John Whiston

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.

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