For better US foreign policy, report looks to Colorado’s middle class

U.S. foreign policy professionals should pay more attention to income inequality and rising costs for housing and childcare in states like Colorado, according to a new Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report prepared in part by CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.

If U.S. foreign policy experts in Washington, D.C. remain disconnected from the economic realities Americans beyond the Beltway experience, the American public’s trust in them will continue to erode, according to researchers behind the “U.S. Foreign Policy for the Middle Class” project. In an increasingly dangerous and complex world, this mistrust can lead to bad outcomes for the United States, researchers said.

“People in Washington who devise policies on trade, China, foreign aid, defense spending and other foreign policies make assumptions about how those policies affect the American middle class, but they seldom get a chance to test whether those assumptions are right,” said Salman Ahmed, a Carnegie Endowment senior fellow. “This deep dive into the middle-class economy in Colorado, and the ways in which Coloradans perceive U.S. foreign policies, will help them do just that.”

The Colorado portion of the project, released Tuesday, is the second in a series of three reports looking at the middle-class impacts of foreign policy across the U.S.

This latest report compiled more than 125 interviews the Leeds Business Research Division and the Carnegie Endowment conducted with state officials, economic developers, teachers and other parties interested in middle-class households from El Paso County to Metro Denver.

The report breaks down top middle-class concerns, as well as industry views on trade, energy policy and defense spending.

“One thing that sets Colorado apart from other states is a clear perception that the defense industry is integral to a middle-class life,” said Rich Wobbekind, executive director of the Leeds Business Research Division. “While some people were worried Colorado’s growing economy was leaving them behind, and others expressed concerns about rising costs of healthcare, housing and education, a large portion of the people we talked to mentioned the importance of Colorado’s defense industry in achieving middle-class status.”

The report cites previous research that the defense sector accounts for up to 247,000 jobs directly and indirectly across the state, and about 7.5% of total wages and salaries.

Colorado respondents mostly assumed domestic solutions would fit their top middle-class issues, though they did look to foreign policy on climate change and energy.

As a leader in energy, rural Coloradans told researchers they wanted foreign policy to protect oil and gas jobs and the revenues they delivered for communities like Weld County. Meanwhile, many urban dwellers see international action on climate change as critical to the state’s outdoor recreation industry and believe Colorado is well-positioned to thrive in a new green economy.

Colorado isn’t a top exporter nationally, but interviews showed widespread support for international trade, from liberal urban centers to more conservative rural areas. Interviewees believe it supports their livelihoods in the agriculture, advance manufacturing, professional and business services, tech and tourism industries. Researchers noted that favorability may be related to Colorado’s lack of trade-related job turbulence compared to states in the industrial Midwest. Interviewees in the agriculture and professional and business services sector saw Asia as a top area for expansion.

People interviewed were largely supportive of foreign aid as a way to grow new markets for Colorado’s goods and services and maintain a strong U.S. brand on the global stage. They also cited the importance of immigration programs in attracting talent for jobs Coloradans did not want or could not perform.

The tensions the Carnegie Endowment cited for starting the study were backed up by interviews in Colorado. Many interviewees said they lacked sufficient information, or did not know which information to trust regarding U.S. activities abroad, according to the researchers. Interviewees also said they had lost trust in foreign policy experts to prioritize middle-class interests.

The endowment published its first report in the project in 2018, looking at the middle class in Ohio. Researchers plan to publish a report on Nebraska’s middle-class households in 2020. The Nebraska report will be followed by detailed recommendations and a final report.

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