Cross-posted at Education Week.
I ran into an acquaintance on the ferry the other day. She told me that after she began to wake from the shock of the election’s outcome she decided that she wanted to get out of the cocoon of her circle of friends to try to understand the people who had voted for Donald Trump. She told me about the conversations she had begun to have with working-class people she knew with whom she had never talked politics and those conversations had only spiked her need to dig further. She asked me if there was anything she could read that might help her.
I smiled and gave her my own reading list: Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. To my astonishment, I learned later that there had been a run on these books in our little local library in the preceding week. My acquaintance had told her friends about our conversation.
The authors of these books can be described as both liberals and conservatives. Some are professional journalists, others academics, some neither. The books are very well-written. All but one are written the way I think books on public policy ought to be written but so rarely are: A mixture of story telling and analysis, presenting compelling stories of real people caught in the vice of titanic forces which are explained in straightforward language that does not talk down to the reader. We learn how public policy is turned into daily reality for the people who have to implement it and we learn, too, about the fates of the people who those policies are designed to help.
Yes, they help us understand the core of Donald’s Trump’s constituency—poor and poorly-educated whites—and the particular form of resentment that is bourne out of a yearning for a world which no longer exists—a world in which they and their values had primacy and in which they and their children were economically successful. A world that has fallen apart in the face of forces they barely understood and over which they had no control. We learn that many were racists but most were not. We learn that many were fiercely independent and were furious at other whites who lived on welfare and gaming the system when they could have been working for a living. We learn why people whose economy has crashed down around their ears won’t—and in some cases can’t—move to places where they might have better job prospects. We begin to see these people take steps to make their lives better only to get beaten down again and again, from one generation to the next. We are cheered by their pluck and ingenuity in the face of relentless disappointment, and slump back down in our chair when we see them finally give up. We sit with them in their stained, overstuffed chairs watching TV and grabbing the bottle of opiates and dying in ever larger numbers at earlier and earlier ages when they give up looking for the job that never comes after countless job applications and rejections, unable to face who they have become.
Just as we begin to think that this is a white phenomenon, the fate of the former coal miner, furniture maker, steel worker and textile worker in the face of implacable globalization, we are introduced to African-American and Hispanic families whose experience and prospects are strikingly similar. The African-Americans we meet are often the second and third generation in families that participated in the Great Migration of African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century.
We see through them the trajectory of hope as they moved to the great northern cities and the growing despair as those cities were hollowed out when the whites moved to the suburbs and the African-Americans were left behind in crumbling inner-city cores. These cites were once the vital heart of industrial America, whirring with the clash and bang of steel making and auto assembly and other highly unionized industries, but then saw their industries, one by one, moved south and then offshore, stranding the people who depended on them on poverty-stricken islands in decaying neighborhoods, the water of chronic, deepening poverty rising around their ankles day by day.
We see the appeal of gang membership in a society in which being a member of a gang is often the only way to get some sense of belonging, of, as the sociologists would say, agency, of being able to affect the outcome in any way at all. And we see how young African-American boys die early, either as shooters or shot, by intention or by accident, with the survivors’ chances of going to jail if they do manage to survive the streets very high. And we see the young women who are left to raise their children by themselves, in a world in which very large numbers of these children have no idea who their fathers are and those who do often never get to see them. This is a world in which very young mothers have to turn over $450 of their $600 monthly welfare check to the landlord, leaving only $150 for everything else, including food and utilities. A world in which awful choices have to be made every day, and sooner or later, the rent is not paid and cannot be paid, which leads to endless evictions and moves, one after another. A world in which neighborhoods are not cared for and children get shuffled from school to school to school, always transients, their connections to friends and adults constantly severed. We see neighborhoods, communities and entire American cities that are nothing more than hollowed-out shells of their former thriving selves. As we read through these pages, it is hard to say which is sadder or more frightening between rural poverty and urban poverty. When it comes to despair, there is little to choose between them.
We see Hispanic families in California lifting themselves up by the same bootstraps that immigrants from European backgrounds have used for many, many decades before them and we meet others whose families have been broken into pieces by our immigration laws who get stuck in a whirlpool of poverty and gang warfare from which they have no hope of emerging.
We see what its like to live on nothing at all in places where there is no work in decaying mobile homes where the water is shut off, then the electricity is shut off and finally the gas is turned off as the temperature dips into the teens and below. We see savagery and greed and meanness and unexpected kindness, in a world that Charles Dickens would have instantly recognized. Our easily-acquired images of cruel landlords and renters-as-victims are certainly validated in some cases, but we see that both are caught in a system in which all are struggling to survive and all understand that they are only one step from the horrors of finding that one’s last remaining possessions have been put out on the sidewalk by the Sheriff’s deputies in the driving rain and they and their children are headed for life in a homeless shelter to live in unspeakable conditions.
This is, of course, a story of profound change in the whole American scene. We are given portraits of many of these communities today, but also of what they were like 50 or 60 years ago. We see that our great cities were, in the wonderful images from Carl Sandburg’s poetry, engines of growth and prosperity, vehicles that previously illiterate peasants from Eastern Europe and equally illiterate African-Americans from the American South used to vault into the middle-class in one or two generations. And we also see that smaller towns outside the big cities used to be cohesive communities in which the sons and daughters of the mill owner went to the same public school as the sons and daughters of factory workers, went to the same dances and played on the same football teams. And we watch as that kind of community falls apart as the decades pass by.
The homes along the lake shore become second homes for wealthy city people who would not dream of mingling with the working class kids whose father used to work in the factory and whose mother was a full-time mom. The mill was bought by a conglomerate whose home office is a thousand miles away, full of executives who have no investment at all in this small town and eventually shut the mill down to move the manufacturing operations to another country without unions and with workers who can be paid much less. While the McMansions go up on the lakeshore, as the second homes become primary residences, the former mill workers’ families and the people who used to work in the diner and the laundry look for jobs they cannot find and lean on payday check cashing companies who will give them a loan at extortionate rates against the tiny paycheck that comes from the only work they can get now.
The children of the wealthy lake dwellers go to private schools and their parents make sure the real estate taxes stay low, so the public schools cannot afford a decent school building or good teachers. The children of the wealthy, who used to share a life with everyone else, no longer do so and know very little about how the other half lives and, one might think, couldn’t care less. In this way, and countless other ways like it, the innumerable supports that young children used to be surrounded by as they grew up in such a community have been shredded, one by one.
And so we get not only a snapshot of the appalling human waste and despair that globalization has caused for whites, African-Americans and Hispanics in big cities and tiny towns across our country, in the hollows and on the plains, we also get a moving picture—a rounded portrait—of the trajectory that has brought us here from these books.
Across this whole devastated landscape, the common element is not any lack of intelligence or drive on the part of globalization’s victims—but is instead the lack of an opportunity; indeed they come across as unrelentingly ingenious in the face of constant obstacles that would have felled me long ago and unrelentingly resilient in the face of those very obstacles to get the kind of education and job training that might provide a way out of the trap in which they are caught. Many of the teachers in the schools they can get into gave up long ago and left or stayed and—worn down by students whose anger spills over in the classroom—eventually shut down, doing their job but no more than that. I must say that I cannot blame them. I challenge any of you who think you would not do this to try teaching in these schools for a while before you claim the high ground.
But there is far more than this. In these books you will also find teachers who are the true heroes of our age, who go far beyond what any of us have a right to expect given the lack of support we give them. We see how the sons and daughters of the poor shuttle from one school to another as their mothers are evicted from one house after another, making no friends, ghostly presences barely known to their teachers before they need to move again. We see young mothers trying desperately to get a high school diploma or a community college degree or certificate, but unable to get to school for lack of transportation, to pay for school because paying for school would literally take food from their children’s mouths or unable to be in class because the Sheriff is literally at their door with an eviction notice.
They can’t get the education they need because they are desperately poor and they are desperately poor in part because they do not have the education that could help them climb out of poverty. Public policies that were intended to ameliorate the problems I have been describing have been overwhelmed by the forces that have contributed to the relentless advance of social and economic isolation of the poor in our society.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have avoided the fate I have tried to portray, who have managed to escape the ravages of the forces shaping global economic change, owe it to ourselves to do, as my acquaintance has been doing, our best to understand what it has felt like to get caught in the vortex of the downward spiral, and to understand, too, the role that public policy has played both in ameliorating the plight of the people caught in that spiral, but also exacerbating it. We need a new politics. To get it, I think, we all need to study up a bit.