Contents | January/February 2003

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More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.

From the archives:

"Slow Death in the Great Plains" (June 1997)
A sizable swath of the country's heartland is undergoing a severe drop in births that, if it continues, could empty many small towns in just one generation. By Harlow A. Hyde

"America's Changing Economic Landscape" (March 1985)
Is the decline in the industrial belt a step into perilous new territory or is it merely a continuation of the ceaseless transformation that built our prosperity? By James Fallows

The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2003
[National Unity]

The New Continental Divide

Overcrowded cities on the coasts. Dying rural communities in the interior. The way to save both may be to create a post-agrarian heartland
by Michael Lind
wo of our country's most cherished dreams are at risk. One is the American dream of upward mobility. The other is the romantic dream of settling the American heartland. These two dreams cannot be separated in the information age any more than they could be in the frontier past. Indeed, for many Americans in this century moving up may mean moving inland.

Further reading
selected by Michael Lind.
Today much of the Great Plains is undergoing a catastrophic demographic collapse. Stretching 1,600 miles from central Texas to the Canadian border and 750 miles across at its widest point, and containing all or most of ten states, this region accounts for a fifth of the land area of the United States, but only four percent of the population—about 12 million people. To put this in perspective, the population of the Los Angeles region is now greater than that of the Great Plains, an area five times the size of California.

Sixty percent of the counties in the Great Plains declined in population in the past decade. In 2001, ninety-nine U.S. counties had populations in which four percent or more of residents were eighty-five or older; most of these counties were in rural areas in the Great Plains. Many heartland communities face the prospect of becoming ghost towns, as older inhabitants die and younger residents move away. Already more and more of what early Americans called "the Great American Desert" fits the nineteenth-century definition of frontier territory: an area with no more than six inhabitants per square mile.

Meanwhile, the coasts are rapidly filling up. Although coastal counties occupy only about 17 percent of the territory of the contiguous United States, they contain about 53 percent of the nation's population. By 2015 the coastal population will have increased by the equivalent of two Californias—71 million newcomers—since 1960. In the same period the Pacific Coast alone, adding more than 28 million people, will have undergone a 158 percent increase in population.

The percentage of the U.S. population living in coastal counties has remained relatively constant since the 1960s. But the increase in absolute numbers means that the coasts are getting crowded. The official population density of the United States is only seventy-six people per square mile—compared with 134 in Europe and 203 in Asia. Density on the coasts, however, is much greater (and in the interior is much less) than the average suggests. By 2010, when California has 50 million people, it will have a coastal population density of 1,050 per square mile—considerably greater than the average in Europe or Asia. The Northeast currently has twice the population density of any other U.S. region; with 654 people per square mile, it is as crowded as Germany.

The crowding is intensified by immigrants, who are concentrated in a small number of "gateway" cities and states that are generally on the coasts. Owing to a high rate of immigration, which accounts for 70 percent of U.S. population growth today, the United States is experiencing a population increase just as other democratic nations are watching their populations decline.

The future demographic pattern of the United States may be a largely empty interior surrounded by a handful of densely populated metropolitan areas: "Bosnywash," the Boston-New York-Washington corridor; "San-San" (San Diego to San Francisco); a "Texas Triangle" defined by Dallas, Houston, and Austin-San Antonio. The suburbs of expanding cities may fuse together, whereupon a process of inexorable "densification" may begin.

From the archives:

"Heartland of Darkness" (February 2002)
Anthrax and hermits and gun shows, oh my! By Walter Kirn

"One Nation, Slightly Divisible" (December 2001)
"We in the coastal metro areas read more books and attend more plays than the people in the heartland. But don't ask us, please, what life in heartland America is like. We don't know." By David Brooks
As a result of coastal growth and heartland decline, a new geographic divide is appearing in American society at the beginning of the twenty-first century: not the familiar rivalry between the rugged West and the effete East, or the Yankee North and the Confederate South, but a growing divergence between the coasts and the interior. Beyond the slow death of many of America's small towns, this divide raises a number of serious issues.

The most obvious relates to national politics, as the stark contrast in the 2000 election between densely populated "Gore country" and thinly populated "Bush country" suggests. Al Gore could fly from California to Washington, D.C., without passing over a single state in between that gave him its electoral votes. That power in Washington is only partly related to population density does not clearly benefit any region, but it does undermine the very essence of the democratic process. On the one hand, the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate exaggerate the political power of the prairie, the Great Plains, and the Mountain States. Wyoming's senators represent about half a million people; California's represent 34 million. Yet every state has exactly the same number of Senate votes. On the other hand, many heartland politicians raise much of their money from the wealthy in coastal enclaves, prompting questions about whether they represent their local constituents or their distant donors.

The geographic divide is also an economic divide. During the past decade seventeen of the twenty fastest-growing counties in the United States were on the coasts, as were eighteen of the twenty counties that lead the nation in per capita income. Many CEOs and Hollywood stars seek a change of scenery at private ranches and resorts in the interior, where the descendants of once proud farming and ranching families wait on their tables or scrub their floors. As ambitious young people move out, entire regions enter an economic death spiral, characterized by an aging population, a shrinking tax base, and contracting public and private investment.

Meanwhile, inequality is growing on the coasts themselves. The 2000 census revealed a startling drop in median income in New York City, the result of depressed wages in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens where the immigrant population has grown the most. The census revealed a similar phenomenon in other northeastern cities and in southern California—also areas of high immigration. Even if wages in densely populated cities and states were not being driven down by mass immigration, crowding would inevitably raise both real-estate prices and the cost of living—to the detriment of working-class Americans and the poor.

From the archives:

"The Return of Inequality" (June 1988)
The great bulk of Americans are losing economic and political power, while the affluent are gaining both. This is not a recipe for social comity. By Thomas Byrne Edsall
The nightmarish result might be an America in which the same wealthy elite lords it over both a largely nonwhite proletariat of maids, nannies, gardeners, and janitors in the coastal cities and over a mostly white working class of janitors, dude-ranch employees, and tourist-trap workers in the interior. This, in turn, might produce a hardening economic and racial hierarchy or even a class war. Whatever the outcome, the American dream of a middle-class society might be threatened.

he heartland needs people—and many Americans on the coasts need affordable housing. Why not bring them together?

Imagine a federal program that would help poor and working-class Americans to move not from crowded cities to suburbs in the same general area but from crowded states to low-density states where homes are cheaper and the general cost of living is lower. Compare the proportion of homes that a median-income family can afford in Kansas City (82.1 percent) with the number in Boston (51.3 percent), New York City (42.1 percent), Los Angeles (40.2 percent), and San Francisco (10.3 percent). The people who moved would not be the only ones to benefit financially. If the coastal areas did not replace those lost workers with migrants from elsewhere in the country or the world, wages there might rise as the labor market grew tight; and financial barriers to home ownership would decline even in big coastal cities.

Today only about six percent of America's land is residential (urban, suburban, and rural). About 20 percent is farmland, another 25 percent is rangeland, and the rest is wilderness and woodland. The United States grows far more food today than it did in 1954—on about three quarters the acreage. Since 1950, even as agricultural production has increased by more than 100 percent, land has been taken out of agriculture eight times as fast as it has been consumed by suburban development. Much of that abandoned farmland has gone back to forest, particularly in the Northeast. In the twenty-first century most of the land that is liberated from unnecessary agriculture can continue to be restored to wilderness—prairie, forest, or desert—even if a significant portion is reserved for new, low-density housing for migrants from the crowded coastal states.

The federal government subsidizes many farms and ranches that should have been shut down long ago. At best, farm subsidies provide life support for comatose communities. The government is planning to spend at least $171 billion on direct farm subsidies alone over the coming decade. In much of the continental interior this money would be better used to promote a combination of service and manufacturing industries, as part of an ambitious economic-development program for the region.

From the archives:

"The Trouble With Dams" (August 1995)
Some 100,000 dams regulate America's rivers and creeks, often at the expense of ecosystems—and of taxpayers, who are subsidizing handouts to a large number of farmers, floodplain occupants, hydro-electricity users, and river-transportation interests. By Robert S. Devine
Washington should also phase out the roughly $2 billion in annual irrigation subsidies to western agribusinesses—of which almost half is used for surplus crops. Subsidized irrigation is rapidly depleting the High Plains aquifer under Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, which now provides about 30 percent of the groundwater used in the United States. The experiment with agriculture in the semi-arid Great Plains from the late nineteenth century onward was a mistake; it produced the Dust Bowl during the Depression and today's regional demographic decline. Cutting off such subsidies would not only end the western water wars but also drive agriculture eastward to states like Illinois and Iowa, where water is abundant and renewable. Within those states market pricing for water would encourage crop diversification and technological innovation in agriculture. Residential and industrial use, not agricultural use, should be the priority of water policy in the Great Plains and the desert and Mountain West, including major portions of California and Texas. And diverting water from agriculture to industry has the potential to generate far more jobs: according to the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, the same amount of water that supports a sixty-acre alfalfa farm with only two workers could support a semiconductor factory with 2,000 workers.

The money saved by reducing direct and indirect agricultural subsidies could help to pay for a new high-tech infrastructure in the American heartland. All too many rural areas lack, for example, high-speed broadband access. The federal government, which subsidized the railroad in the nineteenth century and the electric-power grid and interstate highways in the twentieth, needs to build a transcontinental infrastructure once again. A hydrogen-based transportation system might be constructed from nothing in many rural areas, which would be spared the transition costs necessary in developed regions. And the government could encourage an air-taxi system, such as James Fallows has proposed in this magazine (see "Freedom of the Skies," June 2001 Atlantic), in which thousands of small regional airports would supplement our major hubs, potentially turning dying small towns into new centers of commerce and culture. An "interstate-skyway system" might be to America in the twenty-first century what the interstate-highway system was in the twentieth.

ural Kansas will never be as scenic as San Francisco, or as crowded with libraries as Boston. But a post-agrarian heartland would be a nice place to live for the children and grandchildren of many of today's struggling coastal families. Fortunately, most jobs in the service economy can be performed anywhere. By 1997, 39 percent of Great Plains farm owners were already designating their main job as "other," rather than "farmer," on their tax returns. By the middle of the twenty-first century the archetypal Plains dweller might be a telecommuting professional.

Thomas Jefferson's idea that population dispersal would promote economic and social equality was shared by Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Homestead Act to provide western land to settlers from the East, and by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in 1925 expressed admiration for Canada's policy of seeking "distribution of [its] immigrants throughout every portion of Canada." By means of rural electrification, interstate-highway construction, tax benefits for homeowners, and the nationwide distribution of military plants and government contracts, FDR and his successors made it possible for immigrant slum dwellers and poor tenant farmers to become today's home-owning suburban majority.

In a second inland movement, wired professionals and well-paid service workers might make new lives in wide-open spaces that are slowly reverting from monotonous expanses of wheat and corn to wilderness. The first wave of heartland settlement was in the long-term perspective a failure, with consequences that are evident today. The high-tech pioneers of the twenty-first century, unlike their agrarian predecessors, may be able to reconcile the myth of the heartland with the American dream.

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Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (2002).
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January/February 2003; The New Continental Divide; Volume 291, No. 1; 86-88.