Why you should care
Because immigrants are reversing decades of population decline in the Rust Belt.
After traveling the entire country last year, the road that still haunts me the most is South Dixie Street in Kettering, Ohio, a suburb in the Dayton metropolitan area. There, an addiction recovery center stands two doors from a funeral home and just a few blocks from a pharmacy that advertises “prescriptions” in big, neon letters. If you’ve heard at all about Dayton recently, it’s probably been about the opioid epidemic, and its challenges — the tired eyes of tired families, and the victims of overdoses whose bodies fill morgues from floor to ceiling.
But perhaps it’s time to start talking about a different road in Dayton. Such as Troy Street, which winds through the neighborhood of Old North Dayton, where one of the largest Ahiska Turkish populations in the nation has steadily rebuilt deteriorating houses and begun new businesses. Hundreds of refugees from Africa, including Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have found a home up North Main Street, and a Latino community is growing along East 3rd Street. Although relatively small, the foreign-born population is expanding at rates higher than the rest of the country, with nearly 30,000 immigrants in the region paying a quarter-billion dollars in taxes and boasting a spending power around $680 million as of 2014.
Dayton experienced the eighth-most-inclusive economic growth from 2011 to 2016, thanks in part to the economic vigor of its immigrant community.
Despite losing native-born (often white) citizens — some from early death, most from emigration in equal parts due to urban flight and a decline in manufacturing jobs — the Dayton population has actually steadied since the Great Recession. Local leaders say it’s thanks to the influx of immigrants. And their newest neighbors have helped in other ways too, according to a Metro Monitor report from the Brookings Institution released in February.
To be sure, the so-called Gem City has serious flaws. Growth in Dayton is 90th out of America’s 100 largest metro areas, and prosperity is 80th on that list (although, to be fair, with only around 150,000 residents, it’s one of the smaller fries). “It’s like a lot of other places in Ohio and the broader Midwest that had a terrible decade even before the Great Recession, and then got slammed particularly with the auto collapse,” says Alan Berube, a Brookings senior fellow and deputy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program.
However, Dayton shines when it comes to “inclusive growth,” a number that tries to measure true economic success and the way it trickles down to lower-income brackets, as opposed to profits and stock values that tend to aid only the highest earners. “This has been the challenge of the Midwest, where it’s about one big manufacturing company coming down to be the savior of a community,” says Dayton mayor Nan Whaley. “That’s not how an economy grows anymore. You have to have diversity and really invest in small ideas that can become really big ideas.”
Foreign-born adults in Dayton have a bachelor’s degree or higher, far outpacing the local population.
Dayton’s median wage is 32nd and has grown by 7.6 percent from 2011 to 2016, while relative poverty has decreased by 12.9 percent, the fifth-largest drop in the nation, according to the Brookings report. “What we saw,” Berube says, “is this rebound from a pretty deep abyss,” and some of that growth will naturally slow, as Dayton’s economy stabilizes and it becomes harder to maintain gains. “We’re really excited to be growing, even at a smaller rate,” Whaley adds. Inclusive growth doesn’t look specifically at immigrants or race; however, because it deals with poorer communities, “it’s hard for these places to make progress on inclusive growth unless racial and ethnic minorities are getting some of the benefits,” Berube says.
And so Dayton’s score has been buoyed in part by that burgeoning immigrant community, which as of 2014 included nearly a thousand entrepreneurs — a number that’s probably much higher today, according to Monica Harris, the coordinator for Welcome Dayton, the city’s initiative to enact immigrant-friendly policies. “A lot of people think there are a lot of low-skilled immigrants who suck up our resources,” Harris says, but nearly 43 percent of those foreign-born adults in Dayton have a bachelor’s degree or higher, far outpacing the local population. “Immigrants and refugees helped reverse some of the population decline,” she says. And now they’ve set their sights on the bigger pie: tackling Dayton’s economic malaise.