Canvassers, candidates, and (I suppose) certain pockets of religious enthusiasts hear things the rest of us don't. They knock on doors. They talk to strangers. They listen to the background hum of humanity closely enough to make out instrumentation and lyrics. They know when something's out of tune.
When you knock doors around here, you get lots of retired folks. And, all of them sing a very similar song. It's one about kids or grandkids who fled their home state to steep themselves in the excitement of Los Angeles, New York, the Pacific Northwest, or someplace even farther off. They wish they were closer, they don’t care for those big cities so much, the traffic, the congestion, the noise, you know. But, they understand.
In talking to these folks, you might get the impression that most young, bright, talented people with the means to leave are doing just that. And you’d be right. An Indiana University report from last year projects that Indiana's population growth rate in this decade will be less than half of what it was in the 1990s. Over the next 20 years, the overall working-age population is actually projected to decline. As you might expect, the outlook for rural areas is much worse than for metro-area communities.
Why is this happening?
I asked the social media universe to give me their stories of why they left the Midwest. I got a lot of answers like these:
"Indiana has nothing to offer anyone."
"No offense but the Midwest is too conservative and too Jesus for me."
"The Midwest is just behind the times."
"All the smart people left."
My first reaction to this kind of thing is visceral. I’ve been here for more than 30 years. I love my family. I love my friends. I love the Midwest. How could anyone want to leave it?
And, yet, confronted with all this naysaying about our world of little pink houses and amber waves of grain, the cacophonous buzz of my own experience as a lifelong Hoosier swells until it cannot be ignored.
Of course they want to leave.
One must admit that other states do things better than we do. Infrastructure, healthcare, conservation, taxation, policing, public transit, criminal justice – these things are noticeably better in many places. Hell, most places. And, when we expand the scope of comparison to other countries, our deficiencies become starker. Those who can't accept that either haven't been able to see it with their own eyes, or are among those suffering from a virulent strain of self-defeating patriotism – the kind that hurts an entire country to soothe an individual ego.
But, it's not just that. The Midwest has top universities. Our kids go to them, walk in a ceremony, throw their hats in the air, and then promptly flee to the coasts. We have good-paying jobs for professionals, even in rural areas, but the upwardly mobile don't want 'em because – gross. Indiana? Kentucky? Ohio? Come on. We have good real estate at low prices and safe schools; fresh bait for young families hanging out on a line for years at a time. They’re not biting.
The ugly truth is that there's a stigma attached to this region and anyone who didn't have the money or the sense to get the hell out. This stigma lies beyond the realm of purely economic concerns. The art, the culture, the people, all are of a lesser variety, or so the unspoken criticism goes. We even believe it ourselves. We don't represent, in the collective American psyche, the pinnacle of human achievement that we all so desperately want to be a part of. We are compelled to be at that apex even for a year or two, at least until we move someplace cheaper, somewhere we're not breathing smoke all the time, somewhere where we can have dogs and yards and cars. Northern California? Colorado? Upstate New York? Connecticut?
But, God, not the Midwest.
The few people who relocate here from the ausland often have, shall we say, less-than-pure motives for doing so. Recall Professor Harold Hill, who duped an entire Iowa town but was spared the tar-and-feather treatment because he further duped the yokels into thinking the music their kids were playing was something better than dogshit? He was never from Gary. He is, was, and has always been from Washington, D.C. – a carpetbagger-type opportunist that we’re better off without. And, anyway, as I remember it, Professor Hill stayed in River City not because he wanted to become part of the community, but because he wanted to get into Shirley Jones’ pants. This is not a viable, long-term strategy for attracting new settlers. (No offense intended to Ms. Jones). Better to focus on keeping the good people we’ve got.
I asked people who stuck around what keeps them here. About half the answers were not too encouraging. (The other half I'll get to in a later column).
“My healthcare tied to my employment coupled with economic depression inhibiting my ability to move as single parent.”
“Lack of funds/credit to move anywhere else.”
“Inertia and a mortgage?”
There are pragmatic reasons to care about our brain drain, even for those will never love the people of this region, and who will never be nostalgic for tractors or bourbon or tenderloin sandwiches. You see, the majesty of our unique brand of federalism is that a few people, comprising the majority of a homogenized and un-populated area, can fuck it up for everyone else, even a majority of folks, even in places that are bursting at the seams with Americans of all kinds. Here, a one-eyed man, having decided that he should be king of the blind, may stab out the eyes of his political opponents from a distance that, for most of human history, has been considered out of stabbing distance.
What I'm saying is: the migration of talented, compassionate, forward-thinking people from the Midwest is everyone's problem. Remember the election of 2016 without pain, if you can. If you cannot, consider the Senate, and think ahead to 2020. Indiana's two senators have just as much power as any Senator from any blue state your children will flee to because they just can't stand the oh-so-backwards Midwest. And who’s that guy from Kentucky? The single most powerful man in American politics? Oh, right. Who gave him that mantle? The better question is: who was here to stop him from taking it?
So, here we are: The politically powerless have to stay, reactionary megalomaniacs want to stay, everyone else leaves, we all suffer for it.
Can the Midwexit be stopped? If so, how?
Because of our strained resources here in the heartland, they only allot me 1,000 words per column, and again I’ve exceeded it. But this question is such an imbroglio that it's going to take at least 2,000 words to sort out. Maybe more. Stay with me, and send me your thoughts in the meantime.