The American political crisis is, at the root, a crisis of inequality, and despair in poor places. If working-class communities had better jobs and education, and a stake in the political process, they would not be vulnerable to the shape-shifting magical thinking of populist predators.
For journalists, academics and other storytellers, the challenge is clear: To report accurately and deeply on working-class communities, in a way that generates empathy, stimulates helpful policy ideas, and encourages investments. (That’s what we tried to do with Moundsville, which is playing on PBS until next spring.)
In that vein, Michelle Wilde Anderson’s The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America, published this year by Simon & Schuster, is a valuable contribution to the genre. Anderson is a professor at Stanford Law School who specializes in urban law and environmental justice. The Fight is, helpfully, a book based on deep shoe-leather reporting, based on research in four different towns: Stockton, CA; Josephine County, OR; Lawrence, MA; and Detroit, MI.
Each, Anderson writes, “was a toiling labor colony of the First Gilded Age, a hometown of the mid-century middle class, and, by the late century, a crater of postindustrialism. Each was once famous: for industrial prowess, for labor uprisings, for the booming West, for immigrant diversity, for wartime productivity, for working-class homeownership, and for the textiles, timber, shoes, food products, or car that their people made.”
But, now, as manufacturing jobs have disappeared because of automation and offshoring, each has become a symbol of the new U.S. economy: unequal, poorer overall, and unfair to workers shut out of the white-collar productivity boom.
In these places, the opportunity to live fruitfully without backbreaking effort has shriveled away as the tax base has shrunk and the U.S. political ethos has demeaned government spending. In poor places, that means that community linchpins like parks, libraries and good policing are in jeopardy. “Forty years after the taxpayer rights revolution began limiting local government revenues,” Andersen writes, “these cities and counties have run out of services to cut, properties to sell, bills to defer, and risky loans to take.”
And a way of life has been lost. What way of life? High-quality, accessible, affordable.
In the postwar world of America’s newly invented middle class, people could attain all kinds of things without paying extra for them: enroll a child in a baseball league, read books, picnic at the beach, call an ambulance, train for a trade, kick an addiction, put out the trash, learn English, watch a parade.
The story, then, and what the book is about, is what’s happening to the people who remain in these towns. It’s not hell. But it is poorer. Nothing is free anymore. Even youth baseball is being privatized. That shuts people who can’t afford to participate out of the social fabric. And it’s important to tell these stories, because these cities aren’t disappearing. “Cities have no inherent expiration date,” Anderson points out. “The oldest on Earth are more than 10,000 years old… Whatever their future, those communities have a present.” Unfortunately, that present is weighed down by cyclical misfortune.
When local governments are populated mostly by low-income people, there is typically much less money for public services. Weak, broke local governments make it harder for residents to lead decent lives on low incomes or get their families out of poverty. Entire towns become poverty traps.
That’s not the case for regions populated by wealthier inhabitants and playing important roles in the tech boom. However, Anderson writes, “lagging regions lacked the assets, good fortune, and strong networks needed to transform historic manufacturing centers into nodes of the knowledge economy.”
And their fate belies the notion that societies make continuous progress.
A child growing up poor now is more likely to lose her parent to a homicide or prison term than to an industrial accident. We have more consumer goods and winter clothes, but the fear of shootings in high-poverty neighborhoods pumps residents’ bodies with adrenaline and other stress hormones that are physically toxic to health. Starvation and food-borne illnesses are in retreat, but the illicit drugs that plague poor urban and rural areas today make moonshine look harmless.
In each story Anderson tells lies this simple fact: Even when they’re working, too many Americans don’t earn enough pay, which means their communities don’t collect enough in taxes to provide the services that permit a healthy community. She profiles a woman named Destiny Rodriguez, who keeps working as she studies to become a teacher.
Like her classmates, Rodriguez worked full-time hours… She attended class from 8 am to 1 pm daily, then picked her children up from school and daycare. By 5 pm, she had dropped them with her sister, mother, or friends so she could work night shifts. Some evenings she worked at WOW! Workout World, a twenty-four-gym in a Lawrence suburb, where she staffed the daycare or took an overnight shift on the front desk. Other nights, from 5 pm until 2 am, she waited tables at a suburban TGI Fridays.
These individual stories of suffocation and hustle are heartbreaking, and, as Anderson shows, we owe them time and attention, and, if we care about our country and can figure it out, money.
John W. Miller