Friday, April 8, 2016

On the decline and early death of the white "middle-aged" "middle class" in "middle America"

The Washington Post reports today from Tecumseh, Oklahoma, population 6,457, under the headline, "We Don't Know Why It Came to This."  In the story, Eli Saslow tells of the life and death of Anna Marrie Jones, a 54-year-old working-class grunt that some academic analysts have chosen to refer to as "middle class," though she had only a high school diploma  (Read more here).

The feature's sub-head explains more:  "As white women between 25 and 55 die at spiking rates, a close look at one tragedy."  Here's a paragraph from early in the story that begins to hint at the "rural" dimension of this phenomenon (reported here and here, among other places, and illustrated here).
Fifty-four years old. Raised on three rural acres. High school-educated. A mother of three. Loyal employee of Kmart, Walls Bargain Center and Dollar Store. These were the facts of her life as printed in the funeral program, and now they had also become clues in an American crisis with implications far beyond the burnt grass and red dirt of central Oklahoma.
This early death trend among poorly educated whites, as well as its possible causes, are commented on elsewhere in the article:
“It’s a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress from one generation to the next,” said Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who had studied the data. 
“What we’re seeing is the strain of inequality on the middle class,” President Obama said. 
“Erosion of the safety net,” Hillary Clinton said. “Depression caused by the state of our country,” Donald Trump said. “Isolated rural communities,” Bernie Sanders said. “Addictive pain pills and narcotics,” Marco Rubio said.
And here are some more mentions of "rural" in the story.  
According to recent studies of death certificates, the trend is worse for women in the center of the United States, worse still in rural areas, and worst of all for those in the lower middle class. Drug and alcohol overdose rates for working-age white women have quadrupled. Suicides are up by as much as 50 percent.
And, regarding Anna Marrie Jones's friend (and rural mail carrier), Candy Payne, who led Jones's memorial service:
There were days when the vast emptiness of rural Oklahoma could make someone feel alone — when the only sound was wind, and the prairie looked small beneath the sky, and the one car bouncing along the rutted gravel roads was Candy Payne’s mail truck, circling its way from one house to the next. 
It had been four days since she presided over her friend’s funeral, and now she was back on her usual U.S. Postal route: 404 mailboxes in 126 square miles of Pottawatomie County. The roads were in fact dirt trails, the houses were mostly farmsteads equipped with well water and what she called the “traffic considerations” were turkey, deer and coyotes that darted across her route.
So, to what extent is the demise of the white working class a "rural" story?  Or is "rurality" a scape-goat for the media to focus on when what is really causing this crisis is socioeconomic disadvantage?  Or is the situation among poor whites exacerbated in rural places because of the relative lack of services there?  Or, do we just collapse white socioeconomic disadvantage into rurality in our national imaginary, making Anna Marrie Jones a good candidate to illustrate this phenomenon to the coastal elites who read the Washington Post

1 comment:

Orchid64 said...

"So, to what extent is the demise of the white working class a "rural" story? Or is "rurality" a scape-goat for the media to focus on when what is really causing this crisis is socioeconomic disadvantage?"

It's both and more. I grew up in a rural area and live in one now, though I spent 25 years of my adult life in urban settings. The rural story is often one of decay of a focused industry - faded glory and stagnation, but also an inability to see or take advantage of opportunities to move along. In the area I grew up in, coal mining was the focus for many years. When those wells ran dry, there was little left, but the people. The area I'm in now is gold rush country and was a focus of the lumber industry for some time after that, but environmentalists took that away and now the locals have little left to do besides service industry work.

A huge part of the problem is that nobody cares about rural voters and their concerns and that their concerns are fundamentally different than those in urban areas (who represent an easier to access and more useful base of voters from a political viewpoint). You will find no group of people who feel as if their interests are less considered or represented than rural people in liberal states. All that is left for them is a sense that they can't move on either figuratively or economically. They lack the resources or connections to make the shifts in lifestyle that would permit that sort of advancement and they lack the desire to abandon familiar local culture.

Some of this is political, some economical, and some psychological. There are answers, but they're not politically advantageous to bother with. I'm convinced that the most under-represented minority politically is not people of color, who have strong advocates and public sympathy as well as media attention, but rural, poor people of all types (though they are demographically largely white). They can be incredibly un-likeable for liberals and are not the focus of conservatives. They are therefore left in a state of limbo which promotes hopelessness.