Ope — didn't count you! New study asks who exactly lives in the 'Midwest'

Oct. 18, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

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The Middle West Review teased the results of its study with this meme. (Middle West Review / Courtesy)

A research journal called the Middle West Review released the results of what it describes as the “largest-ever study on who considers themselves to be Midwesterners.” Researchers collected about 11,000 responses.

“The big conclusion is that, indeed, Midwestern identity is very strong,” said study leader Jon Lauck, editor-in-chief of the Middle West Review. “I think there is a general belief that the strongest regional identity in the country is Southern identity, and that perhaps the weakest regional identity is in the Midwest, because the borders are a little more amorphous.”

The research covered 22 states, including the 12 designated as Midwest by the U.S Census bureau, and ten on the fringes of what might typically be considered the Midwest.

Lauck decided to include states like West Virginia, Tennessee and Colorado, to determine just how far the Midwestern identity reaches.

“As I started to organize the survey I said, ‘Well, this isn't going to be super helpful unless we know what the state next door thinks,’ and that's why it's so useful to have these comparables.”

Iowa and Minnesota residents expressed the strongest sense of Midwestern identity, with 97% of respondents in each state considering themselves to live in the Midwest.

Many Americans would consider Ohio and Michigan strongly Midwestern, but fewer respondents from those states claim the identity. Compare that to Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, where more than 90% of respondents consider themselves Midwesterners.

Many Oklahomans also identify with the Midwest — 66% in the poll.

“There are doubters out there who believe that the Midwest doesn't exist, or it's not a place where people have a strong sense of regional identity,” Lauck said. “And this study clearly rebuts both of those claims.”

The Middle West Review is a partner of the Midwestern History Association and is published by the University of Nebraska Press. The research for its Midwestern identity poll was conducted by Emerson College.

Why do we need to know this?

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Researchers asked ten questions, including "Do you consider yourself a Midwesterner?" This map shows the percentage of respondents in each state who said, "Yes." (Middle West Review)

The poll goes beyond the number of people in each state who consider themselves Midwestern. The researchers asked ten questions in all – covering gender, race and ethnicity, political affiliation and education level. The complete results of the survey will be available at the Middle West Review website in an open source database.

Lauck, who has authored several books on Midwestern history, said the survey is important for reasons other than debunking myths. Researchers from a variety of fields including history, geography, political science, economics and demography, will find it useful in their work, he said.

In addition to gauging statewide sentiment about the Midwest, the research yielded results from individual zip codes in all 22 states. That means anyone can study specific communities where people identify more strongly as Midwesterners–and less so.

“Since we have this data by zip code, we can really nail that down,” Lauck said. “If it was just state level statewide data, we wouldn't be able to do that. We wouldn't be able to say, ‘What are the most Midwestern parts of Michigan or Missouri.’”

One somewhat surprising takeaway from the research, Lauck said, is that people’s sense of the extent of Midwest geography goes further west than previously thought. For example, 92% of Nebraska respondents to the poll identified as Midwesterners, even though much of Nebraska lies in what some refer to as the Great Plains.

“The Great Plains identity is probably a lot weaker than we think,” Lauck said. “I mean, how many people do you know who say to themselves, ‘Well, I'm a plainsman.’ No one says that.”

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Ness Sandoval researches demography and inequality in American cities at Saint Louis University. (Courtesy)

Ness Sandoval, a demographer at Saint Louis University, grew up in Scottsbluff–population 15,000–in Nebraska’s panhandle. He identifies strongly as a Midwesterner, regardless of his hometown’s western location in what some might consider Great Plains territory.

Forebears on his mother’s side of the family left Mexico in 1910 and migrated first to New Mexico, then Kansas and finally to Nebraska, finding work in the railroad industry. Midwestern institutions such as the University of Nebraska and Creighton University served as symbols of the American dream, Sandoval said.

He points to the “brain drain” trend in rural communities that both his research and census data shows..

“No stores, one gas station, no fast food,” Sandoval said. “These towns are never coming back. We will see more ‘micropolitans’ like my town Scottsbluff being the big city.”

A sense of place may not be enough to keep Midwesterners in rural areas, but Lauck said Midwesterners may not venture too far away.

“There are an increasing number of people who stick close to home,” Lauck said. “And their families’ characteristics and traditions.”

Lauck said the desire to identify with a region also exerts a strong pull.

“I think every person has a deeper and natural instinct to want to know who they are and what their identity is, and one of the most crucial forms of identity is the place where you are from,” he said. “I think there's a completely natural and obvious and powerful desire to know who you are and how your place has defined you.”

Views of the Midwest

There are no shortage of stereotypes and assumptions about the Midwest as a geographical region. A popular X (formerly Twitter) account called Midwest vs. Everybody plays on the region’s weather, landscape, people, food and culture, to the delight of about a half-million followers.

Then there’s the literary Midwestern pastoral tradition, which centers rural narratives that celebrate a “mystical as well as practical” attachment to the land. Practitioners of this genre are mostly white, and include novelist Willa Cather (Nebraska), poet James Wright (Ohio) and poet Theodore Roethke (Michigan).

An understanding of the region through a limited lens fails to take into account the diverse lived experiences of people who reside in the region, said Ashley Howard, a history professor at the University of Iowa who studies African Americans in the Midwest.

“In many ways the assumptions individuals hold about the Midwest come from both within and outside of the region,” Howard, who had not read the study before being interviewed, said. “People struggle to reconcile the contributions of diverse populations, depicting them as merely in a place and not of it, inserting their experiences into extant narratives instead of writing completely new regional stories.”

Howard, who grew up in Nebraska, said Black life in the Midwest is often overlooked as people consider what being a Midwesterner means.

“Being a Black Midwesterner is a complex identity,” she said. “We are often illegible, as our experiences are read as inauthentic both to our white regional counterparts and those within our race but outside of the Midwest.”

Just as the Midwestern pastoral celebrates a mostly white idea of the region, some of the most iconic representations of Black American life come from the Midwest, Howard said. She pointed to Motown, authors like Toni Morrison and Rita Dove (both Ohioans), the photography of Gordon Parks (Kansas) and the art Elizabeth Catlett (who spent much of her career in Iowa).

“On a personal level, I think chili and cinnamon rolls are a perfect combination,” Howard said. “And I would never walk out of the house wearing gloves on a 55-degree day, even though my hands are freezing, because the shame of someone seeing me do so is too great.”


This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative and enterprise journalism collaboration including KCUR 89.3, IPR, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.