Book finds reasons for optimism in the heartland
Robert Wuthnow's new book "Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s" examines changes in the region over the past 60 years, including shifts in population, developments in agriculture and business and the evolution of cultural and political values. He argues that while many researchers and journalists have lamented the decline of the Midwest, and particularly small towns, the region has succeeded in remaking itself and has experienced a "strong, positive transformation."
He examines some of the institutions that have helped shore up the region during difficult transitions and talks with Midwesterners about their communities. For his purposes, Wuthnow considers nine states to be the heartland: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Wuthnow is a professor of social sciences at Princeton University and grew up near Lyons, Kan. His next book is entitled "Red State Religion."
The following is an excerpt from a recent conversation with Mr. Wuthnow.
Let's start with your personal connection to the Midwest and how that motivated you to research the region. Where did you grow up?
Wuthnow: I grew up in central Kansas and left the area right after college, in 1968. I have of course been back a number of times but have never lived there or any place in the Midwest since. I lived for 10 years or so on the West Coast and have lived on the East Coast ever since, and so this book was for me an attempt to explore the path I didn't take â the life I didn't end up living in the Midwest.
Did you find that your family's experiences in some ways mirrored the larger cultural and economic changes the heartland experienced in the latter half of the 20th century?
Wuthnow: I did. One of the things that resonated with me â going back to the 1930s and looking at the region during the Depression and after â was the discovery, through looking at economic statistics and social statistics, that things were still not so good in the 1950s. Struggles among the farming population, bad weather, years of drought. I certainly experienced that myself as a child in a family of pretty meager means and came to realize that was a big part of this story. A more positive part of this story â¦ was how good the schools were and still are in that part of the country â amazing high-quality public education, starting way back in Iowa and Minnesota in the 1850s, and in Kansas and the Dakotas in the 1870s. [States] invested very seriously in public education and then funded good state universities, and I really benefited from that.
When you began your research for this book, you assumed you would be telling the story of how "the heartland was a place of withering decline," but when you finished, you had a different story to tell of positive change. Why hadn't this been told?
Wuthnow: Living on the East Coast as long as I have and getting most of my news about the Midwest from the New York Times, you read story after story about how problematic things are in small towns or how badly the soil or the aquifers are being depleted.
It's certainly true that lots of people have struggled in [the middle] part of the country, so I don't want to diminish that. But I was increasingly impressed that those strong local institutions that have been established over a hundred years or so â including the family farms and the small businesses and the schools and churches and community organizations â really did provide an infrastructure that has served very well to adapt to changes, whether those have to do with the decline of small towns or the decline of the farming population, or, on the other hand, the growth of suburbs or the growth of big agribusiness or the increasingly diverse population of new immigrants.
What kind of upheaval occurred in the region in the 1950s and why has it historically been glossed over?
Wuthnow: One of the standard accounts of the 1950s is that everything was fine, that the Great Depression had ended in 1941 and wheat prices had gone up and everybody was flourishing or they were off fighting the war, then they came back and had babies, so the 1950s was a time of baby boom and family and community. What hasn't been emphasized so much is the continuing economic struggles that many people had. More people abandoned farming in the 1950s than did in the 1930s.
The other change I found especially interesting was a cultural change. In some of the popular journals such as Farm Journal or Successful Farming, you begin to see the idea of the small-town person or the farmer being a modern person, a business person, a person of ingenuity and a person who buys the same home appliances and watches the same television programs as everybody else. So in that sense you have a major cultural upgrading of the self-image of the region.
People generally want to feel that what they're doing is good, so they began to subtly redefine: "OK, so it's not that we're actually pioneers anymore, but we still have some of that ingenuity." Or, "We're not farmers anymore but we still have an appreciation for the land, and we don't plow the fields but we go out and watch the sun set."
You point to several major developments in the heartland since the 1950s. How were they part of the region's "remaking?"
Wuthnow: The population change was shifting people out of the region [and] the population overall was growing less than other parts of the country and moving from farms to towns, and from towns to cities. It was unsettling a region that had thought of itself as being pretty stable. The truth of the matter was it had never been very stable â the first settlers of course were migrants, and many of them had lived in several places before they came. And after they came, because they were having large families, some of the kids were moving on to other parts of the country.
[In agriculture], tractors had become available in the 1920s, but because of the Depression people hadn't been able to afford them. So it wasn't until the 1950s and even later when tractors, self-propelled combines, larger equipment and so forth made it possible for more land to be farmed by fewer people. Gradually over the next several decades, changes in biotechnology became important. As fewer people lived on farms and therefore fewer people needed smaller towns for business, those towns declined and the larger regional hubs took over.
What about the role of "edge cities" â suburbs of places like Kansas City and St. Louis â in the transformation of the heartland. Why have they grown so much and what do you think they will look like in the future?
Wuthnow: They've grown a lot in recent years because that's where the jobs were and the newer homes and the schools. Often there were large companies that located there because it was a good part of the country or there was not a union, in some cases. In many cases there was a precedent, and often that precedent was World War II, when cities in the region became very important in the supply of military equipment or the training of soldiers â also air bases, aviation plants, and ordnance plants that were located far enough from either coast to be considered more secure. Many plants, because they needed space or were too dangerous to be located in whatever city, were located out in the surrounding areas. So that was really the beginning of development.
We talked with urban and economic development people and looked at a lot of reports, and there's quite a bit of optimism that those communities are going to keep on growing. If you project out over the next 30 or 40 years, some of those communities â around suburban St. Louis, around suburban Minneapolis â are expected to grow by another 25 to 30 or even 50 percent. The controversy is always about sprawl and whether too much land is being taken up. At the same time you have give the planners credit for providing recreational space â parks, hiking trails. Edge cities are not small towns, they've got traffic problems, sometimes overcrowding problems, but they certainly are the new face of [the region].
Katy June-Friesen, a native Kansan, is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. To reach her, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.