Patchwork Nation’s 5 Political, Economic Stories to Watch for in 2011

BY Dante Chinni  December 21, 2010 at 3:21 PM EST

DREAM Act supporters file out of the Senate Gallery after watching the DREAM Act's defeat on Dec. 18. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

DREAM Act supporters file out of the Senate Gallery after watching its defeat on Dec. 18; Photo by Bill Clark/Roll Call

This year brought big changes in to the United States. The midterm elections shuffled the balance of power in Washington. Economists announced the recession ended in 2009 – though many communities still struggled. Congress voted to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” and passed another big tax-cut/stimulus bill.

But looking at state of the country through Patchwork Nation, 2010 looks more like the prelude to bigger changes ahead in 2011 and beyond.

Economically and politically there are strong signs of volatile times ahead. The recession may be over, but there are larger economic forces at play that could lead to long-term changes that will have very different impacts on different communities. And any sense of political stability in Washington is likely to be short-lived as the 12 community types in Patchwork Nation look toward 2012 with very different agendas.

Listed below are five news stories to watch for in 2011 as our Patchwork Nation communities adjust to the broader economic and political changes underway.

A Limited “Recovery” | The communities we call the Monied Burbs — wealthier, better educated and heavily invested in the stock market — look poised to see improvement in 2011. These 286 counties with bigger salaries and savings account buffers should see money begin to flow trickling down to local merchants and restaurants and improving the unemployment rate. Their unemployment rate fell by about two points through the first nine months of this year and the tax-credit extension for the wealthy will arguably help these counties most.


But there are also strong reasons to believe that much of the economic rebound could be limited to those counties – at least at first. More remote, poorer locales – the Service Worker Centers and Minority Central counties – still have a lot of digging out of debt to do and will probably continue to limp along as we note in the book “Our Patchwork Nation.”

The Boom Town communities that have more money but that also rode the housing boom are a big question mark. How much wealth is left in these 384 counties after the housing bust? If they start to turn the corner this year, it would be a good sign for the economy. But recent foreclosure numbers make that seem unlikely.

A Tea Party Divided | As we have noted throughout the election year, the Tea Party is less of a movement than a collection of grassroots groups. The various groups are united along traditional Republican ideas of less government and lower taxes, but after those areas of agreement there are different drivers in different areas – in some places it’s libertarianism (Service Worker Centers), in some places it’s American citizenship (Immigration Nation) and in some places conservative social values (Evangelical Epicenters).

Extending the Bush tax cuts is already a reality and further tax cuts will be difficult to push, considering the federal deficit. That leaves two areas left for the tea party to dig into: spending cuts – which are always divisive – and all the other cultural issues that could easily divide a set of grassroots groups as fractious as the tea party. By spring, expect the fissures to be more apparent.

The Return of Cultural Issues | The focus on the economy has been fairly intense now for three years. But a presidential election looms and voters, disillusioned with recovery efforts, will begin to turn back to the culture wars as ways of drawing battle lines — particularly the Evangelical Epicenters, Tractor Country and the Emptying Nests.

With a Democrat in the White House and big government to run against, the Republican presidential race will find itself more focused around these issues in 2012 than it was in 2008. And the groundwork will be laid in the next 12 months.

Immigration’s Back … Again | The DREAM Act went down to defeat, but that doesn’t mean immigration has died down as an issue. In fact, the spread of the immigrant population, particularly Latinos, will be a big storyline the coming year when the Census data is released. Meanwhile, expect immigration to begin to grow as an issue as 2012 nears for two reasons: the pursuit of the Hispanic vote will be on the mind of politicians from both parties, while a limping economy thrusts the issue forward in the eyes of people who live in places where hard times come face-to-face with cheap labor. Both those issue will have a special significance in Patchwork Nation’s 204 Immigration Nation counties.

The Income Gap | The next set of Census numbers will also show America’s haves increasingly find themselves living in different places than its have-nots. The decline of manufacturing and construction jobs brought on by the recession and the housing bust means education is the key to success in most sectors of the American economy and that has clear impacts in Patchwork Nation.

The Monied Burbs and Campus and Career counties will be the biggest beneficiaries. The gap between those counties and the Emptying Nests, Service Worker Centers and Minority Central will become more apparent. And in the big-city Industrial Metropolis counties the split between the very rich and very poor will grow more obvious.

Some will call for cite numbers as signs of strains on the middle class and others will decry them as fomenting a “class war,” but the numbers will raise eyebrows and the story will be with us not only for 2011 and 2012 but for some time to come. Patchwork Nation will be delving more heavily into that issue – and all of these issues – in the coming year.