Actually, the story isn't quite as much about e-cigarettes as the lead photo and a great deal of the text suggests. I guess it is more about the crummy economy in this rural-ish corner of North Carolina, though the story was first called to my attention by a Tweet that picked up on the race--white--of those featured in the story. That Tweet stated, "This is a good piece, but trying to picture such sympathy for poor black people sitting around smoking & drinking." To this I responded, "Your comment suggests that (most) readers feel sympathy for these poor whites. Not convinced that's the case." (Read my analysis of this issue here). The initial Tweeter then said, "I dunno. Look at the convo around opioid addiction today versus crack. Much more sympathy, much less demonization."
At that point, I and another scholar who writes about drug abuse across and along the rural-urban continuum pointed out that (1) the opioid crisis has some claim to middle class-ness but that the meth epidemic, associated with white poverty, had evoked legal and social response similar to crack and that (2) when the opioid epidemic was more associated with Appalachia in the 1990s, it had not elicited the solicitude of public health officials and policy makers that we have seen more recently as it has spread across the country, to city, suburb, town, rural area. Also, neither crack nor meth implicated Big Pharma in the way the opioid crisis does, which makes it easier to identify a central bogeyman.
But I digress. Is this story primarily about race? or does it reveal something especially important about race?
Let me come back to the gist of the New York Times story out of Wilkes County, North Carolina -- again, admitting that the gist is in the eyes of the beholder:
In an America riddled with anxieties, the worries that Mr. Foster [a 26-year-old white male who quit college but who still dreams of being a marine biologist] and his neighbors bring through the doors of the Tapering Vapor are common and potent: Fear that an honest, 40-hour working-class job can no longer pay the bills. Fear of a fraying social fabric. Fear that the country’s future might pale in comparison with its past.
The journalist goes on to note that Wilkes County, population 68,502, has "felt those stings more than many other places" because the "textile and furniture industries have been struggling here for years." Lowe's, the home improvement chain, was founded here, but Wilkes County lost the Lowe's headquarters several years ago, part of the reason the median household income there has fallen by 30% between 2000 and 2014. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, that is the second-steepest decrease in the nation. The story also notes that Mr. Foster's support for "Mr. Sanders makes him an outlier in largely conservative Wilkes County. Mr. Trump won the March 15 Republican primary here with 47 percent of the vote, garnering more than twice the votes of Hillary Clinton, who won the Democratic primary."
Still, the regulars at the Tapering Vapor — overwhelmingly white, mostly working class and ranging from their 20s to middle age — provide a haze-shrouded snapshot of an anxious nation navigating an election year fueled by disquiet and malaise.This reminds me of this paragraph from a Wonkblog entry in today's Washington Post, "The Incredible Crushing Despair of the White Working Class":
Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.This is fascinating, and others have written about the race-and-psychology/outlook angle on the Case-Deaton study announced last fall, including me here. Jere is more from the Washington Post piece on what is probably behind the optimism gap:
Part of the optimism gap is indeed because of "a shrinking pie of good jobs for low-skill/blue collar workers," Graham said in an email. "Whites used to have real advantages (some via discrimination) that they no longer have ... they are looking at downward mobility or threats of it, while poor blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to parents who were worse off than they"
And paradoxically, while some inequalities between races are shrinking, other inequalities within races are growing. Across all races, for instance, the wealthy are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the income pie and leaving less behind for everyone else.One thing I find interesting about all of this is that not only is an optimism gap growing b/w blacks and Latinos on the one hand and whites on the other, the gap is also growing (of course) between rich and poor whites. It is important to remember the intra-racial distinctions and not only the inter-racial ones.
In any event, I will just conclude for now that the New York Times story, ostensibly/superficially about the vaping lounge, is about economics, politics, society, race -- and psychology--the psychology of being a low-income white without prospects--and in a (lefty, chattering class) world that vilifies low-income whites as if the source of most of the nation's evils. And I'll close with another profile from the Times story:
Ms. Chapman [another Wilkes County resident], 47, said she had two master’s degrees and was currently holding six part-time jobs — a mix of clerical, academic and online work, none of which provided health insurance.
“This is not the life I saw for myself,’’ she said.This suggests that education is not the powerful "uplifter" in rural places that it tends to be in urban ones, one aspect of the rural brain-drain.
The entire New York Times story and Wonkblog post--and of course, my academic article about our collective (negative, highly judgmental) attitudes about poverty--are all worth a read in their entirety in this very interesting election cycle.