The working class epidemic of demoralization
While coastal elites overindulge, struggling Americans in flyover country feel they have little to live for or believe in
I've written a lot this past year about the struggles of white, working-class communities. But nothing I have written will likely capture the desperation as completely as Anne Hull's Washington Post column about a struggling young woman named Tabitha Rouzzo.
If you haven't read it, you should. The column is remarkable, not just because it is interesting and well written, but also because it documents a phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed and under-appreciated: The crushing burdens and near-impossible struggling of working-class white Americans.
It's probably natural that this story would speak to me. I'm from rural western Maryland. My dad was a correctional officer. I'm a graduate of a small college in West Virginia. But few of my colleagues have a similar background (and the ones that do would just as soon forget it.) Many of our opinion leaders are, for obvious reasons, disconnected from "flyover" country.
This disconnect between supposed thought leaders and much of the country's citizenry is problematic.
Good journalism requires investigating such trends and asking questions, such as: When did this slide start, and what is to blame?
As is often the case, the problem likely goes back to cultural changes that began in the 1960s — changes that eventually impacted small-town America.
A recent Vanity Fair article about "the Summer of Love" in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in 1967 provides some clues:
Nicholas von Hoffman, of The Washington Post, who covered the Haight in a suit and tie, was, he says [by 1967], "appalled" by what he saw....
The overnight change in the attitude toward drugs was what alarmed von Hoffman...
Now, suddenly, he continues, "middle- and working-class kids were doing 'vice tours,' like American businessmen in Thailand: coming to the Haight for a few weeks, then, when the dirt between their toes got too encrusted, going home. This was when American blue-collar and middle-class kids became drug users. This was the beginning of the Rust Belt rusting."
This, I suppose, is an argument for the "no guardrails" theory — a theory that basically says the rich and famous can afford to live a bacchanalian existence, while those who emulate them pay the price.
A lifestyle of addiction, promiscuity, and chaos comes with a hefty price tag. Sadly, our elites are exporting those values to the people least capable of sustaining them. If you don't believe me, just watch MTV.
Aside from the money in their bank accounts, the spoiled kids featured on My Super Sweet Sixteen aren't terribly different from those featured in the trailer for MTV's upcoming reality series Buckwild. The difference, of course, is that the West Virginia kids being glamorized in Buckwild will grow old before their time — if they live long enough to grow old, that is. Most will likely spend the rest of their lives paying for the sins of their youth. The rich kids, on the other hand — well, they will likely land on their feet.
Hull's column demonstrates how bad moral decisions impacted Tabitha Rouzzo's family. For example, of Rouzzo's mom, Hull writes: "In her face and spirit were traces of the cheerleader who got pregnant in the eighth grade... They had two daughters and Tabi on the way when they split."
Rick Santorum has popularized the notion that being married before having kids — and then staying married — is good for the pocketbook. When we mock social conservatives for their "family values," we ought to remember the practical reason these values caught on.
Kids growing up in rural communities often face tremendous economic pressures and feel they have little to believe in. Many see little hope for their futures. They seem to lack a purpose in life, and humans need a purpose.
Cities offer their own challenges, of course, but they also have a different energy. They have museums, hustle, and bustle. Cities are where — as Matt Ridley says — "ideas have sex." Small communities lack this energy. (The Hal Ketchum song "Small Town Saturday Night" notes that you "gotta be bad just to have a good time.")
Of course, it would be wrong to assume this is all about values. Around the same time Hollywood started importing bohemian values to the heartland, our politicians began shipping jobs overseas — and waves of immigrants began pouring in.
This isn't new. We are a few generations into this trend, now. But we are close enough to remember the old days and resent what has been stolen from us. As Hall writes, "Tabi heard stories about the olden days. She came from welders and ceramic production workers. But, to Tabi, the sprawling Shenango China factory where her grandfather and great-grandfather worked was just a boarded-up place on the way to Walmart."
Economies change, and it would be wrong to suggest that we should use the forces of government to prevent this evolution. A free market demands that some businesses fail while others succeed. Towns also fail. Unfortunately, this means people fail. It would also be wrong of us not to acknowledge that there are real-life consequences to this "creative destruction."
I recently ran across a New York Times story about golfing great Ben Hogan that puts a face on this phenomenon. As The Times notes, Hogan's father, "a blacksmith put out of work by the spread of the automobile, had committed suicide, shooting himself while 9-year-old Ben looked on in horror."
One can only imagine this is a fairly common story.
This is a topic that deserves the attention of our political leaders. And perhaps, it finally will get it. There seems to be a strong indication that many working-class whites in the rust belt simply couldn't bring themselves to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. There is an opening for a political party to address these populist concerns. Will anyone answer the call?