Seven decades ago, a plan to rebuild fragile, wounded countries swept across Western Europe. That idea should serve as a blueprint for American towns and cities and regions left behind today, argues Michael Cooper.
Introduction by Ben Speggen
George C. Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. The storied soldier and statesman born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a small city founded on the same day the Declaration of Independence was adopted and nearly 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, won that honor for the plan bearing his name that aimed to rebuild a fragile Western Europe following World War II.
More than seven decades later, the call for a Marshall Plan is being renewed – this time for the United States. But such a call is not new.
Journalist, attorney, and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina native Michael Cooper reflects on past calls for a Marshall Plan for America, what we stand to learn from the efforts in Europe that began in 1948, and makes a case for why a call for a domestic Marshall should be reintroduced today. Towns and cities left behind before cannot stand to be left behind again, Cooper argues. A U.S. Marshall Plan could ensure they’re not.
Here he is in his own words:
BY: Michael Cooper
As we focus our attention on recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to remember that some places never fully recovered from other recent crises. For many, the Great Recession never led to a Great Recovery. Instead, it led to regional inequality. It led to jobs consolidating in major cities and a sorting of Americans based on income, culture, and education-level.
That wasn’t good for the economy and that can’t be good for our democracy.
There’s a growing divide in America now that’s all about assets and resources, or lack thereof. John Halpin, a senior fellow and politics and elections co-director at the Center for American Progress, wrote in a post for the Substack he co-edits:
The places that are thriving in America today have common attributes: lots of good paying jobs, effective schools and colleges, top-notch infrastructure, green spaces, safe streets and neighborhoods, and other cultural amenities.
The places that are doing less well, or are outright distressed economically, often lack one or more so-called “anchor institutions”—private companies, colleges and universities, hospitals, military bases, or government agencies, etc.—that provide good jobs and positive spillover effects for all people who live there, and particularly for those starting out with fewer economic opportunities.
That’s what needs to be addressed now: places that were left behind in recent decades that are at risk of being left further behind today. Places like Flint, Ferguson, Youngstown, coal communities in West Virginia, textile towns, Native American reservations, the Mississippi Delta, ZIP codes with generational poverty – places on the losing end of social and economic change, and places historically disadvantaged.
Those places face challenges, yes. But they’re also full of possibilities. They’re full of everyday people converting empty storefronts into breweries and old factories into condominiums.
They’re full of economic development directors and community college presidents providing the local workforce with new skills, students and retired volunteers reviving civic life, and DIY entrepreneurs reinventing themselves and the local economy.
The stories in Our Towns, in the HBO documentary that followed, and now at the Our Towns Civic Foundation are examples for how to rebuild America from the bottom up. There are plenty of ideas they can use from think tanks and organizations like Strong Towns, and the Congress for New Urbanism.
But many towns lack the resources and the capital to support their ideas. That’s why we need a new program of domestic investment, one that’s tailored to forgotten places and neglected people.
That’s why we need to renew the calls for a Marshall Plan for America.
The original Marshall Plan was an aid package for post-war Europe. Europe needed it. According to The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War by Benn Steil, in the aftermath of the Second World War, “Canals were blocked, rivers frozen, bridges fallen, roads cratered, rail lines mangled, factories gutted.” That meant “widespread hunger, malnutrition, and death.”
From 1948 to 1952 the United States provided 16 countries in Europe with $13.2 billion in aid in the form of grants, loans, and commodity assistance – about $115 billion in today’s dollars. Even as a percentage of GDP, in Steil’s estimate, it’s $800 billion over the four-year period.
Considering the amount of money America has spent on COVID relief, it didn’t cost a ton to rescue western Europe’s economy. According to Steil, the Marshall Plan funds themselves were a “pump primer” meant to restore confidence. Europe was in trouble and America sent a message: We are with you.
Imagine such a message here at home today. Imagine America focusing on the places that need the most attention, on the people who want another shot at the American Dream – or who never had one to begin with.
This idea of a place-based recovery isn’t new. Nor is calling it a “Marshall Plan.”
On Nov. 22, 2020, the mayors of Pittsburgh; Youngstown, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati; Huntington, West Virginia; Morganton, West Virginia; and Louisville coauthored a Washington-Post op-ed calling for a Marshall Plan for Middle America:
Like postwar Europe, Middle America faces similar issues of decline, a shared crisis of aging infrastructure, obsolescence of business and government institutions, and the need for upskilling and reskilling the workforce.
Virtually no major federal attention has been given to the greater Ohio River Valley since the adoption of the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965. A new regional and federal collaboration can rebuild and reposition these regions to be economically competitive domestically and globally. Absent such a partnership, it is certain that difficult times will continue and the opportunity will be lost.
The mayors called for new investments to transition their areas to a clean energy economy that will help “create over 400,000 jobs across the region.” That op-ed came out during a presidential transition. Since then, COVID relief has been a main priority, Mayor Bill Peduto lost his reelection bid in Pittsburgh, and Mayor Nan Whaley in Dayton is running for governor. Yes, things have changed and are changing, but two years later the message is still timely.
It remains as relevant now as it was in 2017 when the Center for American Progress released their own version of a domestic agenda, “Toward a Marshall Plan for America: Rebuilding Our Towns, Cities, and the Middle Class”:
Amidst overall economic growth, urban centers, small towns and rural areas, and regions facing deindustrialization have suffered decades of neglect, leading to widespread frustration and disillusionment with Washington…
Evoking the strategic leadership the United States demonstrated 70 years ago, a domestic Marshall Plan today for hard-hit communities would both help struggling families and individuals directly and strengthen America’s national economy through revitalizing communities that have great potential to contribute to our economic and social fabric.
The authors of that report included Neera Tanden, who previously had been CAP’s president. In 2021, she became an adviser and staff secretary to President Biden.
In addition to looking to the country’s past for guidance, U.S. officials can also look overseas to the United Kingdom. There, they have adopted their own regional strategy called “Levelling Up.”
“While talent is spread equally across our country, opportunity is not,” wrote Her Majesty’s Government in a recent white paper. “This requires us to end the geographical inequality which is such a striking feature of the U.K.”
Proposals in the U.K. include shifting 55 percent of new R&D spending to outside the thriving parts of southern England; three new Innovation Accelerators in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, and Glasgow; 55 new Education Investment Areas “where educational attainment is currently weakest;” a free online academy for students; and nine new Institutes of Technology.
This could serve as an inspiration or model to be replicated for a Marshall Plan for America.
A Marshall Plan for America could include R&D spending, procurement policies, a Manufacturing Tax Credit, new school construction, and new housing. It could include Trade Adjustment Assistance, a new form of automation assistance, technical training programs, and thousands of new apprenticeships. It could also seek to expand AmeriCorps and challenge young Americans to serve in distressed areas. It’s about the funds themselves. But it’s also about the mobilization. It’s about symbolizing our priorities. It’s about using the skills and the technical expertise of Americans and empowering them to address issues (climate change, homelessness, the opioid crisis) right in their own backyard.
Some of what would go in a Marshall Plan is part of the Build Back Better package (pre-k education, childcare, clean energy). Some was part of the infrastructure bill ($55 billion for clean drinking water, $65 billion for broadband, etc…).
But whether policymakers call new investments a Marshall Plan, or something else, that’s not important. What is important is getting the messaging right. Americans need to hear what we’re building back, who benefits, and why. President Biden’s recent trip to Lorain, Ohio to promote spending $1 billion from the infrastructure package on environmental cleanup for the Great Lakes region is a good example of that.
It’s not enough just to recover from the pandemic. Some places don’t want to go back to pre-pandemic life. They want new opportunities. That’s why we need an equitable recovery this time. One that helps Americans adapt to changes (globalization, automation, trade), and that gives them a sense of security in the new economy.
Whether it’s in parts of Appalachia, the Rust Belt, or small farming towns in the rural Black Belt, there’s a real sense of anxiety and alienation out there. That’s why we need a Marshall Plan. Not just for the dollars themselves. But to send a message: No one gets left behind. This is about an economic recovery. But it’s also about America’s fragile democracy.
According to the author Benn Steil:
A critical insight behind the Marshall Plan was that we could not take a popular commitment to democracy and free enterprise for granted. If people’s basic needs for physical and economic security were not met, they were likely to turn to authoritarian alternatives.
When Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a recovery plan for Europe he said its purpose was economic revival that supported the “emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” The Marshall Plan worked, and western Europe remained free. That’s a lesson for us today.
Across America there are towns and cities working hard to come back. They’re working hard to find their place in the new economy. They’re working hard to increase economic mobility. They have ideas. They need resources. They need to hear a message: We are with you. A call for a Marshall Plan for America has been made, and it’s worth making it again. Now, it’s time for America to answer that call.
Michael Cooper is a journalist and attorney from the foothills of North Carolina. He now works in governmental affairs. His writing has been featured in National Affairs, The New Republic, and The Week.