A new survey tries to define what states make up the Midwest. The results surprised this Kansan.

October 19, 2023 3:33 am
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas shows the grand expanses of our state. No wonder we're included in the Great Plains. Or is that the Midwest instead? (Getty Images)

“Where do we live?” I asked my husband Tuesday morning. “I mean, what region of the country?”

“The Midwest,” he replied from the kitchen.

“You know, some people call it the Great Plains,” I said.

“Nobody calls it that,” he said, looking through the refrigerator.

My curiosity had been piqued by a recent study from Emerson College Polling the Middle West Review, a scholarly journal from the University of South Dakota. Researchers wanted to know who considered themselves part of the Midwest. Who would include their states, who wouldn’t, and who would identify as a “Midwesterner.” They collected more than 11,000 answers in 22 states — nearly half the country — to create a new map of an increasingly fuzzy region.

Their results raised my eyebrows.

“These intriguing results underscore the strength of Midwestern identity, despite what some have claimed, and further justify the efforts being made to study the Midwest and its history,” said Jon Lauck, editor of Middle West Review, in a release about the results. He also happens to have written a new book about the area: “The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest.”

Upon looking at the map, I had two big questions. First, what are they thinking out there in Pennsylvania? Nearly one in 10 residents of the Keystone State believe they live in the Midwest. Second, what’s up with the folks in Idaho? A tick more than a quarter of the residents of the Gem State think they’re in the Midwest.

I … I just don’t think so.

In the words of my husband, nobody calls you that.

As for Kansas, I’m a little unsure. The U.S. Census Bureau includes us in its definition of the Midwest, but it also splits the region into two. The East North Central states include Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The Mississippi River divides them from the West North Central states, which include North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. The states in the first group all share borders with the Great Lakes. The states in the second group make up a chunk of the North American Great Plains region.

Those two areas seem quite distinct in my mind. Yet, folks who live in both apparently believe they share a single Midwest.

A healthy 91.2% of Kansans identify this state as part of the region. But we’re still behind Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, both Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. The two states most convinced of their Midwestern identity? Iowa and Minnesota, with 96.7% and 96.5% of their residents respectively claiming the title.

Then you have the peculiar outliers.

Who would have thought that nearly 10% of folks in Tennessee believe their state is part of the Midwest, or 13% of folks in West Virginia?

– Clay Wirestone

I’ve already highlighted Pennsylvania and Idaho, which reach the furthest geographically. But who would have thought that nearly 10% of folks in Tennessee believe their state is part of the Midwest, or 13% of folks in West Virginia?

Looking at this map, I can’t help but wonder if living in the Midwest has come to signify a certain status. It expresses something dependable and honorable, trustworthy and decent. Some of the residents might lean blue, some might lean red, but they all prize common sense and hard work. We prize family, faith and friends. We don’t put on airs.

In other words, it has less to do with where we live and more to do with how we feel about ourselves.

“It is traditional to use the 100th meridian as a dividing line between the agrarian Midwest and the high plains,” Lauck said. “But this data indicates that the Midwest extends farther west toward the Rockies and that few people identify as plainsmen. More than 40% of Coloradans, mostly on the eastern slope and closer to the Midwest, consider themselves Midwestern. Over half of Wyomingites do.”

Or you could just turn to Minnesota’s own Garrison Keillor, who described the fictional town of Lake Wobegon as a place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Listen, we can quibble. I’ve always liked the sound of the Great Plains myself. Maybe nobody calls it that, despite my partiality.

But if you want to become a part of the Midwest family, come right on in. There’s apparently room to spare.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.