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The thinning of America's midsection

With the 2000 census, the Midwest stands to lose congressional seats,political and economic clout.

You might call it the hollowing out of America's heartland.

Over the past two decades, population growth in the nation's midsection has fallen further behind the nation as a whole.

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Former farmers are moving to far away cities. Restless twentysomethings are striking out for the glitzy coasts. New immigrants are largely staying put in the border states.

It all adds up to the creeping decline of the Midwest's demographic might - and erosion of its political and economic clout.

As the US economy leaves behind farming and manufacturing and charges into service and information, the region is losing out. It's forfeiting congressional seats and federal funding, slipping behind in income growth, and perhaps even registering less than before on the cultural cutting edge.

Yet even as next year's census promises a new set of hard numbers on this trend, the loss is also sparking a major effort to both reshape and promote the Midwest. It's forcing politicians and business executives to retool the economy as well as articulate the area's strengths - from light traffic to low crime and values-centered people.

"A lot of people are asking, 'Why do we have this huge drain and what can we do about it?' " says Bill Strying of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute.

Declining numbers

Between 1990 and 1998, all 12 Midwestern states tallied population growth rates below the national average. Iowa, North Dakota, and Ohio had rates that were less than half the nation's average. In fact, North Dakota was one of just three states, along with Rhode Island and Connecticut, whose populations actually shrank.

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Together with the Northeast - the other big population loser - the Midwest had to give up 29 congressional seats between 1971 and 1991. The two regions could lose another nine seats after next year's census.

In fact, the numbers show a kind of demographic teeter-totter that's tipping away from the Northeast and Midwest toward the West and South.

In 1970, the nation's population was evenly split between the regions. But by 1997, the Northeast and Midwest had just 40.7 percent of the population, while the South and West had 59.3 percent. That's according to a report by the by the Northeast-Midwest Institute.

This trend has touched off an "extremely dramatic shift in political power," says Dick Munson, the group's executive director. He says the two regions have lost "hundreds of millions of dollars" because population helps determine funding levels for many federal programs - from Medicare to community-development block grants.

The Northeast's population growth is actually significantly slower than the Midwest's, but the Northeast has been agile in switching its economy to the service and information sectors - keeping incomes high.

Consider this: Between 1977 and 1996, the nation's per capita income jumped 233 percent, according to the Northeast-Midwest Institute. Income growth in every New England state kept pace. But in the Midwest, only Minnesota kept up.

People, it seems, go where the money is. And where the culture is.

Take Jennifer Voyles, a quick-to-laugh Indianapolis native who's now a public-relations executive in San Francisco. Her family has lived in Indiana for six generations. But after graduating from Syracuse University in 1996, she bolted to San Francisco.

She loves California for its diversity and bursting energy, something the Midwest just doesn't have. "I grew up in the Midwest eating only iceberg lettuce," she says. "But out here there are 15 kinds of lettuce and a farmers' market every Saturday."

Mr. Styring of the Hudson Institute explains one theory why the Midwest is so far from the cultural frontiers. "Midwesterners don't hold many opinions very strongly," he says. "And if you don't have any opinions, then you're never going to be on the cutting edge. You're never going to be a New Yorker who either loves or hates Hillary Clinton."

Wooing Residents

But Midwestern boosters hope there's more to life than culture and egos.

Earlier this month, Iowa's Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack held a dinner for ex-Iowans at New York's swanky Tavern on the Green. He expected 200 people, but 850 came. As they dined on Iowa beef, he urged them to return to Iowa and take jobs in the state's growing number of biotech and other agriculture companies.

Indeed, many of the region's governments recognize the need for retooling the economy to attract more people.

For some Midwestern communities, population is a critical issue.

Detroit stands to lose some $176 million in federal and state funds if census counters find fewer than 1 million residents. Mayor Dennis Archer plans to have at least one volunteer in every city block to help with the count. His workers are scouring underpasses, homeless shelters, and prisons to find every resident.

North Dakota's Republican Gov. Edward Schafer, meanwhile, seems to have stabilized his incredibly shrinking state. After dipping mid-decade, the population is nearly back to its 1990 level.

Like Iowa, North Dakota is having some success luring people back. "At first, they're attracted to bright lights and headlines," says Governor Schafer. "It doesn't hurt for them to go try their tap dancing or whatever - and then realize they have roots here." He adds, "We have big horizons, we're the No. 1 crime-free state, and we have a sense of community still hanging on."

That kind of pitch might work on people like Ms. Voyles. "I miss not having to lug my laundry three blocks to the laundromat," she says. "When I have kids I can't imagine lugging the stroller along, too. I love San Francisco, but I miss my family."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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