U.S. Foreign Policy for the Middle Class: Perspectives from Nebraska



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Nebraskans across the state in rural and urban areas alike said international trade is the top U.S. foreign policy area that impacts the state, their communities, and their ability to earn a living, with immigration policy a close second. The perceptions and economic data summarized in the report reflect more unity than division over trade policy and other foreign policy areas and show what the state has to gain from interacting with the global economy.


U.S. foreign policy has not come up often in the 2020 presidential campaign. But when it has, candidates on both sides of the aisle frequently have stressed that U.S. foreign policy should not only keep the American people safe but also deliver more tangible economic benefits for the country’s middle class. The debate among the presidential contenders is not if that should happen but how to make it happen.

All too often, this debate takes place within relatively small circles within Washington, DC, without the benefit of input from state and local officials, small business owners, community leaders, local labor representatives, and others on the front lines of addressing the challenges facing middle-class households. That is why the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace convened a bipartisan task force in late 2017 to lift up such voices and inject them into the ongoing debate. The task force partnered with university researchers to study the perceived and measurable economic effects of U.S. foreign policy on three politically and economically different states in the nation’s heartland—Colorado, Nebraska, and Ohio. The first two reports on Ohio and Colorado were published in December 2018 and November 2019, respectively. This third report on Nebraska has been prepared in partnership with a team of researchers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL).

To gauge perceptions of how Nebraska’s middle class is faring and the ways in which U.S. foreign policy might fit in, the Carnegie and UNL research teams reviewed household surveys and conducted individual interviews and focus groups, between July and August 2019, with over 130 Nebraskans in Columbus, Scottsbluff/Gering, Kearney, Lincoln, North Platte, and Omaha.

While those interviewed expressed many different opinions on a broad range of topics, several opinions were repeated often in rural and urban areas alike, in strikingly similar terms.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, there was widespread confidence about the state of the U.S. and Nebraska economies but also deep anxiety about how hard it is for working families to sustain a middle-class lifestyle. Virtually everyone interviewed for this study welcomed the low rate of unemployment. They stressed that help wanted signs could be seen throughout the state and that anyone who wanted a job likely could find one. However, like people across Colorado and Ohio, Nebraskans also regularly report mounting financial anxieties about the rising costs of healthcare, education, and housing, in addition to other local concerns more specific to Nebraska: high property taxes, the rampant rate at which retail stores are closing, extreme flooding, and farm consolidation.

There is a lack of information about the U.S. role in the world. As in Colorado and Ohio, working families in Nebraska often find it difficult to determine how their economic interests are affected by most U.S. foreign policies, especially if they are not working in an area that is heavily dependent on what happens overseas. They are focused on their day jobs and meeting their daily expenses. And even when they do pay more attention to the country’s foreign policy, it is difficult to know what to believe amid such politically biased and divisive commentary from media outlets.

There is an erosion of trust in foreign policy professionals (and in the federal government generally). Also similar to Colorado and Ohio, doubts abound in Nebraska that foreign policy professionals in Washington, DC, truly understand the economic realities confronting middle-income households or that they prioritize these realities in the development of U.S. foreign policies.

International trade policy is viewed as the most important aspect of U.S. foreign policy for Nebraska’s middle class, particularly due to its impact on the agricultural production complex. The message was remarkably consistent: the more international trade the better. Nebraskans’ interests on trade seem to be largely aligned, in contrast to Ohio, where past trade policies and globalization have produced winners and losers within the state in far greater numbers, particularly for the large manufacturing workforce. While many Nebraskans expressed strong support for President Donald Trump and his administration’s decision to play hardball with China, and even conveyed a willingness to incur some near-term pain to that end, their views diverged on how much pain they could absorb and whether it would be worth it.

Immigration came up almost as often as trade as a “foreign policy” issue that mattered most to Nebraska’s economy and middle class. Those interviewed sounded a common refrain: the United States needs a streamlined, pragmatic approach to permitting more foreigners willing to work in Nebraska’s unfilled jobs. While Coloradans discussed immigration in similar terms, they did not bring it up nearly as frequently or as forcefully as Nebraskans did. Population decline in rural Nebraska makes the area more dependent on international in-migration to offset workforce shortages. Those interviewed also expressed pride that Lincoln and Omaha hosted high rates of refugees per capita relative to most other U.S. metropolitan areas. That said, they made a distinction between legal and illegal immigration, voiced opposition to the concept of open borders, and spoke openly about cultural challenges that arise with growing immigrant and refugee populations.

Those interviewed generally expressed strong support for peacetime defense spending that keeps the U.S. military strong, even if they evinced no enthusiasm for the United States getting into another major war. The need for a strong national defense overrode economic considerations for them. While Offutt Air Force Base contributes significantly to the economy of the greater Omaha area, defense spending in Nebraska does not benefit the state’s economy nearly as much as it does in Colorado or anchor a regional economy as it does in Dayton, Ohio.

When asked about climate change, those interviewed focused on the near-term impacts of regulatory changes on jobs associated with ethanol production, farming, ranching, and rail transport of coal. Unlike in Colorado, only a minority of interviewees argued that the international fight against climate change should be a top U.S. foreign policy priority.

When interviews were conducted, U.S. foreign aid did not come up that frequently in connection with the economic interests of Nebraska’s middle class. But those interviews were conducted in 2019, long before the outbreak of COVID-19, which originated overseas and rapidly spread around the world and across all fifty U.S. states. The spread has resulted in the worst public health crisis that most Americans have experienced in their lifetimes. In addition to threatening individuals’ lives and physical well-being, the measures required to contain the virus’s spread have totally upended Americans’ social interactions and way of life. And the economic consequences have been devastating, especially for middle-income households contending with business closures and lost wages, higher healthcare and childcare costs, and precipitous declines in their retirement savings. One can assume that, in the wake of this crisis, more Americans, including Nebraskans, will see a connection between the economic interests of America’s middle class and U.S. efforts to strengthen global health security systems to prevent the outbreak and spread of pandemic diseases. At the same time, Americans’ anxieties about globalization and economic relations with China may also be exacerbated by this crisis.

Upon reflecting on the findings across these three different states, it becomes clear that foreign policy professionals need to reexamine how they are defining the national economic interests intended to be advanced through U.S. foreign policy. These case studies reveal that rates of economic growth and unemployment are important but incomplete measures of the economic well-being of the country’s middle class. One must also examine the effects of foreign policy on middle-class jobs, standards of living, and the economic viability of local communities. There must be a greater acknowledgment of how these effects diverge in different places. In their upcoming final report, Carnegie’s task force members will evaluate how national economic interests are being defined in the context of what has been learned, as well as propose national-level recommendations.

To read the original research, please click here


Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, University of Nebraska Bureau of Business Research, and the Clayton Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance.