Who Are “Midwesterners” Anyway? 11,000 People Had Thoughts

A 2023 study conducted by the Middle West Review and Emerson College Polling reveals the nuances behind the label of Midwestern identity. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

Do you live in the Midwest? Do you consider yourself to be a Midwesterner? While seemingly similar questions, their answers are by no means one and the same. 

A 2023 study conducted by the Middle West Review and Emerson College Polling investigated the general public’s answers to these queries — and the results showed an unexpected array of responses.

The survey is considered one of the largest-ever studies on Midwestern boundaries and identity: It gleaned over 11,000 responses across 22 states, including ones typically considered as the Midwest along with surrounding states.

The study also revealed varied responses across participant demographics, such as age, gender, race, level of education and political ideology. With such a diversity of results, the study solidified ‘Midwesterner’ as a firm label for some United States citizens, hopefully inviting and opening the door for further study into the nuances of this identity group.

According to the US Census Bureau, the Midwest is typically categorized as the following 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. This categorization is confirmed by the survey’s results, with those states having the highest percentage of respondents feeling that they are Midwestern.

Being Midwestern is a label most proudly owned by Iowans, 90% of whom consider themselves a Midwesterner; Illinois followed closely behind with 88%. Conversely, just under 9% of Pennsylvanians consider themselves to be Midwestern, along with 12 and 13% of Tennesseans and West Virginians respectively. Yet some surprises emerged too, with southern states like Oklahoma reporting that 52% consider themselves as Midwesterners.

Across the board, more people answered affirmatively that they live in the Midwest than that they are Midwestern. The only exceptions were West Virginia and Tennessee, which have more people considering themselves as Midwestern than living in the Midwest. The discrepancy could be due to migration out of the Midwest to surrounding states; Ohio is the third most common state from which people migrate to West Virginia, Illinois is fifth for Tennessee.

Initially, the survey results seem to show that young people are more likely to identify as Midwestern, with 63% of participants aged 25-29 claiming the label. When you compare these answers to how many said they live in the Midwest, however, understanding of the figure changes. As seen in the visualization above, the divide is greater between young people’s answers to the two survey questions. 

In fact, there are more young people who claim to live in the Midwest but do not claim the Midwesterner label — compared to the older groups, among whom most respondents who said they live in the Midwest also said they were Midwestern. 

This could suggest a generational change in the adoption of identity; for older generations, location may be enough to ascribe you a label. However, according to Vox, 81% of Gen Z-ers prefer to be defined by personal attributes rather than demographic characteristics. This may explain the refusal to adopt or relate to the Midwesterner label.

In 2022 the Midwestern population was 73% white, according to Census Reporter. However, only 64% of white respondents  — lowest among racial groups surveyed, along with Black participants — said that they consider themselves to live in the Midwest.

In fact, the group with the highest number of positive respondents, both for living in the Midwest and labeling themselves as Midwesterners, was Asians — despite comprising just 3% of the Midwestern population.

White respondents also had the lowest discrepancy between their answers to the questions, just 6 percentage points, whereas other response groups had more than twice that rate. For Hispanic survey participants, there was a difference of 11 percentage points between those who said they lived in the Midwest and those who considered themselves as Midwesterners. This may be accounted for by international migration — in 2022, 44% of U.S. immigrants were of Hispanic origin. While immigration has led them to the Midwest, perhaps they still maintain their native cultural identity before considering themselves Midwestern.

A note on methodology: Survey data used in each of the graphs above was retrieved from the Middle West Review website. Taking into consideration the unequal number of responses received from each state and their varying population sizes, this story used weighted data for each response to standardize comparisons between states.

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