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I moved from Missouri to Mass. — and it feels like I'm living in a different country

"The thing is, I used to be a poster child for Midwestern progress and pride," writes Gina Kaufmann. "But the pandemic changed everything." (Getty Images)
"The thing is, I used to be a poster child for Midwestern progress and pride," writes Gina Kaufmann. "But the pandemic changed everything." (Getty Images)

For national political pundits, 2022 will go down as a year that turned out alright for Democrats. But for me, the outcome was more complicated than that.

In 2022, I moved from Missouri to Massachusetts. The balance of the U.S. Senate is one thing, but I see more in the post-election map than a final tally. I see a question about the place I called home: Could I ever go back?

Before this move, I’d lived most of my life in Missouri, where you can legally walk down the street with a loaded handgun — no safety training or background check required. Living in the state means being represented by Sen. Josh Hawley, the guy who famously cheered on January 6 insurrectionists, whether you personally cheered them on or not (I didn’t). It means wondering whether your child’s public school education will include diverse perspectives, because parent-led book banning efforts are very effective in the Show Me state. This fall, more than 300 book titles were banned in Missouri’s public schools, and the threat now extends to public libraries, where the secretary of state has proposed a rule requiring age restrictions for books — a move likely to limit young people’s access to LGBTQ voices.

In Missouri, abortion is banned except when the mother’s life is at risk, a subjective calculation leaving healthcare providers reluctant to offer life-saving interventions. Eric Schmitt, the attorney general, signed the so-called “trigger law” into effect on June 24, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs, overruling Roe and some 50 years of precedent.

None of this happened overnight; I’d been taking notes, one detail at a time, for quite a while. I moved for my spouse’s career opportunity, but the stark political landscape had us seeking out-of-state opportunities in the first place.

Abortions were difficult to access in Missouri before the Dobbs ruling, but an outright ban — enacted the moment it became legal — made me feel queasy and small.

This reality was hardly a foregone conclusion. Missouri was the bellwether state in presidential elections for whole of the 20th century. In the early 2000s, it was neither red nor blue; it passed for “purple.” Missouri felt like a meaningful place to discuss issues and vote, because anything could happen. That turned out to be true, just not in the way I’d hoped.

Abortions were difficult to access in Missouri before the Dobbs ruling, but an outright ban — enacted the moment it became legal — made me feel queasy and small. Having given birth myself, I knew that any pregnancy could prove dangerous without medical teams ready to act decisively. I processed the news while packing up my belongings. It was a sad way to leave a place I’d loved, and an even sadder way to leave the people I loved who might find themselves in the crosshairs of the moment. A friend urged me not to feel guilty for leaving others behind: “We don’t have the luxury of those feelings right now,” she counseled.

Gina Kaufmann and Alex Smith family photos at the Nelson-Atkins (Katie Currid)
Gina Kaufmann and Alex Smith family photos at the Nelson-Atkins (Katie Currid)

My first day as a new resident of Massachusetts was July 30. Instead of checking the news in Kansas City, I pulled up the Boston Globe website on my phone. The first headline I saw was: “Baker signs abortion rights expansion bill into law.”

I was lying in bed at the time, sun streaming through the window, groggy from the previous day’s journey with a small child and our unwieldy pile of suitcases. My husband was making his way across the country by car. I rubbed my eyes and read the headline again: It was like science fiction. The Massachusetts law included a provision for emergency contraceptives in vending machines, requiring availability at public colleges and universities.

I’d just come from a place where a respected 17-hospital system had temporarily stopped providing the drug. Plan B in vending machines? On college campuses? And a Republican governor signed the bill into law?

Of course, I understood the difference between the politics of my home state and those of my adopted one before I arrived. But it came as a shock to my system nonetheless. I felt like I’d moved to another country, a feeling that has not faded in the five months since.

My bewilderment isn’t even reserved for big things. I’m like Walt Whitman, celebrating every blade of grass.

Y’all have functional sidewalks; I walk from place to place without peril. Curbside recycling includes glass. Cambridge does curbside compost pickup, too. I got my bin for free at the library.

We got a letter in the mail informing us that our child had been automatically enrolled in something called the Children’s Medical Security Plan. It’s for residents under the age of 19, regardless of income level, who don’t qualify for Medicaid. Missouri stubbornly resisted Medicaid expansion well into a global pandemic, so this effort to go above and beyond on behalf of children who might be priced out of basic healthcare felt impossibly exotic — and humane.

The thing is, I used to be a poster child for Midwestern progress and pride ... But the pandemic changed everything

Another letter arrived, too, this one letting us know that Cambridge Public Schools would offer free breakfast and lunch, five days a week. That five-days-a-week detail is significant. In Missouri, one in four school districts has switched to a four-day week due to a teacher shortage (teacher pay in Missouri ranks second-to-lowest in the country).

The thing is, I used to be a poster child for Midwestern progress and pride. I hosted talk-shows and podcasts in my hometown. The year the Royals went up against the Mets in the World Series, I debated WNYC host Brian Lehrer — on live radio — about which city was better, not just at baseball but at everything: Kansas City or New York City. I was ruthless. My intern high-fived me afterwards, proclaiming that Lehrer had brought a water gun to a knife fight.

But the pandemic changed everything. We never had a statewide mask mandate: The rules varied from one municipality to another. The resulting patchwork turned plausible deniability into the real law of the land. At first, I couldn’t go out because it wasn’t safe. After a while, I didn’t want to, because the lack of communal care on display was so devastating to witness. People died. My kid lost parts of his childhood he could never get back. State leadership treated it like a game.

It took two-plus years of a global pandemic, but I finally understood I didn’t belong to Missouri unconditionally.

In November, Missouri voters gave Eric Schmitt a promotion, ushering him into the U.S. Senate alongside Hawley. Schmitt’s the guy who signed the “trigger law” into effect. He also prohibited public schools from issuing mask mandates, then threatened noncompliant districts with lawsuits.

Technically, Schmitt’s just one Republican in a Democratic-majority Senate. But then, 2022 was never just a numbers game for me.

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Related:

Gina Kaufmann Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Gina Kaufmann is an essayist and radio journalist, most recently at KCUR, the NPR affiliate in Kansas City. She lives with her family in Cambridge.

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