Poor and White in America

I often fantasize about living off the grid, as do countless of other stressed out Americans. Ah, I imagine, the sweet freedom from the tyranny of the clock and the cubicle. Turns out, this may be a fantasy after all. A recent article in the Washington Post examined national health and mortality statistics and found that the death rate of rural white American women in their 40s had risen by 30%. And for those of us living in the heartlands or Dixie, the death rate increased to 50%. These are not trifling numbers.

According to the article, “The statistics show decaying health for all white women since 2000. The trend was most dramatic for women in the more rural areas. There, for every 100,000 women in their late 40s, 228 died at the turn of this century. Today, 296 are dying. And in rural areas, the uptick in mortality was noticeable even earlier, as far back as 1990. Since then, death rates for rural white women in midlife have risen by nearly 50 percent. In the hardest-hit places—21 counties arrayed across the South and Midwest—the death rate has doubled, or worse, since the turn of the century for white women in midlife.”

Although the article cites an increase in risky behaviors, such as heavy drinking, drug abuse, obesity, smoking, and even suicide, as contributing factors to the rise in morbidity, it skims over the root cause of why such behaviors may have increased. Rather, the analysis of the data focuses more on factors such as gender, race, and the lack of access to health care most rural white women have as compared to their peers in urban areas.

But the root cause of increased morbidity for this group is as clear to me as the rise in popularity of Donald Trump. The wholesale disintegration of the American economy and family since the early 1990s has come home to roost. And although the report does acknowledge that progress for middle-aged white Americans is nonexistent in rural America, it ignores the economic factors that set it in motion.

Many of these women are stuck in small town America where there often isn’t a mill, plant, or smelt left. And when families break up and don’t know where their next meal is coming from, it is often the women who are left behind to shoulder the burden of caring for aging parents or children who fail to launch. Barring any of these factors, they may be simply unable to secure the funds to actually leave. Just think Katrina.

For those middle-aged rural women who may be fortunate enough to have a job, the pay is low (less than $15 per hour) and employment conditions can be deplorable. Another recent Washington Post article on the poultry processing industry, which ise almost always located in rural areas, cited a report by Oxfam America that stated that poultry employees are, “routinely denied breaks to use the bathroom” in order to optimize the speed of production. In some cases, according to the group, the reality is so oppressive that workers “urinate and defecate while standing on the line” and “wear diapers to work.” Stressful indeed.

But white rural America is not unique to the staggering unemployment that nations around the globe are experiencing, they are just among the first as predicted by futurist Alvin Toffler in his book Third Wave. A May 2016 BBC News Technology article reported that Apple and Samsung supplier Foxconn recently replaced 60,000 Chinese factory workers with robots.

People around the globe are falling victim to the Corporate World Order, a system in which international bankers trade the labor of their citizens like chips in a poker game to be used and discarded as stocks dictate. This raping of labor always come with the promise of a better quality of life and often does deliver in the short-term or at least until corporations pull up stakes and move on to the next cheapest labor pool.

This trend began in America soon after the ink dried with the passage of NAFTA and GATT in 1994 when American manufacturing took a voyage across the sea and never returned. And it is not a stretch to connect the dots between high unemployment, brokenness, and risky behavior for those left behind. This may be especially tough for middle-aged women who, for whatever reason, are tethered to dying towns and families, leading many to turn to self-medicating to cope.

I am dubious that presidential hopeful Donald Trump can reverse the course of 30 years of unfettered greed, but it is easy to see why his message so resonates with rural America and why young Bernie Sander supporters don’t trust another businessman. It would take a large majority of Americans to roll up their sleeves and work to reverse the tax and banking laws that favor international bankers and corporations, but alas, our once great middle America has become catatonic with opioids, alcohol, and bad television. And if the old adage of behind every great man stands a great woman is true, we are in very deep trouble. After all, it is the wisdom of our middle-aged sisters that have been the backbone of our culture for centuries.