The U.S. Census Bureau announced the population center of the United States this week. Imagine that America were a flat plane, and that every resident weighed exactly 150 pounds. The population center is the point where the country would balance on a needle.
As of April 1, 2010, the population center of the United States is a half-mile southwest of Plato, Missouri. That’s not a bad place for it. Missouri is the state where east, west, north and south come together. Missouri is so average it voted for the winner of every presidential election between 1960 and 2004.
(If you’re wondering, the population center of Illinois is near Morris.)
The population center has moved west every census since 1790, when it was just outside Baltimore. For three decades, it passed through Illinois. They were the best three decades this state -- and this country -- ever had.
In 1950, Louisville was the middle of America. In 1960, it was, appropriately, Centralia. In 1970, Mascoutah was the spot where America came together. In those years, Illinois had 27 seats in Congress, Chicago was still the Second City, and the Midwest was the industrial heartland of America, providing the best-paying jobs for the biggest middle class America has ever seen.
As Hope Yen of the Associated Press pointed out, in the middle of the 20th Century, the Midwest was synonymous with Middle America:
The last time the U.S. center fell outside the Midwest was 1850, in the eastern territory now known as West Virginia. Its later move to the Midwest bolstered the region as the nation’s cultural heartland in the 20th century, central to U.S. farming and Rust Belt manufacturing sites.
In the 1960s, “Will it play in Peoria?” was a common phrase that coincided with the U.S. center’s location in Illinois. It was a measure of whether a politician or product could appeal to mainstream Americans with traits associated with Midwesterners, such as stability and caution.
But over the last decade, the Phoenix suburb of Peoria, Ariz., soared past its namesake Peoria, Ill., in population. With Arizona on track to surpass Ohio in electoral votes by midcentury, issues important to the West will gain in political sway.
By the 1980 census, the population center had jumped across the Mississippi River, into Missouri, and now seems headed toward Arkansas or Oklahoma. The typical American is no longer a small-town Illinoisan, but a Sun Belt suburbanite.
On the other hand, Illinois’s Adlai Stevenson ran for president twice when we were the middle of America, and lost both times. Barack Obama ran after we lost the title, and won, despite losing Missouri, that most middling of states.
That’s because Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel are the centers of the universe, no matter what the Census Bureau says.
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