A few months ago, Charles Murray published a book called Coming Apart that focused on the problems of an emerging white underclass, which was beginning to show many of the same behavior patterns as the black underclass — out-of-wedlock births (going from 4% to 30% among white people in recent years), drug addiction, dropouts, crime and despair. Murray is always controversial; the controversy this time was not over his statistics but his theory of the causes: a decline in moral values and the increasing isolation of the poor from the more responsible upper middle class. His critics saw that as a blinkered explanation — certainly, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the bum economy, had something to do with these changes. So I decided, on this, my third annual road trip, to meet with some of the people Murray described, which is why I found myself yesterday in the midst of a very emotional meeting here in southeastern Ohio.
The meeting was organized by Susan Rogers, the director of RSVP, a national service program affiliated with AmeriCorps. It was attended by about 30 people, including my wife Victoria, who was out on a weekend visit, and her friend Sylvia Nasar, an economist and the author of A Beautiful Mind and, more recently, Grand Pursuit, a history of economic thought. I encouraged Sylvia to get involved in my daily town meetings over the weekend, and she certainly did in Jackson.
“Most people consider this area a black hole, rural Appalachia, barefoot and uneducated,” said Terry Witt of TLC ministries, whose great-grandmother was a member of the McCoy clan that fought the Hatfields. “But these are good people, proud. They don’t like to ask for help. But from a biblical perspective, a lot of people here have been falling away. The factories have closed. They’ve lost hope. Drugs have been ravaging us. We have a free-lunch program, and many of the kids we feed are children of addicted parents. But I don’t believe that God has forsaken us here — man has,” she said, her voice breaking. She talked about her husband, a recovering alcoholic, who hadn’t had a drink in 17 years and then was run over by a semi. He was active man, but no longer able to work then became addicted to painkillers. “The fact that he couldn’t work took away his manhood. That’s what’s happening to a lot of us.”
“We’ve got a lot of people losing custody of their kids, and it’s tough to get them back,” said Dr. Ken Murray, who runs the local mental-health program. “It’s hard to get your life back together when there aren’t any jobs out there.”
Two former addicts, Ed Burris and Frank McMillan, who had gotten clean with help from the Field of Hope community, a faith-based drug-addiction program, told their stories. Both were impressive. Ed had been addicted to pills for 21 years but was “saved six years ago when he came to see his brother baptized and I decided to give my life to Christ.” Now he had a successful landscape-gardening business, but his brother was addicted to methamphetamine, which was a “wicked, wicked drug. We’re really struggling with that now. There’s a lot of poverty here and not many jobs since the factories left, and it’s easy to get sucked in.”
It went on, testimony after testimony, incredibly candid and emotional, sometimes teary. The mayor, Randy Heath, was worried about government regulations and the Obama Administration’s foot-dragging when it came to granting permits for coal operations. He was facing an unfunded mandate to upgrade the city’s water and sewer operations, which would cost $17 million. “You have some people in Washington and Columbus who want us to live in a perfect world, but we just can’t afford that.”
Meanwhile, I was sensing Sylvia Nasar getting itchy, listening to all the hopelessness and despair. Finally she jumped in: “I know this state. I went to Antioch College, and people who say that things were better 20 years ago are just wrong. They were a lot worse. People had a lot less than they do now. We’re in the aftermath of a nasty recession. We’ve lost a lot of jobs, but better days will be back when the economy improves. But you shouldn’t romanticize. People were a lot poorer then. Women couldn’t work. The racial divide in towns like Yellow Springs was scary.”
“But we’ve seen 14 kids shooting heroin at the high school,” Murray replied. “That’s unbelievable for this community. That wasn’t true 20 years ago.”
A minister and counselor named Terry Conley jumped in. “I left here 1972 and stayed away for 30 years, and when I came back I didn’t recognize my hometown,” he said. “Back in the old days, there were jobs. There was the atomic plant in Piketon, which enriched uranium. There were other factories around town. Now Walmart is the biggest employer we have in the area. There are jobs elsewhere in Ohio, but most people who live here either don’t want to leave or they’re just stuck. In some families now, we have multigenerational hopelessness.”
It was state representative Ryan Smith’s turn to speak. He was a former investment adviser, 38 years old, serving his first term, and I couldn’t tell if he was a Democrat or a Republican until I asked him. (He is a Republican.) “I’ve got two maps on my wall in Columbia,” Smith said. “One shows percentage of elderly living less than 200% above poverty across the state. The other shows child poverty. We are huge, near the top, in both. And I’ve got to say, we’re not going back to the past. We’ve got to develop. Because I love this area and I want my kids” — he stopped, choking up — “to be able to live here and experience everything I love about the area.” He told a story about a friend who returned to the area after 20 years away and brought his company, which creates software for national defense projects, back to the main street of Gallipolis, Ohio, where he could do business for a lot less money than in the Washington, D.C., area. “His products do biometric identification,” Smith continued. “He can find out the ‘signature’ on any bomb — and he thinks we can do the same for prescription drugs. We can isolate the doctors who are bad prescribers. There’s some hope there. I mean, this is a huge problem — 20% of the kids born in this state have opiates in their bloodstream, if you can believe it.”
The meeting closed with two elderly women who acknowledged that things weren’t as prosperous in the old days. “But that didn’t matter,” said Rushie McAllister, who raised two boys on the farm with her parents. “I always told them we were rich. We had each other, our church, Grandma and Grandpa. On a nice full-moon night, we didn’t have to go to the movies. We could go out and watch the stars. We were happy. We depended on each other and on God. Now you see all these kids with their cell phones and designer jackets — they don”t even talk to each other, they text. We don’t need all that fancy stuff if we live right. “
Lorna Richison was a 67-year-old grandmother, a former teacher, who found herself raising her six grandchildren — which is not unusual in the poorer parts of America, as a generation of parents has been lost to drugs or divorce or had to move away to find work. “I think there’s hope for the future, but I don’t think about it all that much,” she said. “I gotta get food on the table every night. Thank God I know how to live poor. Because the middle class is crashing, and they don’t know how to do it.”
In the end, I think I disagree with Sylvia Nasar, although I’m sure she’s right when it comes to the economic facts. People have more than they used to — they can buy almost everything they need at Walmart for much less (in constant dollars) than they could 20 years ago. And with a more creative federal stimulus program, one that focuses on infrastructure — which Nasar favors — we could have a return to prosperity. But things are different now. You can sit in a tar-paper shack and watch a thousand channels of prosperity on TV. Walmart has lowered prices, but it has put almost all the downtown merchants out of business, and the sense of community you had hanging around downtown in the old days has disintegrated. Marriages come and go. Children are born out of wedlock. Drugs have replaced moonshine, and they are far more devastating.
Representative Smith is right too. We can’t go back to the days when a single wage earner could support a family by working at the local factory. And while the economy will improve, there’s no guarantee all the jobs will ever come back (and certainly they’ll require a greater level of expertise than the ones that left). I don’t know if the Jacksons of this land will just fade away as the kids move elsewhere for work, or whether they’ll have a revival. I do know that right now it feels as if something has been lost and not all that much has been gained.