Skip to content

The Heartland’s Revival

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.

Housing and the Urban Future

Housing seems to be a prime driver of these trends, and was even before Covid-19. Indeed, a 2019 National Association of Realtors study showed that five of the top ten areas for millennials to move to are in the Heartland, including Grand Rapids, Oklahoma City, Oma­ha, Madison, and El Paso. Of all the large coastal metros, only Seattle made the list.

These trends will accelerate, especially as young people decide that they want to buy homes and start families. They will need to be somewhere where that dream is accessible. Despite media accounts of how young people do not want to start families or own homes, most surveys show that the vast majority want to replicate the essentials of a middle-class lifestyle, including starting a family and buying a house. In fact, one million millennials become mothers every year.

New migration is transforming the Heartland from the nation’s old age home to its nursery. At a time when birthrates generally have declined across the country to some of the lowest rates in history, notes demographer Wendell Cox, the Heartland overall is now young­er than the rest of the country; states like California, New York, and Massachusetts are getting older the fastest. North Dakota, once seen as hopelessly geriatric, now boasts a strong tech and manufacturing sector and has aged the least since 2000. Out of the ten states aging the least between 2000 and 2017, eight are in the Heartland.

These shifts will have profound long-term economic ramifications. Societies with low birth rates—as we now see in much of Europe and East Asia—inevitably suffer a kind of cultural stagnation. They lack a robust market not only for housing and other products but also for ideas. Young people, notes economist Gary Becker, are critical to an innovative economy, and more of them are likely to come from the Heartland in the future.

The Heartland’s Technical Base

During and after the global financial crisis, pundits predicted that the future would be dominated by a “new economy” built around soft­ware, financial engineering, and media in big cities. This shift would assure the hegemony of the high-tax, high-regulation economies clus­tered on the East and West Coasts. It is still widely believed that these infor­mation hubs are destined to become even richer and more influ­ential, based primarily on their dominance of “producer services.”10

Such notions are increasingly at odds with economic reality, how­ever. Despite claims of ever-greater concentration, economist Jed Kolko notes that the share of the economy controlled by the five largest metros has declined over the past quarter century. In part, this stems from the fact that, rather than being based largely on low wages and exploitation, as some progressives suggest, the Heartland’s recov­ery also stems from the region’s critical intellectual assets, including such legacy institutions such as Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, Wash­ington University in St. Louis, the Cleveland Clinic, and the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

The Heartland also possesses remarkable levels of engineering skills, part of the region’s industrial legacy. Areas such as Detroit, Houston, and Dayton retain per capita concentrations of engineers that lag only a handful of much-celebrated “brain centers” like the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle. Significantly, these “rust belt” regions have far greater per capita concentrations of engineering talent than New York and Los Angeles.

High-End Job Migration from the Coasts

The current shift of higher-end jobs to the Heartland also reflects what Brookings has described as a “ruinous degree of territorial concentration” in cities like Seattle and San Francisco, resulting in hyperinflated real estate, mass homelessness, and monumental traffic congestion. Silicon Valley is clearly dispersing: Lyft moved many key operations to Nashville, while Uber recently established its second-largest office in Dallas–Fort Worth. Apple located its second-largest facility in the suburbs north of Austin. Elon Musk has started to shift more SpaceX operations to Texas and has announced plans to put his next electric vehicle factory in a quasi-rural area outside Austin.

One key factor behind these moves: adjusted for costs, rewards to skilled workers are greater in the Heartland. Overall, software writers make 20 percent more in real terms in places like San Antonio, Raleigh-Durham, and Cincinnati than in San Jose or San Francisco. Last year, Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Nashville grew their tech sector far faster than New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Smaller cities like Madison and Boise expanded tech jobs as much as twice as quickly as America’s three largest cities.

Similar patterns can be seen in professional business services, which are moving more and more workers from traditional business centers such as New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago to locations in the Heartland, the intermountain West, or the desert Southwest. Over the past five years, professional business services jobs have grown in Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, Kansas City, and Nashville faster than even Seattle or San Jose; their growth rate is more than two times faster than the traditional service hubs like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

Yet the Heartland’s growing economic cost advantage extends be­yond these sectors, and a recent study by Jed Kolko found that this advantage holds in smaller metros as well: of the ten areas with the highest adjusted incomes, eight are in the Heartland. In contrast, those with the lowest adjusted incomes are entirely on the ocean coasts.11

The Blue-Collar Revival

Of particular note, these higher incomes also extend to people with­out a college degree. An in-depth New York Times study of the best places for higher-wage blue-collar employment placed eight of the ten in the Heartland, the only exceptions being Anchorage, Alaska, and Spokane, Washington. The bottom ten on the list were largely on the West Coast, including Los Angeles and San Jose, as well as East Coast “superstar” cities such as Miami, New York, and Washington.

Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker, authors of The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation, see the region as the epicenter of a growing interface between manufacturing and technology. Self-driving cars, wearable devices, new medical equipment, smart grid, and smart farming are all best developed in re­gions with a legacy of industrial expertise. For example, Akron successfully reinvented itself from an auto and tire center to a hotbed for polymer research. General Motors’s recent decision to design and build autonomous vehicles in the Detroit area reflects the unique technical skills of that region.

The move to bring manufacturing back to the United States has been largely concentrated in Heartland states such as Michigan, Indi­ana, the Dakotas, and Tennessee, while in states such as Massachusetts, California, and New York this sector has either declined or stagnated. The “back to the U.S.” movement has already demonstrated a willingness by firms such as Black and Decker (Texas) and Red Wing (Minnesota), as well as the steel industry (Illinois), to bring production from overseas back to the region. Overall, the Heartland states dominate the list of areas gaining the most reshoring jobs.

The Pandemic Impact

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to further accelerate the shift to the Heartland. From ancient times, pandemics have tended to be par­ticularly brutal to crowded cities connected to widely dispersed trad­ing networks, including such places as ancient Athens, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Historian Kyle Harper, in his brilliant book The Fate of Rome, notes that the precociously urbanized Em­pire created cities that were “victims of the urban graveyard effect.”12

Similar patterns emerged in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as historian William McNeil noted in his Plagues and Peoples; the im­pact of pestilence was far less, however, in rural, backward reaches of Poland or other parts of central Europe.13 Later on, the pestilences associated with the industrial revolution eventually led to the rise of both “sewer socialism” and a massive movement of population out of core cites. Pandemics, notably the Spanish flu, were particularly viru­lent in dense urban areas like Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but less prevalent in rural areas outside of isolated mining and food manufacturing sites, as chronicled by John Barry in his monumental The Great Influenza.14

Closely packed urban areas like New York seem particularly ex­posed to what Wendell Cox calls “exposure density,” because of repeated exposures on trains, buses, elevators, crowded households, and unventilated workspaces. Even as the country has witnessed a resurgence of Covid cases in Heartland states like Texas, the greater New York area remains the site of roughly one-third of all deaths, while other inner cities such as Washington, D.C., Trenton, New Orleans, and Detroit have been particularly hard hit. Even with the recent surge, per capita fatality rates in states like Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, and the Dakotas remain a small fraction of those in New York and New Jersey.

Living in dispersion far from the coasts may not save you from contagion, but being away from people, driving around in your own car, and knowing your neighbors has its advantages. We may debate the true causes of infection and mortality from the pandemic for dec­ades to come, but it seems likely—judging from real estate trends and emerging demographics—that it will spark further dispersion.

Today we may be entering an era of pandemics, as occurred in late imperial Rome and the Middle Ages. Much of this has to do with the crowding of poor workers, who live in crowded conditions and work dangerous jobs with little or no access to health care. For well over a decade, poor conditions in Asian cities have been the breeding grounds for respiratory ailments such as MERS, swine flu, and the 2003 SARS outbreak. Some experts warn that more pandemics could be on their way, some from the same source.

Pestilence, like war and changes in climate, can alter social rela­tions and transform societies. To be sure, some Heartland industries, such as manufacturing and energy, have been impacted by the pan­demic, but overall the area is likely to see new demographic and economic growth. During plagues, the wealthy of ancient and medie­val times fled to the countryside, much as has occurred among today’s affluent, who are now fleeing major European and American cities. The rich can find safety in their country homes while the commoners, especially the poor and minorities, suffer the brunt of the pain.

In just three months, estimates Wendell Cox, New York lost as many people as its net gain since 1950, with the affluent heading either to the suburbs or to country homes. This jump in emigration from big cities and a growing preference for lower-density housing has been amplified by the pandemic, notes a study by

Similarly, the American Enterprise Institute has found that since the pandemic began, less dense areas are now growing much faster than denser ones. A Zillow survey in May suggests that this is being driven by greater consumer interest among what it calls “space seek­ers.” Workers in denser communities, notes a recent Apartmentalist survey, now are far more likely to move than their counterparts in less crowded areas. There has also been a marked drop in job postings in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami, and Boston, all cities hit hard by the virus.

The Transformative Role of Technology

The plagues of the fourteenth century may have wiped out as much as one-third of Europe’s population, with the worst impact landing on the great Renaissance trading cities. But the wreckage also created new opportunities for those left standing.15 Large tracts of land, left abandoned, could be consolidated by rich nobles, or in some cases, enterprising peasants, who looked for lower rents and higher pay. “In an age where social conditions were considered fixed,” wrote histor­ian Barbara Tuchman, the new adjustments seemed “revolutionary.”16

The current pandemic, although far less lethal than the plague, will also disrupt our geography, in large part because of new technologies that make it easier to work far from the dense megacities, sparking a process that one British writer has termed “counter-urbanization.” We are increasingly moving into what the late William Mitchell called “the city of bits”—talent becomes less tethered to the workplace as “the office-in-a-briefcase replaces the cubicle at corporate headquarters.”17 This also seems likely to further encourage migration to less expensive regions such as the Heartland.

Even before Covid-19, telecommuting was becoming more wide­spread while the benefits of working remotely were appar­ent in terms of productivity, innovation, and lower turnover. Since the pandemic enlarged the ranks of home commuters, corporate exec­utives have been surprised by productivity gains, and most hiring manag­ers believe this trend will continue after the pandemic. Many companies, including banks and leading tech firms such as Facebook, Salesforce, and Twitter, now expect a large portion of their workforce to con­tinue to work remotely after the pandemic. A Uni­versity of Chicago study suggests this could grow to as much as one-third of the workforce, a finding also confirmed by a recent Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta report. The real estate firm Redfin has found up to half of all new post-pandemic telecommuters want to continue to work from home and, after interviewing potential and present homeowners, predicts a steady movement of skilled workers, partic­ularly in New York and San Francisco, to smaller cities and outer suburbs.

A New New Urbanism

Although immigration and population growth are slowly rebounding in rural America, the shift to the Heartland remains primarily a metropolitan phenomenon, turning the region, somewhat surprisingly, into the incubator of Ameri­ca’s urban future, a development largely unnoticed in the media. Particularly notable has been the rise of Dallas–Fort Worth, which now has an estimated eight million residents, adding 1.1 mil­lion residents since 2010 and enjoying the highest rate of domestic migration of any city over five million. Increasingly, Dallas has emerged as the capital of the new Heartland, replacing the long-standing domination of Chicago, whose lead­ers have tended to focus on bolstering its high-end global ser­vice econo­my. A prototypical, multipolar Sunbelt city, Dallas’s low hous­ing prices18 have attracted out-of-state firms like McKesson, Pizza Hut, Jacobs Engineering, and Toyota’s North American head­quarters.19

More remarkable still has been the resurgence of the Heartland’s smaller cities. After a generation of concentration, cities like Madison, Indianapolis, Fayetteville, Louisville, Raleigh, and Fargo are gradually reviving a model of decentralized—and dynamic—urban centers that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, who noted the stark contrast versus the domination of Paris and other European capitals.20

These rising smaller towns have also improved their amenities, including bike trails, museums, and revitalized downtowns. In Fargo, for example, the growth of technology, catalyzed by the founding of Great Plains Software in the 1980s (which was acquired in 2001 by Microsoft Business Systems), has spurred new interest in its downtown. Once a bleak, underutilized stretch, it is now a bustling area with restaurants, coffeehouses, museums, entertainment venues, and boutique hotels such as the Donaldson—a property built by Car­ole Burgum, the ex-wife of Great Plains founder Doug Burgum, now the state’s governor. “It’s a great community, both vibrant and cheap—which is great for entrepreneurs,” says Peter Chamberlain, who attended the Uni­versity of Portland and worked on hyperloop tech­nology at MIT. He now runs Walkwise, a Fargo-based start-up that provides electronic monitors to prevent falls and monitor health conditions.21 “I miss Portland and Boston, but we have a lot to offer in amenities now. The downtown makes a big advantage. I wouldn’t be here without it.”

Good News for All Americans

The resurgence of the Heartland is critical, if only because it is the one part of the country best suited to incubate the kind of growth that benefits and expands the middle class, while spreading wealth more evenly. “When Texas succeeds, its economy provides moderate prosperity to many,” observes economist Ed Glaeser. “When Silicon Valley succeeds its economy provides extreme pros­perity to a few.”22

This revival does not represent, however, a simple confirmation of the libertarian-inflected conservatism so widely popular in the area. Low taxes have helped some, but generally speaking infrastructure investments—for example research universities, high-speed internet, gas pipelines—are critical to expanding the prosperity of the region, which still has many areas that are lagging in demographic and eco­nomic vitality. Some smaller regions, like Northwest Arkansas (home to Walmart, Tyson, and J.B. Hunt), and the Research Triangle of North Carolina, have thrived by investing in education, roads, bike trails, and cultural amenities, but much of the rest of these states remains locked in poverty. Texas’s rise has been in part driven by massive investment in roads and ports, while ample funds from energy firms (particularly when prices are high) have flowed to the University of Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech.

In looking to the future, Heartland states may want to look at the successful transformations of places like the aspirational California in the 1950s and 1960s—with massive investments in education, roads, water, and power systems—instead of the bare-bones approach advo­cated by some traditional economic developers. After all, low taxes and minimal regulation have not prevented states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and West Virginia from suffer­ing the lowest per capita incomes among the states.

Indeed, what the Heartland needs now is an investment in new infrastructure, similar to what occurred during the New Deal and its aftermath. During this time, initiatives like the Rural Electrification Administration and scores of other projects brought new construction to the region, improving roads and other critical economic supports.23 The notion that greater economic growth benefits demo­cracies—as Benjamin Friedman has argued24—may be a lost concept for many in academe and the coastal areas, but it remains very much aligned with aspirations among both Right and Left in the Heartland. The Heartland, notes South Dakotan author Jon Lauck, is home to an “older form of progressivism” that, unlike the contemporary version, focused not on racial or gender identity, but on the physical betterment and empowerment of the middle and working class.25

Whether pushed by the natural interplay of markets, by government intervention, or both, the Heartland provides America with its best chance to address the related crises of inequality and lack of upward mobility. To be sure, the coastal metropolitan areas will continue to attract many of the young and ambitious, but those areas have become ever more congested, expensive, and dysfunctional, par­ticularly for middle-class young families.

In contrast, the Heartland has a vast expanse of land and, for the most part, a welcoming climate for an immense array of businesses and individuals. It is a place that can capture what Frederick Jackson Turner described as the country’s “restless, nervous energy.”26 In these times of polarization by race, class, and ideology, the Heartland offers the country a way of reprising its unique historical pattern of accommodating diverse aspirations, made possible by our geographic bounty. The recovery of the Heartland is not just a regional story, but one that promises a national rebirth as well.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 3 (Fall 2020): 152–62.

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.

11 Jed Kolko,“Where Salaries Go Furthest in 2019: The Small-City Advantage,” New Geography, August 30, 2019.

12 Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and The End of an Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 80, 207.

13 William McNeil, Plagues and Peoples (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976), 168.

14 John Barry, The Great Influenza (New York: Penguin, 2004), 276, 359, 373.

15 McNeil, Plagues, 168, 170–71.

16 Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978), 120–25.

17 William Mitchell, City of Bits (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 96.

18 16th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2020 Rating Middle-Income Housing Affordability (Performance Urban Planning, 2020).

19 Andrea Lucia, “Deep Ellum Reacts to Uber Technologies Office Building Coming to Town: ‘Some People Are Scared,’” CBS DFW, August 20, 2019; “Competition. Momentum. Opportunity. Scoring Tech Talent in North America 2019,” CBRE, July 2019.

20 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: Bantam Classics), 213.

21 “WalkWise (Fargo, North Dakota)—Startup My City,” Buzzsprout.

22 Edward L. Glaeser, “Mission: Revive the Rust Belt,” City Journal (Autumn 2018); Eduardo Porter, “Where the Good Jobs Are,” New York Times, May 2, 2019.

23 Michael Lind, Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 337–40.

24 Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (New York: Knopf, 2002), 4–9.

25 Lauck, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge, 91.

26 Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (New York: Frederick Unger, 1963), 57.

Sorry, PDF downloads are available
to subscribers only.


Already subscribed?
Sign In With Your AAJ Account | Sign In with Blink