It’s tornado season, the springtime tempest, which means the Big Empty of the United States will get another cameo on the nation’s stage. Prepare for the annual montage of heartbreak and houses tossed to the wind, of schools scalped of their roofs and trailer parks reduced to rubble.
What most of us know about the heartland barely extends beyond Dorothy’s house in Kansas, or Sarah Palin pablum about “real Americans.” That’s a shame, because there are two big stories shaping the Great Plains — one of steroidal growth and disruption in the energy boom, the other of the slow death of small-town life. Incongruent as it seems, both are going on at the same time, in the same states.
A record one in three of the nation’s counties are dying off — more deaths than births. The emptying of America is happening in Maine and West Virginia, in Michigan, western Pennsylvania and upstate New York. But the most depopulated area is right down the midsection of the United States. An hour’s drive from a boomtown with a spaghetti tangle of pipelines is a ghost town with a grade school that hasn’t seen a kid in 50 years.
The impulse is either to write off the dying counties as flyover country and a buffalo commons, or to further turn them into a vast oil- and gas-producing zone. But there are other ways to a livable (and that overused word “sustainable”) tomorrow. This future is just below ground level, and at the border’s edge: water and immigration.
Without immigrants, many of them illegal, huge parts of the prairie would be left with nothing but the old and dying. “Please come here,” said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, after the census report on depopulation was released last year. “Immigrants are innovators, entrepreneurs, they’re making things happen.”
In Snyder’s Republican Party, that kind of talk can get you in trouble if you don’t also follow it with a hateful blast at illegals. Look at what happened to Jeb Bush last week. He said many undocumented immigrants come to America as “an act of love” and “an act of commitment” to their families. His comments were thoughtful and truthful. But judging by the reaction among fellow Republicans, you would think he just said something nice about President Obama. Like it or not, immigrants are the only positive population dynamic at play in hundreds of dying counties.
In a year’s time or less, the men and women who want to be the next president will troop out to Iowa, for an inordinate amount of time. The press will parse every poll, deconstruct every gaffe. Seventy of Iowa’s 99 counties are losing people, but you won’t hear anything about that on cable’s news wasteland. So, which is worse: a heartland in trouble, or a system where the big issues — water, land and new blood — are not even part of a democracy’s most important contest?
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I read an interesting book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, by Nick Reding. These same midwestern areas have had problems with methamphetamine. The problems with drug use are complex, of course, but in the book he made some interesting observations that were not related to drugs.
He noted that large slaughterhouses (he had a story of one) have developed a new strategy: fire all the union employees and hire Mexican labour (not necessarily legal, either). Of course, they will work for less!
The losers are the people who live in these small towns that are not able to get educations in a professional field and leave for the city. They are same ones using meth.
But you don’t see the New York Times on that story. NYT has simply decided that mass immigration is one its causes, that it must promote.