For roughly the past half century, the middle swath of America has been widely written off as reactionary, backward, and destined for unceasing decline. CNBC recently ranked the “worst states” to live in, and almost all were in what is typically defined as the Heartland.1 Paul Krugman of the New York Times sees the region populated by “jobless men in their prime working years, with many suffering ‘deaths of despair’ by drugs, alcohol or suicide.”
Another Times article describes much of the small-town and rural areas as home to “the left behind”—Trumpian knuckle-draggers at war with modernity. This coastal contempt for the interior is nothing new, going back to celebrated figures such as Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken, who dismissed it as hopelessly “backward if not reactionary.”2 Two New Jersey academics have even proposed, with the approval of much of the national media, that large parts of the Great Plains be evacuated to make way for an expansive “Buffalo Commons.”3 One progressive publication suggested that the country should send “reparations” to the region, as if it were incapable of devising its own recovery.
Yet in reality, the Heartland—a region of twenty states between the Appalachians and the Rockies—has remained a critical part of our country. In 2016, this area generated nearly $5 trillion in goods and services.4 As of 2015, it was also home to nearly 60 percent of the U.S. population,5 a percentage that is likely to increase as both the Northeast and coastal California are projected to grow less than the national average between 2010 and 2030.6
To be sure, the Midwest and the less urbanized South have lagged behind, but the Heartland now also boasts some of the fastest-growing large metros. This revival reprises the critical role of the vast interior in providing what Japanese political scientist Fuji Kamiya described as sokojikara, or “reserve power,” the unique combination of America’s vast fertility, its openness to change, and innovative spirit.7 Throughout its history, America’s continental mass has been a key element of our economic, social, and demographic strength. Abraham Lincoln described it as constituting “the great body of the Republic.”8
The New Demography
Those pontificating about Heartland decline from Manhattan, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco might consider looking more closely at demographic trends, which even before the pandemic were working in favor of much of the Heartland. In contrast, the great “urban renaissance” of the first decade of this century had a shorter run time than many anticipated.
New York epitomizes these trends. In the years right after the Great Recession, New York was gaining as much as fifty to eighty thousand people per year. By 2018, it was losing some forty thousand annually. Over the last several years, Chicago and the Los Angeles area have also lost population, both to surrounding suburbs and from people leaving the region entirely, notes Bill Frey of the Brookings Institution.
As both Frey’s research and a recent study from Heartland Forward demonstrate, outside of Florida and the southeast coast, the cities growing fastest have been in the Heartland—Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, Nashville, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Des Moines. More remarkable—or unexpected—has been the demographic resurgence of some even smaller regions, such as the Fayetteville-Bentonville-Rogers-Springdale area in northwestern Arkansas; Fargo, North Dakota; Madison, Wisconsin; and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
These are not entirely new trends. Dispersion of both jobs and people started taking place as early as the 1970s, well before the current upsurge.9 Looking back, Frey suggests that the big city growth enjoyed in the period after the Great Recession represented something of “an aberration of historical patterns.” The old demographic normal has simply become the new normal again.
The shift to Heartland cities is driven by the migration of both immigrants and millennials. Today the South and increasingly the Midwest have emerged as primary destinations for immigrants, both directly and from the coasts. Similarly, much of the recent migration from Puerto Rico has been concentrated in the Midwest. Immigrants are particularly prominent as Main Street entrepreneurs; in Ohio, they now constitute one in five small business owners.
Equally critical have been the shifts in millennial migration. It has been widely asserted by urban cheerleaders, such as Neil Irwin of the New York Times, that places like New York, San Francisco, and Seattle would prevail since they have “the best chance of recruiting superstar employees.” The Times described Iowa as a place millennials are leaving, but nearly 15 percent of the population around Des Moines, the state’s capital and largest city, is between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, ranking it seventh among the fifty-four U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with between five hundred thousand and one million people. Perhaps more impressive, nearly 53 percent of local millennials have at least a two-year degree, the fourth highest rate among all MSAs in Des Moines’s population category.
Increasingly, as urban pundit Richard Florida has noted, the new growth of the “creative class”—the well-educated millennials critical to the urban renaissance—is “shifting away from superstar cities.” Large Heartland metropolitan areas like Nashville, Austin, Detroit, San Antonio, Grand Rapids, and Dallas–Fort Worth are all gaining educated millennials far more rapidly than coastal “magnets” like New York, Los Angeles, or even the Bay Area.
Read the rest of this piece at American Affairs Journal.
1 Scott Cohn, “These Are the Worst Places to Live in America in 2019,” CNBC, July 10, 2019.
2 Jon K. Lauck, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Realism: 1920-1965 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017), 51–57.
3 Richard Rubin, “Not Far from Forsaken,” New York Times, April 9, 2006; Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” Planning Magazine (December 1987).
4 Michael Lind and Joel Kotkin, The New American Heartland (Center for Opportunity Urbanism, 2017).
5 United States Census Bureau, “United States Population Growth by Region,” 2015.
6 Rolf Pendall et al., “Scenarios for Regional Growth from 2010 to 2030,” Mapping America’s Futures, Brief 1, Urban Institute, January 2015, 9. California analysis based on population projections from: State of California Department of Finance, “Projections,” January 10, 2020.
7 “2005 Nen Wa Nihon No Tagagore,” Shokun, February 2007.
8 Lauck, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge, 1.
9 John Herbers, The New Heartland: America’s Flight Beyond the Suburbs and How It Is Changing Our Future (New York: Crown, 1986), 3–9.
10 Derek Thompson, “The Feedback Loop That Will Makes America’s Richest Cities Even Richer,” Atlantic, March 26, 2015; Saskia Sassen, Cities in a World Economy (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2000), 2–4, 15, 61.
Photo credit: National Gallery, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, image in Public Domain