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The “Hollowing Out” of America

January 20, 2017

I just finished reading the disturbingly gripping book “Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Its author, J.D. Vance, recounts his grandparents’ Scots-Irish family’s flight from the impoverished Appalachian hill country of eastern Kentucky to a small Ohio mill town in the 1940’s. They did so in search of a better life and like so many others during that time, found it, even if temporarily. They got blue collar mill town jobs, bought homes and raised families. It was the American dream Vance’s parents were born into.

But then one by one the mills closed, the jobs disappeared and his little town began to collapse inward. The American dream became a nightmare. Unable to find sustainable work, many of those of Vance’s generation and of his parents became dependent on various forms of welfare. Family strife ran rife; alcohol, drug, and other addictions became all too common. Depression described the local economies and many people’s mind sets.

From childhood on, Vance had to deal with all of this, only to have survived thanks to his steadfast grandparents, a four-year stint in the Marines, followed by putting himself through Ohio State University and Yale Law School. He made it out, but unfortunately a number of his contemporaries and their parents did not. All too many were caught in a vicious downward cycle of poverty, divorce, addiction and despair.

While his is the story of one white “hillbilly” family, it echoes and mirrors those of other American working class families. Many are found in our poorer and lower middle class white, black, Latino and rural communities across our land. These are people our nation has failed and continues to neglect. And we failed them because we have all too often allowed the pursuit of profit and selfish self-interests by both individuals and corporations to blot out the greater good of the whole – a good that previously upheld and informed the American character. A good that should truly make our country great.

The casualties of this deficiency were once considered the backbone of our great land. They were our frontiersmen and pioneers. Their sweat and toil fed our citizens, built our roads and cities, powered our factories and fought our wars.

But now they and their progeny can’t find jobs because we haven’t equipped them to compete in the modern world. We have spent as little as we possibly could on their schools and education in the name of lower taxes. We have shrugged and said “too bad” when a world they built for us crumbled into decay as our corporations thought only of short term financial gain, shareholder approval and CEO mega-salaries. And this was done without any meaningful objection on our part. As a result, we have hollowed out America’s backbone.

However, it’s not too late for us to wake up and rebuild that backbone by giving all those suffering families renewed hope and faith in a brighter future. We must place far greater effort and resources into re-training those who are willing to work. We have to care about them enough to focus on producing the jobs they need. We need to educate their children to be competitive with the rest of the world in modern technological societies.

Why? Because without them eventually there will be no America worth writing about. There’ll be a significant decrease in American consumers with a stake in upholding our Democracy; that buy our cars; that buy the new homes that fuel our economy; that ensures our future, and God forbid, fight our wars when necessary.