Mean population center of US shifts west and south; Midwest may no longer be the heartland

Geographically, the Midwest is a broad US region between the two coasts and north of the South (as it was constituted in the Civil War). But symbolically, the Midwest is often referred to the as the “heartland” or as where “mainstream” America is, an idea illustrated by a journalist’s claim that a Nixon policy would “play in Peoria” in 1969.

A little-referenced geographic measure, the mean center of population in the United States, is moving west and south again, suggesting that the Midwest will no longer be the American center within several decades:

When the Census Bureau announces a new mean center of population next month, geographers believe it will be placed in or around Texas County, Mo., southwest of the present location in Phelps County, Mo. That would put it on a path to leave the region by midcentury.

“The geography is clearly shifting, with the West beginning to emerge as America’s new heartland,” said Robert Lang, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who regularly crunches data to determine the nation’s center. “It’s a pace-setting region that is dominant in population growth but also as a swing point in American politics.”

The last time the U.S. center fell outside the Midwest was 1850, in the eastern territory now known as West Virginia. Its later move to the Midwest bolstered the region as the nation’s cultural heartland in the 20th century, central to U.S. farming and Rust Belt manufacturing sites.

In my mind, the best use of this measure is to track its changing path over time: it has consistently moved West though hasn’t moved that far South. In terms of showing where the “center” is, it is less clear. I would see this type of measure as similar to National Geographic’s recent “most typical face“: it tells us something but is best useful for tracking changes over time.

As for whether this moving mean center of population really means that the Midwest will not be considered the mainstream, this remains to be seen. Could the West really be the new heartland in the eyes of the American people? This would involve a shift in symbols, particularly about what it means to be the “heartland.” Is it where most of the people are, where the swing states are, where there is the most history, where there is the most agriculture, where people are most traditional, or where the people are the most “normal”?

 

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