Crisis in America’s Small Towns

My father grew up in Mark, Iowa — a town so small it’s just a point on a map, a crossroads. Back in the day there used to be a gas station and a small general store, but both have fallen into disrepair. Now there is just the intersection of two rural roads.  The people who lived there when my father grew up were small farmers, the kind who can no longer make a living any more and largely no longer exist as a demographic category.

My mother grew up in Kearny, New Jersey, town of about 40,000 people now, or about 35,000 people in 1990. When my mother lived there, or when my sisters and I grew up  in the 1950’s, the town was much smaller. We had one big employer, DuPont, known as “the plant”. My father worked there, and most families had at least one family member with a job at the plant. There were also jobs for policemen, firemen, teachers, and reporters at the local newspaper, The Observer. When I lived in Kearny the town was mostly white. Now, Portuguese families who’ve attained a middle class lifestyle have relocated in large numbers from nearby Newark. They’ve opened restaurants and small grocery stores and after-work bars where Portuguese is mainly spoken. My mother would have considered it an invasion.

There are no jobs to speak of in Mark, Iowa these days, although Bloomfield, the Davis County seat, is near enough for people to move there and perhaps find work. There are jobs in Kearny, and it’s a commuter town for Manhattan. Quite improbably, The Observer still publishes a weekly edition, 131 years running.

Much of small town and rural America is in crisis: few if any jobs, the opioid crisis, fear of cultural change and of a diverse and browning country. Those voters support Republicans in large numbers, and they cheer Trump’s retrograde message of making America white again.

Democrats win large cities, and in this last election, the educated suburbs. Republicans are winning the rest, and because of the structure of the Senate and the Electoral College, hold political sway to a degree far larger than their beliefs would suggest should be the case.

It doesn’t bode well for the legitimacy of our democracy.

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