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Columns Tom Baxter

Across an emptying heartland, worries we’re filling up

Economic Innovation Group; Moody’s; Census Bureau, Working Adults

Nearly half of Americans live in a county where the prime working-age population (ages 25 to 54) shrank over the last decade. Sources: Economic Innovation Group; Moody’s; Census Bureau

By Tom Baxter

Are we filling up or hollowing out?

“Our country is full,” President Trump said at two events last week, sparking a spirited reaction from demographers who have been warning that aging, shrinking populations are causing much of the country to fall into decline.

Across much of rural America and in Midwestern cities stricken by plant closures, that trend seems to be accelerating. A study released earlier this year by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire reported that 24 percent of the nation’s counties are suffering “protracted and significant population loss,” particularly of those residents in their most productive years. In Georgia, 30 of the state’s 159 counties lost population between 2000 and 2010. That number rose to 82 counties in the period between 2010 and 2013.

The Economic Innovation Group, a tech money-financed think tank, has even proposed a “Heartland Visa” program to give economically challenged area a jolt of what has helped to revitalize the parts of the country that are growing — which is to say, immigrants.

It’s unlikely that proposal is going to get a very warm reception in those parts of the country it’s intended to help. Those places in America where this hollowing-out is hitting hardest are also where we’d expect to find the most heartfelt approval for Trump’s sentiment. It isn’t only in the United States where there are contradictory perceptions about what constitutes full or empty. The 10 countries experiencing the most rapid population loss are all in Eastern Europe, a region where hostility to immigrants is particularly strong.

That may be because these places losing population fastest are where the cultural membrane which connects people to each other has been stretched thinnest. In “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse,” the conservative writer Timothy P. Carney argues that closing churches are a stronger indicator of the alienation which fired Trump’s earliest supporters than closing factories.

Although Trump did well among conservative churchgoers, Carney found that his strongest support came from those who don’t go to church as much as they used to. Those who see an entire way of life slipping away from them and are losing touch the cultural institutions which have sustained them are unlikely to see economic promise in an unfamiliar face.

This alienation has been in progress long before the latest batch of economic trends, by the way. One of the striking things about the 1950-51 Mother’s Best Flour shows Hank Williams did on WSM Radio in Nashville is the interconnectedness of the rural South which these recordings reveal today. (Disclaimer: I have the bootleg, not the authorized version.) And this was in a time when there was less money for gas and no interstates to drive on.

With an ease that suggests his audience will understand him perfectly well, Williams chats between songs about the best places to hunt birds in Alabama and catch fish in Louisiana. Young white people from the country had already begun moving into cities like Nashville and Montgomery in droves, echoing somewhat the migration of blacks to the North a generation or so before.

But they could still understand a rural map of cultural touch points that is largely lost to us today. The sentiment most commonly shared by Trump white working-class voters, Carney found, was the feeling they had become strangers in their own land.

Trump called what he said last week “a new statement,” and indeed it does mark a final break with the old doctrine that illegal immigration, not the legal means by which many immigrants have become Americans, is what should be remedied. That has seemed dubious for some time, and Trump’s comments should make the true doctrine plain.

“Our country is full, our area is full, the sector is full,” Trump said. “We can’t take any more. Sorry. Can’t have it. So turn around. That’s the way it is.”

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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  1. ATLBooster April 15, 2019 10:44 pm

    There’s a slew to unpack in that. I want tp bash ATL because thats fun to do, but here’s the reality stripped bare on what happened and where were going. Trump was elected because of technological transformations have and threaten to leave millions of people completly behind. Those rural whites saw the rust beit and said youll give us Sanders or Trump and no one else. Trump says to world that America will turn the clock back so that we stop time. We therefore save ourselves from the bad future. Sanders told the world we will adapt and just pay everyone a salary they need even though there is no work. 2020 will be a test of what we do with that clock.Report

    1. ATLBooster April 15, 2019 11:03 pm

      Im also convinced the people who brought us the internet(whatever that means) would have skipped it given how it’s about to turn out for all of us. Those rural voters may have picked Sanders knowing the ship had sunk but because Trump was all they had he won. Mr Trump has indicated he might have lost in a different universe. So get the popcorn because we will see trillion dollar companies and hardworking but in extreme poverty with an education people battle soon. Greenspan spoke on the futility of education though he didn’t put it that way.Report

  2. atlman April 17, 2019 6:47 am

    @Tom Baxter:

    You seem not to realize that what you are saying is exactly what Trump voters want to hear and do not want. You talk about all of these wide swaths of land with no economic activity and the most educated/skilled and productive citizens are leaving and talking about replacing them not with computer programmers from Taiwan and accountants from South Korea but with families fleeing poverty from Central and South America. So while there may be plenty of room in Kansas – and Georgia outside metro Atlanta – red state voters see the best case being the migrants competing with the locals for what few public sector, construction, agriculture and service jobs there are, and in the process displacing the locals from those scarce jobs. The worst case would be the vast majority of them receiving social services and becoming generational reliers on the social safety net. In either case, those local communities would need to dedicate their already stretched thin housing, health care and public education resources to accommodate them.

    If you can make the case that directing 250,000 migrants to rural Georgia would result in a thriving biotech sector there within 10-15 years, go ahead and do it. I will listen. Otherwise, you are talking about adding population to areas that already have crumbling infrastructure, low performing public schools, closing hospitals, sky high rates of unemployment and people on social services, high rates of obesity/diabetes/teen pregnancy/infectious disease/cancer/hypertension etc. That is what Trump means when he says “we’re full” and when the New York Times and Washington Post shows maps of empty land to show that he is wrong in a literal sense and either try to embarrass him or depict him as a xenophobe, it just shows how out of touch they are.

    Settling migrants to Kansas and Iowa to give a few of them green jobs (ethanol, windmills and solar panels I guess) and have the rest rely on social services might seem like a great idea to the likes of Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, but even Nancy Pelosi (of all people) is pointing out that people with those sorts of policy ideas are only going to get Trump re-elected and then have Pence succeed him. Think about it … is that what your side truly wants? If so, then keep talking up the idea of resettling migrants in places where NAFTA hammered the manufacturing and agriculture jobs just like H. Ross Perot, the original Trump, said it would almost 30 years ago.Report

  3. onlinesavant April 17, 2019 3:04 pm

    I’m just waiting for you to show us where there is a “flood” of undocumented migrants that have “invaded” the rural areas that as per Tom’s article, are hollowing out. If you can’t do this, (Which you can’t) I can only conclude that you’re just postulating based on your own, inherent, bias. You’re pinning your hope on the person in the white house being proven correct about something that already has a body of reference to prove is not true. The FACTS just don’t align with his demagoguery. Undocumented immigrants ARE NOT taking “already scarce jobs” from white people in rural areas. They just aren’t. This is a lie. Full stop. They are also NOT “stretching thin already stressed social services.” They cannot by LAW use the social services that you postulate that they are, and I’m willing to bet that you can find NO evidence that they are. So, what is your real agenda in opposing these people from coming here then? Especially when, as per the article, there’s plenty of space for them, and even a need for them?Report

  4. onlinesavant April 17, 2019 8:48 pm

    Where the reply that I submitted to “altman?” There was nothing wrong with it, except maybe, it spoke the unadulterated truth. Okay, I see Saporta Report. You more than willing to post screeds critical of Democrats, progressives, liberals, etc. However, when there is a push back on that criticism, you can’t seem to find the same fervor to post, huh.Report

    1. mike April 18, 2019 7:55 am

      Who wants to be brainwashed by the fake news and lies and racism from FOX Noise and TrumpReport

  5. mike April 18, 2019 7:54 am

    Trump ‘won’ or cheated to win thanks to the Russians and the FBI based on a promise to Make America White Again and Make America Racist Again. He used racism and a racist wall to brainwash the deplorables to vote against their economic interests. Then he turns around and stabs them in the back by Making America an Oligarchy of the 1% Again. They were conned by a scam artist in Trump who had no interest in helping them. Maybe they should turn off the FOX NoiseReport


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