31 March

Between Two Worlds: Disabled And Desperate In Rural America

by Jon Katz
Between Two Worlds

Politically and culturally, I am now something of a refugee, I often feel schizophrenic, caught between two worlds, the urban America I grew up in and wrote about, the rural America I live in and love and write about now.

Every day, I better understand what happened in America last November, even as our political and media establishments continue to ignore what happened or what might be done about it.

I’m not writing about this to join the political fray, or argue with people. This is a reflection of my life, and my country, and I need to understand both. Since almost no one in our media universe is writing about it much, I feel I need to.

America is no longer one nation, but two nations, urban America has surged ahead on its own to join the global economy, rural America has been left behind, desperate and battered and increasingly trouble.

Yesterday, I wrote about the horrific rise in early death rates for white working-class and most rural Americans, today the Washington Post reports on another tragedy of rural America, the stunning rise in rural workers who can no longer find work and are living on disability payments from the federal government.

There are simply no new jobs in rural America, labeled a “sea of despair” by economists in a shocking report this week chronicling the toll taken on white, less educated rural Americans by joblessness, suicide, drug and alcohol addiction. The working class was promised prosperity and opportunity in the new global economy, but that turns out to have been a lie, at least for them.

Overdose, suicide and alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 for white non Hispanics ages 50 to 54, were up 130 per cent from 1998 to 2015, said the study. Among women, deaths in those categories were up 381 per cent.

Now we learn that great numbers of rural Americans are turning to disability payments in desperation. There are no jobs for them in the new economy. We are living in two very different countries now.

Between 1996 and 2015, says the Post, the number of working-age adults receiving federal disability payments increased dramatically across the country, but nowhere more so than in rural America.  During that time, the number of working age adults receiving disability climbed from 7.7 million to 13 million.

This year, the federal government will spend an estimated $192 billion on disability payments, more than the combined total for good stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance.

“The rise in disability has emerged as yet another indicator of a widening political, cultural and economic chasm between urban and rural America,” says the Post. Day by day, I am beginning to understand why my country is in such turmoil, and I am also coming to see that unless the people who live in rural America are helped, we will go farther down this ugly path. Overall, the number of people going on disability has increased by 32 per cent since 2004.

Urban communities like Boston, Denver, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, New York and San Francisco are booming as new jobs are created there, and skilled and educated workers flock to those cities to live and work.

It is  revealing to go to New York City and see how many affluent people live there, how many jobs there are for them (not for everyone), how low unemployment rates are, even in the face of high living costs, rents and homes.

In rural America, the story is precisely the opposite, the cities and towns there are abandoned and struggling and both politics and journalism have abandoned the people who live there and the communities they live in. Many pundits and economists attribute this schism to the global trade agreements like NAFTA, which caused so many manufacturing jobs to go to other countries.

It seems to me that it started even longer ago. Since World War II, the governing agricultural doctrine  in government offices, universities and corporations has been that there were too many people on farms, and that farms are no longer efficient in the new economy.

The idea triggered what author and environmentalist Wendell Berry called “one of the most consequential migrations of history” – millions of rural people moving from country to city in a stream that has not slowed from the war’s end to now.  The strongest force behind this migration, says Berry, has been the economic ruin on the farm.

Today, with thousands of farm families losing their farms every month, the economists and politicians are still saying, as they have said for decades, that these people deserve to fail, and that have failed because they are inefficient and small, our least efficient producers of food, and that the rest of us are better off for their failure.

The American heartland, once the pride and soul of the country, was becoming peripheral, an afterthought. It was left behind.

The family farm was always the glue that held rural America together, and when the government essentially abandoned the farm to globalism and the agri-business, the unraveling of rural life began. In 1940, 90 per cent of Americans lived in rural areas, now 90 per cent live in urban and suburban America, mostly along the coasts. That is quite a migration.

We are feeling its affects today, every day, on the news. It was this other America, seething with despair and anger, that upended our political system. It has abandoned them, they are abandoning it.

This migration shattered the social and economic structure of rural America, and when the trade agreements were signed in the 70’s and 80’s, they triggered another consequential migration, that of jobs. The remaining factory and industrial jobs, which served an emerging middle-class in rural life,  migrated away also, mostly to China and Mexico. When the jobs left, the skilled and educated workers left with them.

Nobody seemed to notice or care. Why wouldn’t they be angry and fed up?

Until Donald Trump ran for President, no national politician spoke to the people suffering from this devastating crisis at all, and it’s a shame in a way that he became their leading advocate. He has no real plans for addressing this social catastrophe, and he may well take their cause and need down with him, if his first few months in office are a clue.

Rural America is in grave distress, all across the country. Their downtowns are dying, communities are disintegrating, schools bleeding, children are moving away,  jobs are gone, the land neglected, drugs and suicide and social despair are unraveling the lives of the young and now, despairing people in mid-life.

For me, this is a personal challenge.

I see that we are no living in two worlds, and it is self-defeating and short-sighted to dismiss all of this upheaval as simple bigotry, racism and sexism, or to wring my hands about the state of the world. When government breaks its promises to people, again and again – it is happening right now – then demagogues rise up exploit and channel the and rage. And we are shocked.

People in rural America are not shocked. They are desperate and hopeful.

I am beginning to understand what is happening to my country, no thanks to our leaders and journalists. I have to give Donald Trump credit for bringing attention to those left behind, hopefully before it is too late to help them.  And I hope he does fulfill his promises to help them.

It is a creative as well as personal challenge for me, my heart is in both Americas, I live on the border between the two, I see both sides clearly.

In our country, all kinds of people – gays, women, transgender people, white working-class Americans,  African-Americans, immigrants and refugees – suffer and have suffered the ravages of capitalism and political greed. In a way, they all tell the same story, and they have struggled and won much support. We just paid no attention to this group, the ones between the booming cities and the coasts.

I stopped thinking that white people suffer too. So did almost everyone running for President last year.

When we abandon the poor of any color or region or race, it seems we abandon a part of ourselves and our souls, as well as our common values. That’s what Jesus said, at any rate. Blessed are the poor, they are the Kingdom of God.

Being poor and hopeless is in  itself a political thing, there are always consequences when the poor lose hope. And I can tell you just from living where I live, that rural Americans have lost hope, and faith in their government and the people who run it. Sadly, the poor are divided, they perhaps do not have time to argue or organize and send money to super-PAC’s, there are no poor people ever on cable news channels.

Perhaps one day, they will all realize that they are not really all that different from one another, and join together in a common cause.

That will be a political revolution to remember.

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