Disability and the Rural Disadvantaged: Genuine Plight, or Players?


Just for once, I choose to write with sensitivity. For I find myself right in the middle of the crisis described in this timely article in The Washington Post.

It would be easy to browse the first few paragraphs of this essay, and dismiss the folks described as rural, white scroungers, more likely than not folks who voted for Trump.

And you would be as guilty of profiling as the police who shoot black teenagers.

This goes to the very heart of my constant plea that Democrats need to reconnect with their working class base. Not just because we need their votes to return to our column. But because it is the decent thing to do.

The Democratic Party is the party of working folk. It always has been and remains the best opportunity ordinary working people have for getting a fair shot in the competitive capitalist economy that we have fashioned.

I have always taken the opportunity to talk with working folk. Not walk away. Ignore. And loftily assume that a college degree and patriarchal or matriarchal good feelings allow me to prescribe what is best for them, without even asking.

More than that, at this moment, I find myself among people I care about, who are themselves in situations not unlike those described in this article. And they too feel the stigma which plagues one of the mentioned correspondents.

However else snooty, Merlot-swilling Democrats may choose to stereotype white, rural, working folk, they are proud, independent and (for the most part) hard-working. They find it deeply offensive to have to rely on the state to put food on the tables of their families.

And what this article portrays is not a left-behind community, which has discovered a treasure trove of state riches, which allows them not to have to work.

Rather, it seeks to describe, if you bother to read to the end, look behind, and take the trouble, as I have, fully to meet and understand these folk, is a path of agony for people who want to fend for themselves, but find all the cards stacked against them.

They see a Democratic Party which, for the past thirty years, has supported trade and industrial policies which have decimated their communities. Shut textile mills. Closed coal mines. Exported steel and auto jobs. Imported cheaper Chinese goods. Forced those people remaining in devastated small rural towns to accept less-than-living wages, state handouts or charity.

A Democratic Party which stood by as Republicans tore up legislation and regulations that provided workers with union representation, healthy work environments and proper benefits.

Those of us sitting in the comfort of our IKEA armchairs, as opposed to the one or two of us who have actually worked for eleven years on a shopfloor, and number factory and farm workers among our friends, those IKEA folk miss the point that state handout, disability claims, charity gifts are not easy options that rural folk have simply slid into. For them, they represent the only options remaining.

Rural folk do not have the best schools. The best hospitals. The best social services. They try. But it is not easy to stay healthy and fit when your workplace is constantly able to demand more for less, in conditions which become less amenable to staying fit and healthy every single day.

Add this to the fact that we are talking physical and manual labor in the first place, and it is not surprising that the incidence of disability is necessarily going to be higher in such communities than in, say, your average college town (Clemson, SC or Chapel Hill, NC).

So. Let’s sum up this cocktail of woe – much of it directly due to Democratic neglect, deliberate policy or compromise over the past thirty years.

Rural employment decimated by globalism. Farming communities hit by cheap food imports. Public expenditure cuts eating into communal health. Privatization and deregulation making a mockery of safety and health in workplaces which, more often than not, hold a monopoly on local employment.

Whole families rendered ‘socially disabled’ by economic and communal devastation. Is it any wonder that large numbers of left-behind, rural, white citizens feel compelled to do whatever it takes to look after themselves and their families?

Barack Obama got into trouble by casually dismissing their concerns with his now notorious remark: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

While this is true of some. It is not true of all. Some of them find what way forward they can by putting aside their ingrained shame and stigma, and staying within the system. A system which we force upon them by offering nothing better. A system which includes applying for every state benefit available. And by voting for the loudmouth who says he can do better.

We Democrats can choose to follow the unfortunate example set by Obama’s remarks, and simply dismiss the concerns set out in this essay. Or we can, once more, recover the mantle we once wore so proudly, of truly being the party representing struggling working folk.

We can get out of our ivory towers, begin to talk with ordinary working folk, and ask them what they want. And we can attempt to offer them better than Donald Trump, dishonorable compromise and dependence on a faceless and generally unsympathetic bureaucracy and body politic.

We can do it to win votes. Or we can do it because it is the right thing to do.

The problem is that Democrats have become so taken with other issues, not least cultural and identity issues, that they have forgotten that the primary issues which were once the driving imperatives of our party are still with us.

I do not seek to dismiss the importance of cultural and identity issues. But I do want us to remember what are still the issues that are top of the list for many who should be our core working base.

Issues which were with us when Robert Kennedy spoke passionately about rural poverty (white and black) in 1968. When John Edwards promised to halve US poverty in ten years, during his ill-fated Presidential run in 2008 (when I started my own blog about poverty. And when I wrote to newly-elected President Obama, in 2009, and suggested a network of community organizers, specifically tasked with tackling communal poverty by working with local organizations and activists.

The poor, the economically disadvantaged, the left-behinds never went away. They just became less important to the Democratic Party. It is time for Democrats to reclaim our heritage. And our conscience. And to stop confusing both with our revulsion for Donald Trump and all things rural, white and uncomfortable for our normal table manners …


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