Forgottonia: Smaller, Older, Poorer
by John Johnson
Unless you live there, you’ve probably never heard of Forgottonia. Beginning in the late 1960s, people in the 16-county region that makes up Illinois’ westernmost bulge along the Mississippi River began promoting a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek secessionist movement. Their grievance? Being forgotten by infrastructure improvement projects and business development.
Local Western Illinois University student Neil Gamm became the governor of the new state (republic?) whose capital was the unincorporated town of Fandon. Given that the official Forgottonia flag was the white banner of surrender, Gamm described the movement’s strategy this way, “The idea is that we would secede from the Union, immediately declare war, surrender, then apply for foreign aid.”
Despite this bit of local color, Forgottonia is a good stand-in for the fate of much of rural America. The secessionist movement did bring a bit of much-needed attention to the region (Amtrak reinstated passenger rail service, for instance), but for the most part Western Illinois has continued to suffer from protracted interrelated crises of demographics and economics. Farmers made up 4.6% of the labor force in 1970, but by 2010 this had fallen over half. The rust belt manufacturing collapse simultaneously wreaked havoc on the region.
None of this is news to the people who live in places like Forgottonia. They recognize this reality every time they drive past another decrepit closed school or rotting farmstead. Its social consequences are clear in the empty pseudoephedrine packages that litter the ditches near amateur meth kitchens.
Here are three graphs illustrating the decline of Forgottonia. All data is from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. All dollars are inflation-adjusted to current (2016) values per the BLS official calculator.
The U.S. population grew 36.6% from 1980 to 2010. In Forgottonia, it shrank 12.1% in the same period.
Population, Labor Force, and Unemployment Rate in Forgottonia
The yellow line shows the steady decline in the region’s population. The thicker red line shows the unemployment rate (corresponding to the right-hand axis). Unemployment topped 12% in the early 1980s—precipitating a population slide that ebbed in the 90s, but has continued more recently. We shall have to wait and see if the Great Recession-era unemployment spike, coupled with Illinois’ ongoing budget woes, contributes to another steep population slide.
Another reason for Forgottonia’s declining population is its aging population. I’ve constructed population pyramids for each census year since 1970. These are shown in the gif below. Each bar represents the percentage of the population in each age group by gender. Grey bars represent females; blue bars represent males. The steady flattening of the “pyramid” illustrates the growing age of Western Illinois.
Forgottonia Population Pyramids
Finally, the last graph shows Forgottonia’s median household income as compared to the U.S. median household income for the years 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999, and 2009. Unsurprisingly, Forgottonia is poorer—as much as $10,000 annually from time to time. The 1980s, once again, were particularly harsh. Perhaps most significantly, household income in 2009 is actually less than it was in 1979.
Median Household Income: 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999, 2009
The American Dream is not working for most people in Forgottonia, and this disillusionment is reflected in the region’s politics. In the March 2016 presidential primaries avowedly anti-establishment candidates took the majority of counties. Sanders won 9 of the Democratic contests, while Trump won all but one on the GOP side.