My friend Jared is a lot smarter than I am. He’s the kind of guy who’s probably been told his whole life that he’s “too smart for Indiana.” He’s a grad student in cybersecurity. He lived in D.C. for a while, went to a top school, did some important-sounding military industrial complex stuff for a few years and then came back home. Then, he ran for state representative in his home district in Central Indiana. He lost (by a lot) to a GOP worker drone.
But he cared enough to try.
Like me, he saw a lot of his friends from grade school get sucked dry and discarded by the demon of OxyContin and hydrocodone and fentanyl and heroin and methamphetamine. He watched his community become a husk; no storefronts, no arts, no culture to speak of aside from what happens at the one bar in the town square, where those who aren’t hooked on opioids can pickle their livers and start fistfights for want of anything better to do. He cares about the people in his hometown, track marks and all and wants to help fix things.
He’s got good ideas, too. The kind of ideas that come with education and experience, but also the kind you can’t buy — the kind that come from a lifetime of knowing Smallville, USA.
I asked him: “If you had a magic wand, what would you do with it?”
A lot, he said.
New workforce development programs, mandated computer science classes for grade school kids, updated epidemiological surveillance programs, high-speed internet, a bunch of shit I don’t even understand, and jobs jobs jobs. “Ideally, I would like [my town] to have an average age of 27, a median per capita income of $55,000 per year, and ranked in the top 10 on quality of life in the Midwest.”
So then people like you would want to stay, right?
“People here are not interested in transforming the economy. People here wear T-shirts with guns and believe that being a good citizen means promoting the Second Amendment, and that is basically it. People here openly say that people who commit drug crimes should be executed. People here are also openly racist while driving around with NRA stickers on their trucks. They also don’t vote. They don’t seem concerned about others, and their view of citizenship certainly doesn’t fit mine. They view the world through fear. I don’t. I am moving after I graduate, not just because the local economy has nothing here for me, but also because of the way people here view patriotism and citizenship.”
Sobering, but not unusual.
A common theme emerges the more you talk to people about staying here. I asked state Sen. J.D. Ford of Indiana for his take. He served up some familiar (but good) ideas: tax and other financial incentives for people who commit to stay for a certain amount of time, creating arts and “green” spaces, more public transit options, and the like. But he “also hear[s] constantly that we are a backwards state in regards to social issues. Just to give a quick example — visited a high school recently. I asked the students how many of them want to stay here, out of 100 or so, maybe a handful of them raised their hand.”
So even before our kids have to struggle with the economy, they want out. And even the politicians who want the best for their hometowns want out. And even if we had all the amenities of Tokyo or London, we’d probably still want out. It’s a safe bet that if you moved Carnegie Hall to Seymour, put a bullet train running from Indianapolis to Louisville and forgave the student loans of everyone who committed to stay in Scottsburg for five years, the Midwexit would continue unabated. The problem is more in the roots than the branches, and thus more difficult to treat than it seems (not that it ever looked easy).
Among the folks I have talked to, there is only one reason consistently cited for staying in the Midwest: family. The “family” referenced may be of the chosen or biological sort.
“My family is here. Had considered moving to a more progressive part of the country, but no guarantee of more happiness because that’s an inside job.” “The queer community in Louisville holds me together.” “We live within minutes of my husband’s entire family and found my dream house. I would change a lot about the community, but try to create the haven I need where we are.” “My adult children, grandkids, the topography and changes of season, the cost of living, this is where my roots are and I can’t imagine leaving.” “The best thing about my community is having a real one. People who can pick up the slack when I need it, people who’ve known me for decades and trust my judgment, people with whom I really share both burdens and celebrations. No geography can ever replace it.”
Similarly, the people in the ausland who swear they will never move, tend to report feeling safe, supported, and validated; an experience most emigrants did not enjoy in flyover country. “School district, sense of community even in the middle of LA. I mean I can run into people I know from the Y when I go to the library or the other parents from my kid’s school at the grocery store.”
“Diversity. The warmth of my community.” “We belong to various farm and fish collaborative sustainables and you just go to the pickups and get your own stuff. Pretty much everything is common sense and drama free.” “The diversity of different cultures and opportunity for our children to experience life with a broader world view.”
Lou Murrey heads up the STAY Project, an organization focused on keeping young people in Appalachia. She said: “People leave their communities for a myriad of reasons; sometimes it is because there is no housing, sometimes it is because of jobs, and sometimes it is because the places that we love don’t always love us back.”
As such, STAY focuses on “maintaining spaces led for youth and by youth in Appalachia that connect young people across the region to talk about the issues in our communities, providing critical education to help each other identify the root causes of those issues, and building relationships that support us to fight systems of oppression and build just communities in Appalachia. It is a lot easier to stay in a place when you know you have a community who supports you and your work.
“In addition to creating spaces for young people to gather, we also provide some financial support for young people to continue projects they are working on in their own communities.” But of course, there’s only so far those tactics will carry you if your neighbors won’t play along.
To answer the Midwexit problem, we have to ask the right question. That question can’t just be “how do we create favorable economic conditions?” The core question is: “How do we create family?”
I don’t know the answer. Whatever it is, it probably isn’t as easy as leaving.
Let’s try to find it anyway. •
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.