Deaths of despair in Clinton, Oelwein, and elsewhere

John Whiston reflects on several books about industrial decline and the social dislocation that has accompanied it. -promoted by Laura Belin

A friend emailed me the other day, a friend I worked with forty years ago at a plywood mill in Bonner, Montana. We pulled veneer on the green chain, very heavy repetitive work. He asked me to talk with his 30-something son, who might be having some legal problems. So, I spent about an hour in conversation with this young man.

His was familiar story, very much what I’d heard as a lawyer in Iowa for 25 years. I learned he had graduated high school with few skills. While his father and grandfather had been able to go to work at the Bonner mill with good wages, medical insurance, a pension, and a strong union, the mill had closed. He then described a few experiences that seemed to fit in a small way with a whole constellation of symptoms that I had seen in my working-class clients: unemployment, underemployment, injuries, illness, disability, substance abuse, terrible credit, family issues, run-ins with the law.

I now suspect that the underlying problem is a profound despair. Granted, not every working-class person displays this despair, but it appears in an increasing portion. Their despondency bleeds out into their families and communities and affects us all.

I bring this up because like Montana, Iowa has seen forty years of being hollowed out industrially, and a new book has something to teach us all about that process. 

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, is an intensive look at the lives and deaths of non-Hispanic white individuals with less than a bachelor’s degree, the bulk of the Iowa working class. The horrifying facts are that they have for the last twenty years been dying at a sharply increasing rates, mainly due to the deaths of despair: suicide, alcohol diseases, and drug overdoses. They are increasingly unemployed, increasingly sick and in pain and on disability, and increasingly prone to mental illness. A synopsis of the book by the authors is available here.

You may recall that two years ago the Des Moines Register’s Mike Kilen wrote an in-depth article entitled “How Iowa’s midsize cities have been left behind.” The focus was on Clinton and how its people have coped and failed to cope with the recent decline in industrial jobs. The range of remedies suggested, such as additional higher tech vocational education, were all well-meaning and plausible. In the end, however, like much well-meaning moderate analyses, the article missed the history of the phenomenon and the political context.

Highlighting the loss of manufacturing jobs since the crash of 2008, the Register’s article completely missed that most of this decline occurred in the 1980s. The historical high for manufacturing jobs in Clinton County was 7,427 in 1978. The absolute bottom of 4,184 was reached in 1986, a decline of 45 percent in just eight years. Then the city recovered slowly, in fits and starts, hovering at about 5,000 jobs ever since, even after 2008. 

So, questions arise: what happened in the 1980s? Why has it taken so many years for that collapse to reach our consciousness? What does the delay suggest about the path ahead?

What happened in the 1980s in Clinton is a subtheme in Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, a gritty sports book by University of Iowa alum Lucas Mann.  Mostly about the local minor league team, the Clinton LumberKings, the book returns again and again to the central trauma for the town in that era:  the destruction of the local Grain Millers union and the sale of Clinton Corn Processing to multinational giant ADM.

Across the country, the 1980s brought the simultaneous hollowing out of our industrial heartland and the elimination of strong industrial unions. The story is told again as a backdrop in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, Nick Reding’s account of how the plague of methamphetamine strangled Oelwein (Fayette County). The sad story played out against the sale of the locally-owned Iowa Ham packing plant ultimately to Tyson and the breaking of the plant union. The same story has been told in corner bars in Rockford, Illnois, Austin, Minnesota, and the South Side of Chicago.

It was no accident that the heartland was broken. It’s the result of conscious decisions in boardrooms – industrial, financial, and governmental. Profit margins in central manufacturing sectors paled when compared with the easy money to be made in the developing financial sectors such as banking, currency trading, insurance, and so on.  

Shuffling money around was structured as a better bet than actually producing things. So, the powers-that-were had to make changes. Drastic reductions in costs had to be imposed before the assets could be unloaded. When that was insufficient, corporate investment flowed in a mighty stream away from towns like Clinton to New York, with maybe a short detour to the Cayman Islands.

Should we be surprised that the median income of the lower middle class hit a wall in 1980 and has never really recovered? Families had been able to send their kids to college, to purchase a little comfort and a little cushion against the gusts of hard times, but they have never seen the likes of it again. Throughout the Des Moines Register article, residents of Clinton describe losing well-paying industrial jobs and being forced to scramble to find minimum-wage service positions. Those lives are hard, and more importantly, insecure. Missing a paycheck can mean losing a home. A major illness in the family can send it flying apart, because the center cannot hold.

Return with us now to those thrilling years of Ronald Reagan when the government was actively encouraging the deindustrialization of the country. And the destruction of unions. And the redistribution of wealth upwards with the so-called Trickle Down theory. In sum, it was a full-on offensive against the lower middle class. Income inequality turned radically in favor of the rich.

Nor did a change in administrations in 1992 provide much relief for these families and the smaller places where they lived. Despite expressions of sympathy for their plight from the New Democrats like Bill Clinton, there was no real programmatic effort to staunch the bleeding, nor anything like an industrial policy to try to reestablish our manufacturing capacity. Many might remember the Clinton days as prosperous, but the money was mainly generated out of the financial sectors and mainly flowed to the top quarter of the population, seldom detouring to Clinton or Oelwein or the South Side.

Since the crash of 2008, the inequality of wealth and income in this country has trended worse. One relative indication of how far the lower middle class has fallen can be found in the GINI Coefficient, which measures income inequality. Today, we see GINIs on a par with numbers from the 1920s, before the Great Depression, and even approaching those of the Gilded Age at the end of the nineteenth century when the plutocrats of old dominated the nation.

A 2016 Michigan State University study looked at voter satisfaction in 43 countries and compared it to the country’s GINI Coefficient. The results were stunning. Across all countries and across all demographics (both rich and poor), the worse the inequality, the lower the satisfaction with the democratic process. 

The basic point is that when inequality is higher, there is more cynicism. Both rich and poor conclude that “the fix is in” and that the process is fundamentally flawed, to one voter’s advantage and another’s disadvantage.

The natural development, then, is from cynicism to nihilism. If the fix is in, then no rules can correct the system’s flaws and with no rules, anything goes. Lying is taken for granted, even valued as an in-your-face indictment of the broken structure. 

This is not a new critique, nor a partisan one. It appears most acutely in the work of conservative commentator Kevin Phillips. The architect of Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968, Phillips has in the last twenty five years been a consistent critic of the increasing income and wealth divide. In his books The Politics of Rich and Poor (1990) and especially in Wealth and Democracy (2002), he describes the “Great Inversion,” the change from a relatively even growth in income from 1947 to 1979 to the terribly skewed growth post-Reagan when the wealthiest 1 percent saw their income grow by 72 percent while the rest of the population saw no growth at all. This, Phillips argues, poses an immediate danger to our democratic institutions.

This inversion also poses an immediate danger to our economic prosperity. If, as classic Keynesianism says, our prime economic challenge is depressed demand, then a permanent lower class struggling to get by at or just above the minimum wage leaves a market hole for our goods and services.

The inversion poses a threat to our moral life. If the fix is in, then there are no rules, we are free to justify our actions and those of our preferred candidates purely on the basis of our own feelings and desires. In this country, our feelings are often rooted in fatalistic and judgmental and punitive world views. Our station in life is the result of our own sins or merits. The poor are suffering from the natural consequences of their disordered family structures and laziness. The very wealthy profit from their own hard work and business skills. We all get what we deserve. The thought that our economic and moral inferiors are being punished in this world can be a powerful stimulant.

And finally, the inversion poses a threat to our health. No, more specifically, the inversion has after a long chronic incubation period started to kill the white lower middle class. As Case and Deaton point out, the rate of deaths of despair for white individuals in Kentucky without a college degree tripled between 1993 and 2017. For those with a college degree, no change at all.

It makes all the sense in the world. Imagine for a moment some of the people of Clinton and the rest of the forgotten places. They saw the economic underpinnings of their hometowns disappear in the 1980s. Middle-income jobs simply disappeared and they were required to move to unskilled low-paying work.

The grinding financial stress slowly compromised their wellbeing. Some were lucky but the stress of always knowing that your family is just a gust away from destitution does enduring harm to your immune system and your mental and physical health. You saw your children grow up with stunted prospects. Sometimes they succumbed to the drug plagues, meth and then opioids, that have descended on places like Oelwein. And maybe you are raising your grandchildren, hoping against hope for a better life for them. As Case and Deaton say,  “Our main argument in this book is that deaths of despair reflect a long-term and slowly unfolding loss of a way of life for the white, less educated, working class.”

And then, after a generation of neglect, you are presented with a presidential election in 2016 that seems to look like business as usual.  There is every reason for cynicism and nihilism. Allegations of unethical conduct fly back and forth and it’s hard to tell who really is in the pocket of the rich folks and who might have some empathy for your situation. So, what the hell, there’s no real hope like in elections past, why not the billionaire blowhard. A few working-class Barack Obama voters did that, but the much larger portion just stayed home.

Now, however, we can look back and realize that Donald Trump campaigned as the new Reagan. The same “Make America Great Again” slogan. The same cynical change of heart about abortion. The same soft-serve racism. The same voodoo urge to reward the wealthiest with mammoth tax breaks. The same fraudulent “friend of the people” public persona. 

The prescriptions tragically have also been the same, though the implementation seems farcical at times – more inequality, longer hours, fewer unions and fewer services like health care and post-secondary education.  And now an existential crisis beyond most peoples’ imagining.

Call me naïve, but I really do believe that this population won’t get fooled again. They won’t vote for Trump, but will they just stay home again? What then for the future? Will a progressive Democratic Party put a new new deal for the working class back on the agenda? Or will a Clinton-ish Democratic Party continue to ignore the deaths?

John Whiston is a retired lawyer and law professor in Iowa City.

Top image: Abandoned building on the main street of Bridgewater (Adair County), Iowa, on July 1, 2016. Photo by dustin77a, available via Shutterstock.

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  • Big Thanks

    Comprehensive, cogent and crystal clear. Now, are WE going to let Orange Julius Caeser exploit said degree-less folks yet again? There are no sidelines in this game. Fool me once (Dutch!) Fool me twice (Bush!) We’re already going for the trifecta, Iowa. Care to bet the farm…? It appears you already have.

    Kudos to John and BH for this posting.