Everybody is Leaving Iowa
Iowa is one of the worst states in the nation for brain drain
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about personhood and politics written by a journalist (me), living in Iowa. Subscriptions make it possible for me to stay in Iowa, even as everyone is leaving.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting at brunch with my dear friend, when she broke the news: She was moving. I should have been happy for her, and I am, but I was also very sad. She’s one of many of my dear friends to leave the state since 2020. New Mexico. Oklahoma. New York. Washington DC.
Iowa ranks among one of the nation’s worst for brain drain, with negative 34% growth. Making it one of the top ten states in the nation that people most want to leave. Iowa’s numbers are the worst of all the six states that border it.
In August, Gazette reporter Elijah Decious wrote about LGBTQ identifying residents of the state who were fleeing as anti-trans legislation makes its way into law.
Everyone, it seems, is leaving Iowa.
No one should stay if they cannot live safely in a place. No one should stay in a place if they cannot have the life they want to live. But I often think about how the stories of Middle America are so often told by the people who leave, rather than the ones who are left behind. My friend, the author Jeanna Kadlec, in her book Heretic, writes about Iowa with such longing and a clear perspective. She loves it here, but as a queer woman she tells me, she could never move back.
I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in Texas for 12 years and then moved to South Dakota, then Minnesota, and now I live in Iowa, where I’ve lived as long as I’ve lived anywhere else at this point. You could say I belong. I now have a chip on my shoulder and a list of grudges a mile long. I can make passable cheesy potatoes, but I’ll never understand snickers salad or say “pop.” My favorite quip about Iowa is that it’s a lot like Texas except no one here knows how to roast a pig. I mean that literally and metaphorically.
I also say, you can afford a home here, but there is no one around to pay you a living wage.
To belong somewhere means you share something in common with the people around you. And I sometimes wonder if this sense of belonging built on gas station pizza and passive aggressiveness are enough of a dark tangle of roots to keep me.
I often find the writing that extolls the benefits of the Midwest to be cloying and condescending. It’s good. It’s wholesome. People are nice. There is so much space. As if those same bland things couldn’t be said about other places and other cities. Places are just places. With the exception of a good bagel, you can even find most food anywhere you go. There is goodness and wholesomeness everywhere. A region is not more virtuous just because there are fewer buildings. That emptiness came with the violence too. This land also secretes poison.
Milan Kundera calls “kitsch” the erasure of shit. And that’s what a lot of Midwestern apologia is — ignoring who had to be cleared out of this land for it to be so empty. In a recent campaign ad, Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds sits in an Iowa diner, while a TV plays a clip of Cori Bush talking about defunding the police. Reynolds is not running for re-election against the Missouri congresswoman, she’s running against another Black woman, Deidre DeJear. But you wouldn’t know that from the ad. After lambasting the Coasts, Reynolds quips, “Aren’t you glad you live in Iowa?”
The ad plays into racist fears and erases the 10,000 Covid deaths in the state, along with our brain drain, poisoned lakes, and our dying small towns. It’s an ad that requires the demonization of one place to extol the imagined virtues of the other.
I think it’s possible to love a place and see it for what it is. But the “if you hate it, leave” crowd seems to be the loudest these days.
But also, the value of a place should not be decided on it’s politics. Right after an in-land hurricane tore through my town, and people were struggling for help, a common refrain on social media was, “That’s what you get for voting for Republicans.” As if the accidents of birth geography, and the intentional segregation of gerrymandering and voter suppression, meant people should suffer. I saw people saying similarly dismissive things after the energy crisis in Texas and people will be saying it as Floridians suffer in the wake of this hurricane. It’s a cruel calculation. One that equates politics with virtue and virtue with worthiness. But the reality is people need help simply because they are people.
And the truth is, parts of the East Coast are just as red as Iowa. People here as just as blue as California. If you don’t see the ugliness in your place, you are just able to hide from it better. Iowa was one of the first states to integrate schools and legalize interracial marriage, and was the third state to legalize gay marriage. But we are also a state desperately trying to roll back abortion rights, defunding SNAP benefits, poisoning our water. This is a place, like every place, that is a complex tangle of identity and politics and place. A place that has no easy answers.
I will say this: I love this land. There are parts ironed-flat by the glaciers. These are places where land and sky almost seem to be one. The other places, the places those ancient glaciers missed, that roll into beautiful rivers, lined with variegated greens, then gold, then, in the winter, white and blue. I love this place with stubborn and infuriating neighbors who both listen to right wing radio at 6am on their porch and insist on helping me remove debris from my yard after an in-land hurricane destroyed the town. This is a place where our neighbors are impossible to escape but our history is so often ignored.
I love it here. I love how close we all are and how safe that feels even as it also feels claustrophobic. This place looks open as an inviting hand. But it is often as closed as a hard fist.
These contradictions feel part of the political because they are part of the landscape.
Like I said, I have no answers. As Phil Christman wrote in his book Midwest Futures, “On the moral frontier, you wrestle with things that are too big for you, and sometimes you fail.”
But taped above my desk is paragraph from a story by the writer Bess Streeter Aldritch, who also grew up in New Hartford, the home of Senator Chuck Grassley.
“Small and midwestern is Maple City, which in the eyes of many modernists is synonymous for all that is hideous and cramping. A handful of people, they say we are, knotted together like roots in the darkness. Blind souls, they call us – struggling spirits who can never find deliverance from sordid surroundings. Poor thinkers! Not to know that from tangled roots shimmering growth may spring to the light in beautiful winged release.”
Right now it’s fall. And fall in Iowa is perfect. The weather is cool and the edges of nature are lightly tinted red and orange. Everything will turn soon. But right now, the land is balanced on this gilded golden edge.
I also wrote about losing in a red state back in April.