Nebraskans in rural and urban areas alike view international trade as the aspect of U.S. foreign policy that most affects their own lives and ability to earn a living. Additionally, even those who are not directly engaged in agriculture believe international commodity markets are important to the state’s economy. Nebraskans also largely believe that immigration is critical to addressing the state’s workforce needs.
However, many Nebraskans don’t trust officials in Washington or the media to provide unbiased information on U.S. foreign policy issues. As a result, they do not always feel they have enough knowledge to develop well-informed opinions. They also do not believe that decisions about foreign policy are made with middle America’s economic interests in mind.
These are among the findings of a report released May 21 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The report was developed in partnership with the Bureau of Business Research and the Clayton Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, along with the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center.
Researchers interviewed panels of Nebraskans in Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Kearney, North Platte and Scottsbluff, as well as state and local government and business leaders, to better understand their perceptions of which U.S. foreign policies most impact the economic well-being of Nebraska’s middle class. These interviews, along with state economic data and insights gleaned from other surveys, were used to develop the report. Researchers hope the project will shed light on perceptions of international issues held by members of the middle class in an agricultural state and bring new perspectives to national policy debates.
The Carnegie Endowment previously worked with researchers in Ohio and Colorado to develop similar reports summing up residents’ perceptions of the impact of foreign policy on their lives. The project was designed to give voice to residents in the center of the country who are often overlooked or whose opinions tend to be broadly generalized.
“For the Nebraskans who participated in this project, foreign policy was felt first and foremost through international trade,” said Jill O’Donnell, director of the Yeutter Institute. “Their voices reflect real, on-the-ground consequences of policies that are made elsewhere, and there is tremendous value in that at a time of growing debate over what the aims of U.S. trade policy should be.”
While the interviews were conducted in summer 2019 — long before the COVID-19 pandemic — the perceptions and concerns participants expressed are more relevant than ever as the national and international response to the pandemic affects trade, immigration and other aspects of foreign policy.
“Participant perceptions and economic data summarized in the report reflect what Nebraskans have to gain from interacting with the global economy,” said Eric Thompson, director of the Bureau of Business Research.
Key findings of the report include:
Those interviewed almost uniformly cited trade and immigration as the foreign policies that most affected the economic well-being of Nebraska’s middle class.
International trade policy was 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.
On trade, the top concern was to preserve access to Canada’s and Mexico’s markets that had been secured in the North American Free Trade Agreement, and which had benefitted producers of beef, pork and dry beans, among other commodities, as well as other industries that support agriculture.
The number one concern for businesses — in both agriculture and other sectors — was the availability of workforce. Discussions about workforce were almost always linked to immigration, and most interviewees stressed the importance of significantly increasing legal immigration to address chronic workforce shortages.
Participants also viewed immigration as key to the long-term viability of many small, rural communities that have over the years experienced population loss. Additionally, many were proud of Nebraska’s long history in refugee resettlement.
“With so much talk of divisiveness, we were pleased to see that Nebraskans, as reflected in this study, are largely united about key foreign policy issues that affect the state’s communities, both rural and urban,” said Janell Walther, senior research manager at the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center.
The complete report, which includes chapters detailing Nebraska participants’ perceptions of international trade, immigration, climate change and defense spending, can be found here. A list of interviewees is also included in the report.
The vision of University of Nebraska alumnus and renowned trade expert Clayton Yeutter, the Yeutter Institute connects academic disciplines related to law, policy, business and agriculture to prepare students for leadership roles in international trade and finance, support interdisciplinary research and increase public understanding of these issues.
Student, faculty and staff researchers at the Bureau of Business Research collaborate to develop insights about the Nebraska, Great Plains and national economy.
The University of Nebraska Public Policy Center assists policymakers and stakeholders by facilitating, developing and conducting objective research and analyses of policy issues for elected and appointed officials, state and local agency staff, the public at large and others who represent policy interests.