Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Population squeeze

OHIO and Michigan are facing more than a brain drain - they are suffering from a relative population hemorrhage that threatens to doom both states to increasing political irrelevance.

The numbers tell the tale: Back in the 1960s, California was just becoming our largest state, but Michigan and Ohio together easily packed more voting clout in Washington. Between them, the Midwest's twin industrial powerhouses had seven more seats in Congress. Texas was an important state, especially with Lyndon Johnson in the White House, but it had fewer congressmen than Ohio did by itself. What a difference a few decades make.

California, Texas, and the surrounding states have boomed ever since. The Midwest has been in relative decline. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates project that when we are next officially counted, a little more than a year from now, Ohio and Michigan will each lose another seat in the House, bringing our delegations to 31 - down a full dozen seats from four decades before. That's four fewer than Texas is expected to have, and barely half California's total.

Lately, the decline has been grimly accelerating. For the last two years, Michigan has been losing population, the only state other than Rhode Island to do so. Ohio narrowly avoided that fate, adding an anemic 8,269 people last year. Throughout the nation, population continues to flow West and South and, in a lesser-noticed development, from blue states to red. The census projects that states won by John McCain last month will gain 10 electoral votes before the next election.

Midwestern demographers and politicians are muttering about what can be done about this, but the only real answer is a simple, yet difficult, four-letter word: Jobs. The Sunbelt may have its allure, but increasingly, that's more about a paycheck than sunshine. The Midwest is a far more pleasant place to live much of the year - for those who can afford it. We are going through a rough time right now, as the automotive and associated industries struggle to define and reinvent themselves, and we may be in for a few more rough years.

But we have one priceless asset the sunbelt can only envy, and which those pushing economic development in the Midwest would do well to stress: Water. Much of the far West already has more people than its water table can safely accommodate. We have the vast majority of North America's liquid resources at our doorsteps, now protected from diversion by the newly ratified Great Lakes compact.

In the end, if we can fix our economies, we may yet have a renaissance the drier states can't match - thanks to the most precious natural resource of all.

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