My iPad ran out of juice when the forum on rural America started, so I’m going off my memory here. Apologies in advance if this seems somewhat incomplete.
Jay Nordlinger was the moderator again, with Kevin Williamson, Reihan Salam, Victor Davis Hanson, and David French on the panel. I’ll address the issues they raised as they float up from the murk and mire in my brain.
Kevin Williamson raised the point that I found most interesting — in large part because I’ve made the same argument repeatedly here — which is that part of America’s rural problem is lack of geographic mobility; or, more accurately, the fact that many unemployed people remain that way because they refuse to leave their homes for better economic opportunities.
Before I get to what Williamson said, I’m going to back up to the argument I’ve made here since 2008. My friend of mine, through a series of spectacularly unwise investments in real estate, by 2009 ended up almost in an area that had formerly been a real estate boom town.
This friend could have relocated to a region where there was work to be had. After all, up until the 1960s, that was the American way, starting with those people who left their home countries for America in the first place.
Rather than following American tradition, though, my friend opted to stay put because she could get by on public and private charity. That is, because she was ready to embrace a rather marginal existence, she opted to drop out of the marketplace.
I was therefore delighted to have Williamson remind me of an article he wrote some years ago in which he said that there are towns in America that should just be abandoned. The citizens in these towns may have been unemployed for generations (something more true for the men than the women), are often substance abusers, and have no work ethic or skills.
Those few among them who can work, instead of getting welfare, ought to get incentives to leave town for greener economic pastures. Sentimentality is not a reason to continue to invest in a community unable to care for itself.
From Victor Davis Hanson I learned something I did not know before, which is that only 17% of illegal immigrants work in agriculture. This was a surprise because I, like most Americans, had believed that illegal immigrants are the only ones who will work in the fields and that, if they’re deported, we Americans will starve. (Sadly, except for the fact that illegal immigrants populate the meat processing industry, I’m blanking on the industries in which they actually work.)
The reality, at least in California, labor laws means that small farmers can no longer afford to hire field workers. Instead, they’ve shifted to crops that can be automated. One of these crops is almonds which can be machine harvested. The soft crops (peaches, pears, etc.) that must be harvested by hand are under the purview of a few big agricultural concerns that hire legal employees.
Salam also advanced an idea I hadn’t considered, which is that the government has tentacles that intrude far more deeply into small town America than we realize. Catholic Charities, for example, which is an excellent organization, gets 80% of its funding from the government. This is true for myriad other organizations that aren’t as good as Catholic Charities. These organizations are clearing houses for the distribution of government funds — welfare without the Welfare Department, if you will.
In the same way, Medicare, which accounts for 20% (I think) of all medical spending in the US, keeps hospitals afloat and dictates the way in which medicine is practiced. And of course, there are the colleges and universities that suck up government money in order to produce good little Leftists.
Why does that data matter in a discussion about rural America? It matters because in many small towns, the main employers are hospitals and universities and, in old-fashioned regions still averse to welfare, those federally-funded charities are the main providers for those in need of help. If we abruptly pull government funding out of those arenas, we will be surprised by the number of towns we suddenly impoverish.
One of the points that the panelists returned to often is the breakdown of the family, something I touched upon in my earlier post summarizing the panel about urban America. In towns, as in cities, while a thriving middle class is embracing education, employment, marriage children, and no divorce (in that order), at the other end of town, the lower and working classes are abandoning those precepts.
You’ve certainly heard about this from me often enough. I live in a middle class neighborhood filled with people who vote Progressive and live conservative — and worse, thinks it’s colonial, racist, and disgraceful to preach to other people the virtues of the lifestyle choices. Meanwhile, the friend whom I mentioned above lives in a neighborhood filled with unmarried, uneducated meth addicts many of whom are parts of generations of unmarried and mixed families, all of whom have lived exclusively off the government.
Had the panel asked, I could have added a little bit to their knowledge by pointing out that, at least in my friend’s community, underneath this government dependency, there is some incredibly vibrant capitalism going on. These people have a strong, subterranean barter system sustaining them far beyond welfare. Indeed, their welfare benefits, especially food benefits, are an integral part of the bartering. In other words, these people are much more market-oriented than most conservatives and upper class lefties realize. They just don’t want the burdens of a 9-5 job.
Nor did this of my friend’s neighbors who actually have some marginal employment want Obamacare which they consider an imposition. Why pay $50 a month for care that you can get for free in the emergency department? I’ve been hammering away for years that the worst part of the Leftist approach to the very poorest people is that the Lefties make all sorts of middle class assumptions about what poor people want. Many of these assumptions are wrong.
David French strongly asserted that one of the worst things government did to the underclasses was to expand disability beyond the traditional notion of people with manifest physical injuries. Now disability covers undifferentiated and essentially unprovable physical and mental ailments. People too easily get paid not to work, which too often leads them into opioid addictions that not only create real disabilities, but utterly destroy families.
Indeed, our entire welfare system destroys families. I’ve told all of you often enough how my formerly communist father who worked two jobs got so angry at a welfare system that incentivized children out of wedlock. We all know that welfare, by making fathers economically unnecessary, results in greater poverty, while sending more boys into lives of crime and more girls into lives of sexual promiscuity.
The problem is that, while the government was easily able to destroy both rural and urban culture by giving incentives for disability (i.e., not working) and single motherhood (i.e., broken family bonds, poverty, crime, and promiscuity), it’s more difficult to repair the problem. Bad cultural habits that have become ingrained since Johnson’s administration won’t magically vanish if the new administration cuts off the flow of money.
David French strong believes that it’s up to all of us to reach out to the poor and disaffected, and to entice, bully, cajole, nag, and work very, very hard to bring people back into the fold of functional humanity. He doesn’t just believe that, he lives it. He and his wife, as part of their evangelical work, went into the bad neighborhoods and the crack houses and salvaged (or tried to salvage) anyone who would accept their outstretched hands.
On a more optimistic note, French added that, at least in his community, there is a wonderful side to rural America: hardworking, honest people raising educated, respectful children. It is these people who must reach out to the lost souls living just a mile away in some cases who have fallen so far from the American promise.
And that, my friends, is all that I remember from the rural America seminar. If anything else floats into my mind later, I’ll try to update this post. I have very limited (and expensive) internet access, however, so I make no promises.