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The Benefits of Growth: Slow but Inexorable

Article by Ike Brannon July 12, 2012 //   7 minute read

I return to my hometown of Mossville, IL (“Gateway to Peoria!”), a couple times a year. From that intermittent perspective the city changes fitfully: In the span of six months a new road can appear where there was previously a field, or a thriving business can disappear, or the “seedy” part of Peoria can noticeably coarsen and spread its way north.

My occasional appearances can help me see broader patterns that a denizen might take longer to digest, at least so I theorize. Peoria is an interesting place to drop in on because in many respects it has stayed the same over the past couple of decades. Its population, employment, relative income, and overall place in the national economy have scarcely changed. While it might be a gross generalization to extrapolate changes in Peoria to the rest of the country, I’m going to play the role of social scientist and do so.

First, not everyone is doing better in Peoria. While its main employer, Caterpillar, has been going gangbusters the last couple of decades, this hasn’t been true for the area’s blue-collar workers. Caterpillar’s downtown headquarters continues to expand and its Mossville tech center continues to hire engineers at a rapid clip, but its hiring has not trickled down to the assembly line.

In part this is because Caterpillar has transferred some of the production formerly done in Illinois elsewhere, both to the Southern United States and abroad. What Caterpillar tends to make in central Illinois is the complex, high-margin equipment that benefits the most from having engineering help nearby and where a few grand in additional shipping doesn’t matter a whole lot. But the smaller, less complex equipment is increasingly being made elsewhere — closer to ports or to the end customers.

Fewer blue-collar jobs in Caterpillar’s factories have led to more competition for the other unskilled jobs in town, and lower wages and higher unemployment for this cohort as well. The city of Peoria’s “dead zone” of rental housing, fast food joints, and title loan stores has crept steadily north over this time, and now encompasses what had been stolid middle class homes where my Catholic high school classmates grew up.

Although Caterpillar’s unrelenting expansion may not have resulted in any more blue-collar jobs, it has produced a bevy of new white-collar jobs. Caterpillar may have shuttered its industrial engine factory in Mossville, but it didn’t mothball the massive building — instead, it turned it into an office for engineers and managers, housing nearly one thousand workers in what may be the largest single-story office space in the world.

A few years ago I went home to celebrate a friend of mine landing a production job with Caterpillar, something that had been his lifetime goal. He had the same job his father held, doing sheet metal. Unlike his father’s experience, however, my friend was rarely on the factory floor: He was on a computer, using complex software, and was going to school at night to finish an engineering degree — and already possessed two associate degrees and a Six Sigma certification. In one generation his father’s job had morphed from a blue-collar job into a white-collar one.

For people with jobs like this, the quotidian existence has greatly improved. Their ranks have completely deserted the city of Peoria for its myriad suburbs, with bigger houses and many more accoutrements than the typical house a generation ago. They mainly moved for the desirable public schools, which have noticeably improved in many outward ways. The range of AP classes is greatly expanded compared to 20 years ago, and there is now one more sport each season than there was back then as well. And a greater proportion of students in these suburban schools go on for more education than in the 1970s or 1980s.

Within my old neighborhood, most of which was constructed in the 1960s, air conditioning is now universal, a stark difference from my halcyon days. Homes routinely have three or even four cars, so much so that the local rules prohibiting street parking overnight had to be changed. It goes without saying that the cars today are miles better then the Gremlins or Pacers that occupied the garages a generation ago. And sometime in the last 20 years the streets became paved, a development greeted by hosannas by my family and former neighbors.

Houses on the local lake, a slender 40-acre pond in a damned up gully, have come to embrace the water, unlike a generation ago: instead of narrow dock, just big enough to attach a rowboat, that sits at the end of a dirt path, today’s houses increasingly have wide, fully lit stairs leading down first to a wide deck overlooking the lake and then beyond that to a much larger dock. Such an investment would have been an inconceivable luxury 30 years ago.

The area’s restaurants have a much wider offering than they once did. In 1970 there were 180 restaurants listed in the phone book (a hat tip to my father for doing the arithmetic for me), with no more than a handful falling under the heading of “ethnic,” and the majority of which were burger joints or pizza places. Today there are over 500 restaurants, the ranks of which include a wide variety of foreign cuisines and a gourmet restaurant written up in The Wall Street Journal for its excellence.

My time series of snapshots and a modicum of data suggest that life for the middle class in central Illinois has greatly improved over the last generation or two, and continues to go in that direction. However, jumping into the middle class from a rung below is more difficult than it once was, especially for people coming from the poor schools, rampant crime, and generally dysfunctional lifestyles that tend to prevail throughout the city of Peoria. And failing to make that leap can mean a lifestyle not all that much better than it was a generation ago.