It’s subtly phrased, but I’m hearing it more in recent days – Why don’t people who live in the country just get out of there? Rural America has gotten a lot of attention in recent months in the wake of the unexpected presidential election results. The problems of the heartlands — and particularly the white, working-class residents of the heartlands — are being probed and pondered. Heck, I just finished writing an article for the United Methodist Publishing House’s FaithLink curriculum on the topic. And there are some folks who are looking at the problems and saying, “Why do they stay?”
Recently two Princeton researchers, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published a follow-up to their disturbing 2015 report that showed that mortality rates for certain classes of middle-aged white Americans, in contrast to their counterparts around the world and to other Americans, were rising sharply. In their previous report they identified three major culprits — drugs, alcohol, and suicide — for the rising number of deaths among 50-something white adults. In the follow-up they went deeper and concluded that the problem was something harder to define, something “spiritual.” Perhaps, having suffered a long period of economic stagnation and decline, these folks are suffering from “cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.”
Having named something as nebulous as “cumulative distress,” the media quickly picked a new phrase for the phenomenon: White working-class Americans, who disproportionately inhabit rural America, are suffering from “deaths of despair.”
David Brooks, in a New York Times editorial on addressing opioid abuse, drew the logical conclusion, “These addictions and deaths are happening in the most socially and economically barren parts of the country. An anti-opioid effort won’t be effective unless it’s part of a broader effort at social and economic reweaving, a set of efforts to either help people move out of rural, blighted communities or to find jobs and social networks while there.” It’s the place! If we can’t fix it, we’ve got to get them out.
The Atlantic painted a similarly grim picture of rural life in an article last summer called “The Graying of America”: “Those who live there tend to like it, but they’re aging, and there aren’t enough jobs to keep younger people around. So kids and grandkids move to the cities, coming back on holidays, inheriting their parents’ homes and leaving them empty, wondering what will happen to the towns their parents say used to thrive. This is how rural America dies: not with a bang but a whimper.” Worse than this, the article says, old folks are trapped in the countryside because the property value of their homes has dropped so much that they can’t even sell.
Something has happened to America’s relationship with its heartlands. Where they used to be the place we would go to remember who we are, now they are a problem to be fixed or a prison to be escaped.
I want to be clear-eyed about the challenges, but I also believe that part of the “spiritual” renewal that will combat the epidemic of despair will come from this very land. What ails rural America is what ails all America – a failure to truly inhabit the place where we are, to attend to the land, and to deepen our connection with transcendence. Israel’s God always talked about a covenant with the land as well as the people. And in the land is promise.
There’s work to be done here, no doubt. But I don’t think we’re any more blighted or benighted here than elsewhere. And I also believe that there is still healing to be had here. So thanks, David Brooks et al, but I think I’ll stay. Come visit sometime.