April 17, 2008

This piece appeared today in the New York Times Opinion section. It was written by Timothy Egan. For those of you who have not discovered the Opinion section in the Times, it is a great place to listen to America talk on many different subjects. Todays subject is close to my heart as I like so many have watched this happening in my hometown.

My hometown like many in the forties through the sixties was a town of industrial diversity of about fifty thousand well paid individuals living the good life. Then in the sixties the bubble burst, the industries infrastructure needed updated, but the powers that be decided it was financially to their benefit instead to relocate to other areas where they were welcomed with open arms and lucrative financial packages. It happened here in my hometown as it did in thousands of others.

Today my hometown is still here, the population is almost the same, but it is at its core much different. We no longer make things on a world size scale, we have become a service economy with lower pay scales and a less proud population, but we persevere. We lose our children to other locations where they can compete and prosper, that hurts. No longer do we enjoy multi-generational family life and this maybe hurts the most, but we are still here.

We will never be the same, but that's the way life is, always changing, always interesting to say the least.

My comments #34 in the Times are found here http://egan.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/16/lost-town-blues/index.html?ref=opinion

April 16, 2008, 6:41 pm

Lost Town Blues

In the town where I grew up, men had new trucks in their driveways, and three weeks of vacation for chasing deer in the fall and fish in the summer. They drank beer at a morning happy-hour after the graveyard shift ended, and voted for Democrats because they cared about the little guy, or so it was said.

In less than a generation’s time, the life jobs at the aluminum factory disappeared and the men lost their health benefits, their pensions, their self-confidence. You could say, without starting a fight, that some of them turned to God or guns for comfort — or at least for diversion. And then there were those who turned to alcohol.

It’s an old story, the grinding of winners into losers, a sort of geographic lottery. My town was Spokane, Wash., which has rebounded somewhat from the collapse of Kaiser Aluminum. But it could be McKeesport, Pa., or Utica, N.Y., or any of the 900 counties across the country that have lost jobs or population for decades.

People who live in small towns that have been passed over don’t need to be told that they’re bitter, or heroic. They’re stuck, is what they are. The honest ones say they would follow their kids out of town, if only they had the means. A few years ago, a University of Nebraska survey of 3,087 people in rural counties asked people how they felt about their lives. Only 11 percent of them said they were satisfied with where they lived. Optimism, as much a part of the landscape as winter wheat, was disappearing.

This sentiment, real but wrapped up in pride over place, may be in part why the polls show little change in Barack Obama’s standing since his comments about the bitterness of small towns and the working class. The pundits and voters are having two different conversations, not for the first time.

In that sense, the arc of this controversy is typical of how these things go: struggling towns are props, not issues.

One side rushes to drape themselves in flags, guns and the kind of Norman Rockwell hagiography that is far removed from the 2008 reality of meth labs and foreclosure frontiers. The other side says religion is for fools, and if only they had a new Starbucks in town, some of those Bible-banging gun nuts could learn to love Sundays with Norah Jones and a Scrabble game.

The low point in this discussion was Hillary Clinton talking about how she learned to shoot — “behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton.” Yes, and after that it was Wellesley, Yale, the White House and the $109 million fortune she made with her husband trading in their name and influence. She’s got elite cred with the best of them.

Obama can counter with the endorsement this week from Bruce Springsteen. Nobody in American literature or politics has done a better job than the Boss of describing (as in “My Hometown”) the heartbreak of a foreman who says, “these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back.”

But for a presidential campaign, we should forget rock lyrics, guns and God, and who can throw back a boiler-maker like a real man. The only question should be how — or whether — rust belt and rural towns can join the tomorrow economies.

For that matter, we should retire the test over which presidential candidate voters would most like to have a beer with. George W. Bush, when he was drinking, was probably a fun guy in a bar — all those frat boy tricks, flatulence jokes and arcane stats on long-retired major leaguers.

But he’s run the country into the ground, even if the only measurement is how blue collar workers fared under his watch. And he is the only leader who has actually embraced the elite label. At a fundraising dinner during his first term with the “haves and the have-mores,” as he referred to them, Bush said: “Some people call you the elite — I call you my base.” Now, he was joking, but there’s an element of truth there. And for the record, median hourly wages in Pennsylvania are down 16 cents from five years ago, adjusting for inflation.

So, solutions? On John McCain’s Web site, he talks as much about reviving small town America as he does about Lindsay Lohan’s love life — zilch. Clinton and Obama each have detailed, multi-point proposals. They’re heavy on new energy solutions — solar, wind, converting crops to fuel, with faded factory towns doing the work. The problem, as we’ve seen with the huge rise in commodity crop prices, is that when food and fuel compete for the same source, family budgets strain. Hillary is out with a new ad in Indiana, promising to keep defense jobs in the state — pork as public policy, another sleight-of-hand trick for small town America.
Is it too much to ask one of these candidates for an honest but painful statement suggesting that perhaps a lot of these towns may never come back? Or that the way to economic revival is to lose the pipe dream that Google is going to relocate to an old steel town because they have a tax-free enterprise zone and some cool mountain-bike trails?

“By the time November rolls around,” said Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Hillary’s top surrogate in the state, Obama’s comment “will be long forgotten.”
So will small town America. Again.

Comments (17)

1.April 17th,
3:06 am Thanks for the interesting analysis. The reason I worried about Obama’s recent insensitive remarks was that they sound very urban-centric/ethnocentric and may express an underlying attitude. Is he really committed to going going beyond stereotypes and visiting small towns and talking seriously with people and planners? Or will he focus on urban America after he’s elected? As you say, ethanol is not the future. How about a new WPA for rebuilding the infrastructure? There’s a big shortage of health care workers now. Could some small-town people be retrained for that? If the Dems offered solutions for people moving out of dying towns, probably a lot of people would be willing to move out — but not without a safety net. How about a national organization called Rust-Red Panthers or something like that?

— Posted by Chris
2.April 17th,
3:27 am This was so painful to read because it speaks to the core of what’s wrong with our leadership. George Bush ran the country into the ground and none of the candidates give any hope that they will, or can, do any better. Whether its the pain of the small town, or the pain of urban decay, the truth of what’s going on seems to be either mis-stated or avoided. It will be very hard to vote in the actual election because the long, expensive, wasteful drive to the election has not given any evidence that a true, insightful leader will result.

— Posted by Bliss Siman
3.April 17th,
3:28 am Excellent article! (For the record I support Barack Obama.) As I type this I am living in the Pacific Northwest. I am not originally from here, but I love this part of the country- I am in the Tri-Cities, which is an anomaly as our employment rate has just risen.

— Posted by Mary A
4.April 17th,
4:19 am Mr. Egan — I usually respect your work enormously, but this piece was appalling. You accuse the pundits of a disconnect while writing about these small towns as if they were exclusively male. Would including — or simply acknowledging — women in the discussion have somehow damaged your anti-elite cred?

— Posted by Maggie
5.April 17th,
4:58 am You sound like a Seattle nutcase who, when one asks ,”Which way is the road to Spokane?”You get the reply,”What do you want to go there for?”
Perhaps you should make a trip to your hometown and see what a really nice place it is. I have been around the world more than once, and I live here because I like it.

— Posted by Frances McCaffrey
6.April 17th,
5:30 am How convenient: a poll that says a small percentage of folks in rural America want out as overwhelmingly as the inmates of nursing homes!

Similar results will be found in major metroplitan areas but in fact it’s not that different than it ever was - these ARE the good old days.

As we link into ever-widening interest groups and resist categorization we emerge from these over-simplified analyses with possibilities for cooperation for humanity unlike any ever had. Small town “values” are still valuable and living in rat-races where the air is cancerously polluted is even worse than the “despair” of lost jobs that nobody wants.


— Posted by William Loughborough
7.April 17th,
5:48 am This is an excellent piece. In the final analysis it’s going to be about marketing and the ‘golden’ rule. Power has left. Like the mining country of East Kentucky where the mine owners had the gold and the people had the poverty that same scenario seems to be playing out in the land of corn and wheat fields. Nothing new here.

— Posted by e t gregory
8.April 17th,
5:51 am Well, Mr. Egan,
Then why leave Spokane for Seattle?

— Posted by ileftspokanetoo
9.April 17th,
6:03 am How very true. I’ve worked all over the most rural and unpopulated counties of the West, and some rural and depopulating counties of the East.

“Is it too much to ask one of these candidates for an honest but painful statement suggesting that perhaps a lot of these towns may never come back?”

Yes. Just as the dream in my state of a university for every quarter of the state, offering every major, at every level, is likely destined to die. Just as the small rural schoolhouse did.

It’s an urban country now. Ghost towns don’t come only from the 19th century’s mistakes and lost dreams. (And the West? Can be very bitter and clinging-to-narrow-values, too.)

— Posted by Idaho Pine
10.April 17th,
6:05 am Basic problem is that Americans are voting for public relations perfect people. The real experienced people with talent and ability to put America back on course will never run for high office. They have lived a life with both successes and failures triumphs and mistakes. These are the trials and tribulations that make us men, that forge real leaders.

Observing a modern American election is like watching a bunch of mouthy beauty pagant contestants trying to show us just how perfect they have been and hence just how much they deserve to win. Their messages are tailor made for the specific state, the specific town but in the end it is all hot air. One of these public relations hounds is elected and political business returns to normal.

Change will come only after Americans learn to vote for those who are not perfect, who have climbed high mountains and sank to low valleys, who will really bring the interest of the little guy to bear on all issues. This person is you and me. He is in all of us.

Until we change we must resolve ourselves to a long slow slide into the status of second rate nation talking of the good old times and imagining that we still are rich and prosperious.

Washington, DC

— Posted by Robert
11.April 17th,
6:10 am (oops, hit submit by accident).

So kudos to you and Obama for pointing out this “bitter” truth. It seems that so far he has proven himself a new kind of leader, indeed: unafraid to confront reality with thoughtful words, which may be clumsy at times.

But when isn’t it awkward to articulate a truth that’s been denied for decades? These truths - about the rural decline, like the role of race in our society - have been by most politicians behind the rhetoric that disguises their disinterest, or even fear, and certainly, often, inability to tackle the real questions facing the U.S. and the planet.

— Posted by Idaho Pine
12.April 17th,
6:15 am Small town America is a bedrock of values, hopes, and dreams. It is also a tumbleweed, wind-blown ghost town of misery and lethargy. Feelings wash across this land with the connectivity of the internet - somehow giving the impression that the world is moving on without us and we are part of a glacial decline - a backwater - yet an early indicator of national trends as much as a canary carried by coal miners to sense the toxic atmosphere…by dying first.

There is much at stake and it is the core of the rhetoric of politicians. Small towns provide the incubator for our economy and future success in technology, business and politics. Tim Egan, one of my fdavorites,comes from the State of Washington where the barefoot schoolboy law prevailed, providing a threshold of funds for rural schools to offer education to kids that would build their understanding and incubate their dreams. Kids were so smart they saw their opportunity far, far away from their small town - they migrated to the big city. This has been the rule for the last 100 years. Some stayed and invested in the local community, some made it big then came home, some vowed like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind - Lord I never want to be poor again…and never, never came home.

As I travel the world I find old friends from my small town of Sunnyside, Washington in every imaginable walk of life - many very successful because that small town was an incubator of big dreams of the greatest nation of the world. We still believe that stuff. We benefitted as a community of farmers from the huge public works projects that provided good jobs for our families building the national highway system and running the huge energy research laboratories at Hanford, Washington. The schools eagerly polled their students to get a piece of that federal money that was distributed to schools of federal worker children. We attended Community Concerts provided by the federal government grants bringing artists from the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony into our little town - we learned about diversity and respected culture.

It is true there were twice as many taverns in town as there were churches, but the churches were on every corner. Sunday morning was a rousing chorus of church bells coaxing mothers to bundle up their kids and attend services. In small town America fathers and sons sneaked out on a Sunday morning and went fishing and hunting - still do. We had our Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, our Rotary Clubs, our Masonic Lodges and our Kiwanis Clubs, our American Legion, VFW and our Little League baseball teams sponsored by the A&W Root Beer Company and the local John Deere distributor. Yes we learned how to shoot, how to survive in the wilderness and how to respect life and preserve our freedoms. This deep love of freedom and soul and trust in God are values deep seated in American culture - not bitterness about lost American Dreams. These values are strong as bedrock and can be reinforced to bolster the strength of our hopes for a brighter future of our nation and its leadership role in the world community.

We have our heroes - those who leave our small towns and make it big- by careers in public service, the military, business or professions. We are not - repeat - are not psychotically clinging to religion and guns - we simply associate guns and God with our love for individual freedom. Despite our reliance on occasional federal programs creating opportunities for good jobs and future for our kids, we are wise to maintain a healthy distrust of the federal government’s insufferable tendency to want to dictate how we are to run our daily lives in our “village”. We may be bitter and frustrated - but we are proud - we have dreams - and somehow - with our faith in God - we know our kids can be anything that they want to be - with hard work and sacrifice. We only wish that more would finally come home and reinvest in the intellectual capital that they left behind for the opportunity of the big city.

— Posted by Dennis Egan
13.April 17th,
6:22 am Mr. Egan makes some pithy observations. The frustrating thing I am resigned to is that we the people actually require our politicians to ignore unhappy facts.

Proof is provided by recalling the public and political reaction of former Presidents Jimmy Carter’s pronouncement that we were in an “era of limits” compared to Ronald Reagan’s fondly remembered “Morning in America”.

Mr. Carters conservation programs were abolished by Mr. Reagan with assurances that oil supplies would be bountiful if only government would get out of the way of the market forces.

So, here we sit with market forces causing gas prices to four dollars a gallon and a collapse of the housing market that will remove the possibility of the “American way of life” for millions of Americans whether they live in large cities or rural communities.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned because he was insane. Our candidates fiddle while America falls because we the people insist on it.

— Posted by Greg
14.April 17th,
6:45 am Compelling insights to the real condition of small town America. Bruce Springstein has endorsed Obama. That is a telling analysis


— Posted by Richard Fortner
15.April 17th,
7:15 am I sure that, given the chance, Hilary would do just as much for the small towns around the country as she has done for upstate New York; nothing.

I am equally sure that Obama would find spending a weekend in my small town completly beyond him. we have one traffic light, but no starbucks.

— Posted by John Torgersen
16.April 17th,
7:25 am We’re all props for the politicians. Energy independence has the greatest potential to bring jobs back, but it all boils down to corporate greed.

Corporations owe their loyalty to shareholders, not employees. Their job is to provide the biggest return on the dollar. All other things being equal, they go where they can pay the least.

Small towns all over the world are drying up.

— Posted by Robert59
17.April 17th,
7:48 am Mr. Egan,
How, exactly, does the 2nd largest city in the state of Washington qualify as a small town? If you want to talk about Republic, or Metalline Falls, or some other NE Washington small town that’s lost industry, then the analogies presented in your opinion piece might fit, but a city with a quarter million people is not a small town.

— Posted by Sean

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