Broken Heartland – An Omen from 1990

As we consider current election results and the aftermath, I’d like everyone to take a peek at the following:

If anyone in Hillary Clinton’s campaign had read this book, if any Democrat had read this book 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, we might be in a different place right now.

The author, Osha Gray Davidson, with the precision of a surgeon and with data backed by extensive research, makes a compelling case for how the U.S. reached this point in history (as of 1990, but applies even more today). This place of deep division between those who are doing OK or are better off and those who’ve been left behind. Between those who vote for an economy that serves those who already have money, and one that drives the rest to hopelessness.

When people are lost and feel no hope, they tend to vote for something that will shake things up. And strangely, that tends to align them with their wealthy oppressors, because that’s their only choice. Their oppressors are the only ones who offer them the slim carrot that evaporates on the way to their mouths. But they keep reaching for that carrot, that mirage of hope. Democrats need to do much better; they need to offer a REAL carrot, one that will improve lives in so many ways. Food, jobs, and education. Right now, food and education could lead to real jobs, ones that pay well, ones that can be done remotely so they wouldn’t have to leave their communities. This book doesn’t reach this conclusion, because that option didn’t exist in 1990. Now it does. And now we need new policies to reflect this path as a real option.

Davidson lived in Iowa, with his family, in one of the communities he researched for four years.

“The Crisis that grips the Heartland has something else in common with America: the dimensions of both were at first vastly underestimated.”

Broken Heartland

Davidson argues: We balkanize the problem…We have a farm crisis and a hunger crisis. And crises of poverty, depopulation, water quality, deindustrialization, homelessness, soil erosion, transportation, education, drugs, child abuse, hate groups, banking, healthcare, and on and on…

Everyone focuses on their specialties and fails to put a plan in place that addresses the big picture. I would argue that at this point, we need to mend the fabric of community and seek to pull those who’ve fallen through the net back up into what feels like a community.

And that may mean making sure EVERYONE pays their share of taxes, including corporations and the 1%ers (including the wealthy Agriculture families like Minnesota’s Cargills, who control many aspects of the U.S. food production and distribution system). It may include policies that make corporations take into account more than just profits in the lives they affect. It may mean that Citizens United needs to be reversed, because corporations now spend unlimited amounts to undermine any form of government that doesn’t benefit their bottom lines.

Filled with personal stories of those he interviewed, Davidson’s book is far from a dry treatise. He starts by introducing us to some of the people he gets to know. He carefully shows the internal tensions in these rural communities. Tension between farmers and those who live in towns. People who chafe at being told to do something, even if they know it’s the right thing to do. (current mask conflict, anyone?)

But really, tensions began when this nation was first founded. Tension that built through a “visceral distrust of authority.”

Davidson painstakingly steps through Machiavellian land and farm policy that has been against small farmers since the 1700s. Surprisingly, Jefferson argued for government selling plots of land to small farmers because they’d be independent of the ruling elite and they’d have a stake in the new country if they owned land. Hamilton, OTOH, wrote that “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.” He sometimes called them “the great beast” and believed that the “rich and well-born” should govern. And he wanted federal land to be sold for top price, not sold or distributed to small farmers in any egalitarian way. Hamilton won. (I give him credit for setting up our financial system, but perhaps he should have spent some of that treasury money on educating the populace he thought so poorly of.)

Reconstruction put the screws to small farmers, especially those who were African American. And then there was the Great Depression. FDR did a decent job of creating programs that shored farmers up, unless you were African American, and then was systemically deconstructed in the years following. The land grant universities played a part in this, with Ag programs and research (sponsored by big Ag corps) that benefited only corporate farming. “Get big or get out,” being Earl Butz’s (Sec. of Agriculture) favorite phrase, which turned into policy. He had long sat on the boards of “Big Ag” corporations.

Farmers who tried to follow that advice were undercut by falling grain prices, precipitously falling land prices, and high debt that sent them into bankruptcy. Murder/Suicides became a way to deal with despair. Or what came to be known as “farm accidents” that involved guns, not farm equipment. But I digress, since this is not just about farmers. But as family farms went bankrupt and were eaten up by larger ones, and those who could leave left for cities, as main street stores and community hospitals boarded up, those who remained tended to be the poorest of the poor: those who had no choice but to hunker down and try to survive.

Government studies have repeatedly come out with recommendations to address rural poverty, that are then not acted upon. For example, President Johnson’s 1967 Commission on Rural Poverty, called THE PEOPLE LEFT BEHIND, documented the poverty, malnutrition, and starvation among the rural poor in the U.S. It also documented their lack of housing, medical care, education, and political power. The commission made many recommendations—that were never implemented because the Vietnam War absorbed the country’s attention and resources. It was guns or social programs. Guns won.

A 1987 Harvard study listed “150 Worst Hunger Counties,” 97% of those were in rural areas. At the time, 10% of Iowa’s state population depended on government food handouts. One in six Iowans was living in poverty.

Between 1984 and 1987, during Reagan’s “new morning for America,” the number of people who spent the night in a homeless shelter in Iowa went from 28,000 to 4.5 million. I guess the new morning meant a new morning in a new place, one that you wouldn’t recognize.

Folks, this book will turn your bucolic idea of what America’s Heartland really looks like on its head. From the huge meat processors (IBP) that have promised much and then destroyed what was left of the social fabric and are skinning their employees alive (with lax oversight and minimal fines) to Walmart moving in and undercutting local retailers in small towns to conspiracy theorists who have been fomenting hate among the rural poor successfully for decades.

Local and state government handouts and concessions (pits states against states) compete for large corporations to establish a processing plant or big box store with huge detrimental effects to rural communities. And they do it by promising jobs. One of the IBP meat processing plants reported a 240% employee turnover rate!!! for a variety of reasons, none of them good, including the $6/hour wage, during an era when union wages were far higher.

As of 1990, there were many rural Americans working from home for as little as $1.50 an hour (I can’t imagine it’s much better now), doing piece garment work or assembling engine parts in their basements. Yes, work that used to happen inside a manufacturing plant with workers earning a decent wage and healthcare benefits, now being done at home on a piecemeal basis. No unions. No benefits. No sleep, because this is just a side job they’re doing in addition to farming or dealing with kids. And yes, the kids are working, too, and end up too tired to stay awake in school—if they make it to school. Folks, the new sweatshops are in the home in rural areas.

If life is so bad, why don’t they just move? If you ask that question, the blind spot of your privilege is showing. Lots of reasons, including age, lack of resources to move, lack of education and skills, and having deep roots in places where their families have lived for generations, among others. Please read this book.

One caveat: In the preface, Davidson states that he does not address the situation Native Americans find themselves in, that of being the poorest rural citizens in the U.S. He does this because this group faces completely different and unique historical/political circumstances that cannot be addressed by his book about general rural issues.

And after you’ve read Broken Heartland, you can follow it with an up-to-date 2020 take on how the working class became disenfranchised. This is what I’m reading next.

You can also watch the recent Litquake Festival featuring Kristof and WuDunn in conversation about their new book. They went back to Kristof’s hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, and talked to people he grew up with. About a quarter of those who used to ride his school bus are dead from drugs, alcohol, suicide, or reckless accidents. This book explores how those left behind got there, and what we need to do to address the problem. It’s been called “riveting” and “impossible to ignore.” I hope so!

Now, I better get my word count in for NaNoWriMo…..thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “Broken Heartland – An Omen from 1990

  1. Sarah says:

    Wow! What you wrote makes so much sense. I see it all around me. People with so little believing the words and yet, they are struggling to make ends meet and still accept the slap on the back unkept promises.

    The Internet and marketing are no help. So much misinformation and polarizing marketing.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, I’m originally from the Midwest. I get so furious when I see how so many people have been used and abused by corporations within and outside of agriculture—all for some withering hope.

  2. Patricia Tilton says:

    Such a perfect read for me today. Want to share these two books with my husband. I’m in Ohio, and I can see how the corporations have abused agriculture. There are so few farmers left. Recommend these books to Biden’s campaign. Although I have read a lot of Kristof and he’s a regular on MSNBC, I imagine they are aware of his current book. Going forward we really need to understand what’s happened. Thanks again, for sharing.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, I really think we’ve got to make some major systemic changes to get ourselves back on track! Thanks for reading, Patricia. I know it’s not my usual kind of review, but this is so very important to me, I had to write this.

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