Church or state: How do we rebuild America’s left-behind communities?
NOTE: America Lost is currently available for free here.
The 2016 and 2020 elections had different outcomes, but this in common: neither magically reboots America’s diseased neighborhoods. The work of rebuilding, and surviving in, communities crippled by globalization, white flight, crime, drugs, income stagnation and the collapse of civic institutions and local journalism goes on, away from Washington. Whoever governs America in the future would do well to acknowledge the lived human experience of people in struggling places like Appalachia, Baltimore and the Ohio Valley. (And Moundsville, WV, as portrayed in our PBS film.) Their wages, health care, schools, safety, streets, parks and pools matter.
In America Lost, an 80-minute documentary playing on PBS and available on Amazon, director Christopher Rufo has made a film that adds to the important work of dignifying these left-behind hoods, hovels and hollers with complicated and enlightening humanity. It’s the kind of movie you need to watch if you want understand the full reality of America, including the presidency of Donald Trump and its aftermath.
Rufo spent five years filming people in three damaged urban areas, Youngstown, OH, Memphis, Tenn., and Stockton, CA. “Big city journalists and elite media think a poor coal town in Appalachia, an African-American neighborhood in Memphis and a Latino ghetto in California are completely different,” Rufo told me in a phone interview. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. The experience of these people is different, but what they’re going through” is similar, he said.
America Lost doesn’t offer broad theories about the causes of American decline, but notes a crumbling of institutions that bond people together in hard times, especially family and church. In his current job as director of the Center on Wealth & Poverty at the Discovery Institute, a right-leaning think tank, Rufo has positioned himself as a conservative thinker and writer — to the displeasure, he says, of many of his creative and film friends — but his movie, in my view, is more a great work of reporting than a position paper or sermon.
Rufo, 36, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Sacramento, and worked for over a decade as a documentary filmmaker. Filming America Lost, he told me, nudged him toward conservative orthodoxy. He came to see liberal anti-poverty social programs as almost useless, and salvation in the strength of individuals knitted together by healthy institutions, especially churches. The argument over trusting church or state for salvation is an old one, and Rufo’s work enriches it by shining a light on what’s actually happening to people’s lives.
There’s a temptation, when reporting in places like Appalachia, to define people by their connections to national political parties, companies, or trends, instead of fleshing out the intimate details of people’s life. America Lost doesn’t do that, focusing lovingly on its subjects. And, like Moundsville, it leaves national politics and Trump out of the picture. “The issues in the film transcend partisan politics,” said Rufo. “If the film took on those issues, it would be immediately polarized—and stop communicating with half the country. I focused on issues, not partisan politics.”
It’s a wise choice. Even if it’s important to understand, Trumpism usually stops more conversations than it starts. In screening Moundsville last year, my favorite part was the conversations after the film running toward stories about people and communities and jobs, and away from Trump and Washington gossip.
Another temptation for outsiders is to offer utopian solutions. Tax cuts will make factories rise from the ashes! Universal basic income will make us all happy and free! Instead, America Lost and Rufo suggest, we might work harder to start by simply accepting the truth that wide swaths of America have, for now, become markedly poorer, that there are no easy answers, and that people in those places deserve our respect, support and understanding. “The people I met in America’s forgotten cities are searching for purpose, meaning, moral order,” says Rufo.
I do wish that, instead of vaguely castigating “bureaucracy”, America Lost acknowledged U.S.’s most obvious public policy failures, especially the country’s outrageous health care costs and incomplete coverage and care. It’s hard to focus on finding meaning and purpose in your life when your teeth are aching. Why can’t we have church and state?
My favorite parts of Rufo’s film are his beautiful camerawork and illuminating selection of characters. For example, Todd, our on-screen guide in Youngstown, is a former steelworker turned scrap merchant, making a business out of melting down America’s former prosperity and turning it into metal for future projects. In this century, scrap has been one of this country’s biggest exports. We have literally been exporting our past.
Youngstown, Rufo tells us in a voiceover, is a city that “failed to make the transition from the modern to the postmodern world.” And, while, on the surface they’ve lost the factories, “but deeper than this they’ve lost the human bonds that once held people together.” Despite periods of economic retrenchment, this is the first time there’s been this kind of collapse of institutions, says Rufo.
The decline reported by Rufo has been well documented. We bowl alone. The tricky questions are around what to do about it. Should we let cities without good companies and jobs turn into ghost towns? How can we rebuild? Do employers beget a virtuous, hard-working labor pool or vice versa?
“There are no easy answers,” Rufo said. “On an individual level, if you want to be upwardly mobile and want a middle class life you should probably leave and go to Pittsburgh or Cleveland.”
For those staying behind, he found, there is usually work, even if it can’t afford a big city lifestyle. “In Memphis, there were warehouse jobs paying $15, $16 or $17 an hour, and I saw apartments there renting for $300 a month,” he said. Those are familiar economics for the millions of Americans who work jobs for less than $15 an hour with minimal benefits at places like CVS, WalMart and Chipotle.
The challenge is how to cope with that reality. “We’ve demolished the old social order but found nothing to replace it,” he says in the film.
That’s not true everywhere. As James and Deb Fallows report in their Our Towns book and film, there are pockets of entrepreneurship and investment rejuvenating small towns across this land, and that local business development helps build community in new, different ways.
Rufo finds answers of his own in the film’s last chapter, in a Latino neighborhood in Stockton, CA, where his hero is a pastor helping men, some former gang members, find and keep work, and function as good husbands and fathers. “Even those at the bottom can lead meaningful and dignified lives,” Rufo concludes. “We all have the capacity to make life a little better.”
In its admonitions against social programs and prescriptive embrace of the role of male leaders, families and pastors, America Lost is more ideological than Moundsville, but, in talking to Rufo, I found, in many ways, a fellow traveler. His film is vivid, authentic, intimate work, and a rich contribution to chronicling the pain, joy and hustle of this country’s hurting communities. No matter what your politics, that is the right place to start.
John W. Miller