Last night, I read an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal entitled, “Rural Americans Feel Stuck in Fading Towns.” The authors, Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, have added yet another entry in what has become a series in the WSJ since the Presidential election. I’ve read a lot of these essays on rural life, as well as some in other newspapers, and all of them make a point of tying President Trump’s surprise victory to particular emotions and negative circumstances plaguing the “small” places of America. And, I’ll admit, having spent a lot of time in places just like those on which the various articles focus, the people I meet are burdened by any number of troubles. I’m just not sure those who write the articles, not just those in the WSJ, really get to the heart of what it means to live in these small, often economically depressed, places. I’m not sure I’ll be able to effectively describe it, but I think they just miss something overlaying the entire situation. They might even be contributing to the bigger problem.
Adamy and Overberg spent time exploring life with several individuals in West Branch, Michigan, a town of just over two thousand people. In all of the interviews, they portray the residents as “stuck,” unable to leave for better opportunities in cities and suburbs. They also describe the demographics and economics leading to a very real lack of mobility. Adamy and Overberg make a compelling case against what people in my profession, Church/denominational leadership, often assume: that people are flooding out of small towns and into cities. In reality, American Mobility is at its lowest point since measurements were first taken during World War II, less than half what it was in 1985.
Actual evidence and population figures suggest that those left in small towns are staying right where they are. The authors of yesterday’s article make the case that the people are “stuck,” and because of that, resentful. Some of their interviews certainly portray this feeling, and I’ve seen it at work in the small towns around Missouri. I’ve talked to people who imagine that everyone who could get out, did. Those left, might as well be in prison.
I really liked Adamy and Overberg’s article, but I also thought it contained the seeds of its own contradiction. Certainly, many of those interviewed voiced anger and resentment over the lack of jobs and the difficulties involved with relocating. But, in others, something else seemed to be at work, something complicated, relating to both the situation in small towns, but also in the greater cultural messages spread throughout the U.S.
Even though they all felt “stuck,” at least some of the residents of West Branch had serious theological, ideological and emotional preferences that made deciding to move terribly unpalatable. One man interviewed spoke of the traffic congestion. He indicated that hassles like traffic were enough to keep him fixed in his “little corner of the world,” even if a better paying job awaited in the city. A young woman described leaving two different colleges because she simply felt too uncomfortable with the worldviews of the students around her. She couched some of what she’d felt in theological terms, claiming a conservative brand of Christianity that made living amongst other college students who smoked marijuana or partied with alcohol, unappealing.
Maybe you think they’re crazy or wrongheaded. Maybe, you think they are too sensitive or simple-minded, but both of these individuals made intentional choices. But, then, the young woman struggled with feelings of inadequacy over the choice she’d made. She felt judged for going home. The article made it pretty clear: she didn’t flunk out. She chose to leave based in part on religious convictions and in part on emotional preferences. I don’t necessarily agree with her convictions and preferences (though her description of roommates throwing up in the shower made a pretty compelling case). But, here’s what too many urban and suburban Americans, especially those with more progressive convictions, are forgetting: I’m not her and her choice isn’t anyone’s to make, but hers. Why should she feel inadequate for making it?
Politicians and journalists and the hordes on social media seem to engage in an awful lot of handwringing when it comes to rural America, the working poor. The same has been done for the urban poor and even the poor living in other countries. Every cultural message sent to the people of small towns and rural places, at least those from outside the places themselves, emphasize, even demand a sense that real life, the best life, is to be found where the “good” jobs are, where the best “cultural opportunities” can be found. And, of course, those jobs and opportunities are always ever found in the great cities of the U.S.
All of the ideas to ease the situation in small towns point to the same message. We need to expand infrastructure so people in rural places have better internet. We need to fully fund our state universities so that poorer students have more opportunities for education. We need to ensure affordable healthcare for the poorest of our citizens. I don’t disagree with any of that, would even support all of those ideas, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they all, in some way, attempt to strengthen the tie of working class and poor rural people to the same cities and suburbs. Sometimes, I think it’s just people with progressive ideas, but I think it may be anyone living in places packed with the opportunity for advancement. Those of us who have opportunity look out at the landscape of declining small towns and rural poor and want desperately to force those people to be different. The U.S. as a whole has made it pretty clear that the poor and working class living in small towns ought not be poor, ought not be living in small towns or rural settings. Given that general feeling, or at least that feeling as perceived by people in small towns, it becomes less about giving better opportunities and more about shaming. This might be why the young woman felt such inadequacy over going home.
Part of me wonders if these constant messages of shame aren’t actually what’s driving some of the anger. For crying out loud, stop treating the working class and poor, whether rural or urban, like children. Maybe you don’t like the young woman’s decision to leave school or the man’s decision to stay in a small town to avoid traffic, but they get to decide those things and they shouldn’t feel shame for doing so.
As I read Adamy and Overberg’s article, I found myself wondering why so many, sometimes myself included, assume that the answer to rural poverty is to get people out, to make mobility more feasible with better internet, better healthcare, better transportation. Maybe I’m imagining it, insecure with my own small town roots, but I’m just tired of people who don’t live in small towns looking down their noses at people who make a decision to stay or go back to the places from which they came. Much as I appreciate Adamy and Overberg’s really respectful interviews of residents of West Branch, I’m tired of reading articles mourning the fact that people live in rural areas when there are such great opportunities in non-rural areas. They just add to the shaming.
I’m sure I’m just being sensitive. I’m the first to critique some of what I see in small towns. I hate it when small town friends and colleagues talk about the city like it’s some sort of crime-ridden danger zone. I’m sickened by the overt and covert racism I see. But, it’s also time we call elitists on their views of small towns and rural areas. People live in cities and people live in small towns. Some people are stuck and burdened with horrible economics, regardless of living in the city or the country. But, some people choose to live in their respective settings. And others who may be stuck, would chose to stay where they are even if they weren’t. Some people are resentful and rude. Some are absolute joys. But, all of them, no matter where they live, are people.
Maybe the answer to the plight of declining small towns lies somewhere other than constantly telling people they should escape, lamenting when they can’t. I certainly don’t have any brilliant suggestion, but I’d love to start by calling for a little more respect, a different cultural message that’s constantly spread throughout America. What would it look like for churches, schools, governments and media to begin imagining ways to increase the agency people feel, respecting the choices people make, even when we don’t agree with them?
Jesus spent a lot of time with poor, rural people. In the Gospel of Luke, at the beginning of his ministry, he went back to his hometown of Nazareth, a small, backwater sort of place that most people in Jerusalem would have disdained, and of which most in Rome would never have heard. He went to the synagogue, took up the scroll of Isaiah and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This verse contains a lot of theological sophistication, but Jesus read this passage from the scroll as a way of declaring that poor people, living in forgotten places, were among God’s most valued. Maybe he was suggesting that people who the privileged believe are “stuck,” are actually already free, can make their own decisions and will be favored by the God who gave them the ability to make those decisions in the first place. Regardless, they shouldn’t be shamed for who they are, where they live or what they do.
Maybe the answer to the decline of rural areas is to finally decide that the people who still live in them are people, valuable, deserving of respect and entirely reasonable for living right where they do.