In The Injustice of Place, three sociologists—Kathryn Edin, H. Luke Shaefer, and Timothy Nelson—write about the effects of natural disasters on the poorest regions in the country. Policies that seem to harm blacks more than whites “need not be the result of a grand conspiracy,” they note in what might seem to be a spirit of moral generosity. Rather, they say, the effects derive from “a toxic alchemy of government policy, market forces, good and not-so-good intentions, and pre-existing differences in wealth and other resources.” Their book is dedicated to exploring the factors that go into that toxic alchemy. But their list of causes is woefully incomplete, and their ideological blinders lead the three sociologists to conventional conclusions that are even more woefully unsatisfactory.

The question of why some places in the United States (and around the world for that matter) remain so poor while others seem to flourish is one that has occupied analysts and policymakers of all stripes for more than a century. Here, the authors have compiled an index based not only on rates of poverty but also health markers (low birth weight and life expectancy) to come up with a list of the least advantaged places in the U.S. Their first surprise, they explain, was that the places were almost entirely rural: “There is considerable poverty in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. But in our apples-to-apples comparison, none of those cities ranked even among the 600 most disadvantaged places in the nation.”

It is nice to see that academics can display a certain amount of humility, but the idea that senior professors at the nation’s most elite schools are shocked by this finding is itself revealing. How much of a bubble do you have to live in? Have they never driven though South Dakota or West Virginia?

Rural poverty is not only deeper than urban poverty; it is also harder to climb out of. And part of that is due to isolation. Even kids in Bed Stuy or the South Bronx still go to Times Square. They ride the subway. They see people who get up every day and put on nice clothes and go to work. They are aware of marriage and intact families, and there are public and private resources that they can access with some help. In less populated climes with less visible evidence of a more attractive world, the young have little within their literal reach to aspire to.

For the authors, the story of rural poverty begins with slavery. “If plantation life among Black people before the Civil War can rightly be described as an unending forced labor camp,” they write, “tenancy after freedom was a perpetual, inescapable form of indentured servitude.” Not only did landlords shortchange their tenants, they also “blocked tenants’ access to government relief, no matter how lean the year, on the assumption that it might discourage these laborers from toiling in the fields.”

But as any reasonably aware person who has spent more than 10 minutes in the rural South observes, there is plenty of white poverty, too. How to account for this? The authors have terrible trouble tearing themselves away from structural racism and segregated school systems to address the issue. They come close to an explanation when they cite accounts from as early as the 1880s of the “hillbillies” who lived in Appalachia, for instance, as “a separate and inferior people,” described by their contemporaries as “barbarians.” They note that the “idea that mountain whites were of a substandard racial stock was particularly in vogue in the eugenics-infused social sciences of the 1920s.”

But one needn’t attribute the problems that characterize large swaths of Appalachia and the South to inferior DNA to understand that there are real cultural differences across the United States and that certain self-destructive cultural behaviors have been embraced by whites and blacks alike. As Thomas Sowell described in his 2005 book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, the groups who migrated to the South in the early part of this country’s history hailed from the “northern borderlands of England…as well as from the Scottish Highlands and from Ulster County, Ireland.” These places were among the most primitive and lawless in Europe, and the people who emigrated brought those traditions with them. They came with, Sowell writes, “a whole constellation of attitudes, values and behaviors that might have made sense in the world in which they had lived for centuries, but which would prove to be counterproductive in the world to which they were going—and counterproductive to the blacks who would live in their midst.”

Those patterns included “an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement,” and the like. For Edin and her co-authors, none of these cultural signposts is even worth discussing. And even when residents of these disadvantaged places suggest other causes for their woes, the authors are unwilling to believe them. A mayor who blames widespread violence on bad parenting is roundly dismissed. When a pastor cites generous welfare and disability payments as a reason for high rates of unemployment, the authors say this argument echoes “white planters’ accounts of allegedly ‘lazy’ Black people refusing to work in the days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.”

Some of the other factors that the authors chronicle are worth noting. Take the issue of so many rural towns being dominated by one industry. Whether it’s cotton or tobacco or coal, when the value of a product falls or the natural resource runs out or someone else in some other area or some other country figures out how to make it more cheaply, the effects on a small town can be devastating. Even when a free market eventually makes way for other industries to arrive, there is no disputing the disruption.

Companies often move to these towns precisely because the labor is relatively cheap. But Edin et al. are outraged when industries come and when they go. When the appliance company Viking, for instance, had to reduce operations in Greenwood, Mississippi, “Milwaukee Tool became the town’s industrial savior.” But the authors argue that these greedy capitalists would only pay about half of what they were paying in Wisconsin, wages “so low they can’t lift a family of four out of poverty.” But starting wages are not intended to support entire families, and in towns with low rates of education, it’s not clear what other kinds of companies are moving in.

Similarly, the authors decry the shocking levels of violence that plague these communities and want to know what the political leadership is going to do about it. But they don’t demand a greater police presence or stricter law enforcement. Instead, they cite a statistic showing that “Blacks who lived in a state with a recent police killing faced significantly more mental health challenges than those who did not.”

The other problem with having one major employer is that the employer has historically funded a lot of the town’s physical and social infrastructure. Coal companies would fund movie theaters or bowling alleys. Other companies pay for playgrounds or senior centers or help fund schools. When the companies leave, much of the town’s social structure collapses. And while the authors are initially skeptical, many of their interviewees tell them that drugs are such a significant problem because there is “nothing else to do.” And in a world where even our sources of entertainment are isolating—the authors note at least that some people are too poor to afford their own Internet and must go to a neighbor’s house to download movies—this problem is only likely to get worse.

The social structures that do exist—churches—have seen a steep decline in membership in recent years. And the authors aren’t all that high on them anyway because churches, they say, citing another scholar, “set boundaries that define who is part of the community and who is excluded.” So mean.

One of the most significant problems plaguing small towns is corruption, and it is all but impossible to fix. The authors are compelled to acknowledge that corruption is an equal-opportunity temptation when they study a small town in South Texas. The town was once exclusively run by whites before local power flowed into the hands of the Hispanic NGO called La Raza. Corruption affects not only a town’s finances, but also its police, judicial system, and schools. In smaller towns where everyone is related to someone else, there are only so many employers, and the government is going to be a significant one. The conditions for nepotism are ripe. And fixing it, even with the involvement of state or federal authorities, is a thorny issue.

At the beginning of the book, the authors note that they had originally intended to visit a Native American community for their research but that Covid and other obstacles kept them out. It’s too bad because these communities offer an object lesson in rural poverty and how not to fix it. The authors want to keep free trade to a minimum and force businesses to pay higher costs to operate. Fine. But almost no company wants to do business on a reservation. The regulations make it all but impossible. The authors think we should pay teachers more. Fine. On reservations, public-school teachers are among the highest-paid workers. The result is more nepotism and incompetent teachers. When there are no good jobs, everyone wants government jobs, and all that matters is who you know. The authors want to limit the amount of public money that can help families pay for alternatives to public schools. Fine. Families on reservations have almost no options for good schools, and their kids are among the poorest-performing in the country.

Finally, the authors want to blame the problems of these poor communities on racism and therefore suggest offering reparations to certain groups. Well, reservations and the people who represent them in federal agencies are almost entirely of Native ancestry, and we have been throwing billions of dollars at these communities for decades now with almost no effect. I’m sure Edin, Shaefer, and Nelson would also simply blame systemic racism, Native boarding schools, and too little federal funding for the problems plaguing these communities. It’s nice when you have an easy answer to a series of problems that no one has found a solution to. It’s even nicer when you can pretend the problem is that your easy answer hasn’t already been tried, and tried, and tried, and tried.

Photo: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

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