy.

Unfortunately, Ohio is struggling in this area as well. Immigration was once a key part of that proud history: Back in 1910, nearly 13 percent of Ohio residents were foreign born. Today, the national average for foreign-born residents remains about the same, at 13.6 percent, but Ohio’s share has collapsed to 4.4 percent, fifth lowest in the U.S. And Ohio cities aren’t picking up the slack. Here’s how we rank in foreign-born population among America’s 40 largest metros: 31st (Columbus), 36th (Cleveland), and 38th (Cincinnati).

Education is hardly better. Ohio ranks 37th among U.S. states in residents with a college degree—and that ranking would be even worse without the immigrants we do have. While 27 percent of native-born Buckeyes have a degree, 42 percent of foreign-born residents do. That 15 percent gap is the biggest in the country and underlines how interrelated education, immigration, and economics can be.

Tackling these kinds of foundational problems should be the next governor’s top job. There will be other important tasks, of course, and the two candidates offer radically different approaches to solving each of them. No one should assume that Cordray and DeWine are the same—after all, one represents a party that, lately at least, attacks immigration and education in equal measure.

But let’s hope that each potential governor is thinking on a scale as big as the problems themselves. Tweaks can certainly help. Start by restoring state funding for higher education to pre-recession levels. Invest in and coordinate with the state’s best research universities: Case Western, Ohio State, and the University of Cincinnati. Fix the shameful fact that Ohio ranks dead last in the Midwest in supplying need-based college financial aid.
Still, the most important step is realizing just what Ohio is up against. When Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance way back in 1787, it didn’t just carve the Midwest into Ohio and her sister territories—it made education and inclusion a central part of their identities.

The Ordinance was a federal bill, of course, but it can still provide a model of ambition and moral purpose. It can remind us how big the challenges are and how big the solutions need to be. And if we fail? Forget making Ohio great again. We’ll simply continue managing Ohio’s decline.

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