I know, I know. It’s a terribly depressing blog title, especially on a holiday weekend. I read this piece in the New York Times, and it hit me pretty hard. The tagline of the story is “In a moment riddled with economic and social worries, an e-cigarette shop in Wilkes County, N.C., is an oasis for some young Appalachians.”* (This is a long post, so I’m putting it under a cut.)
I found it interesting that they tied the story into the 2016 presidential election and mentioned which people are voting for which candidate and why they believe those candidates could help them. After reading the article, I concluded that the people profiled in the article are going to have roughly the same outcome no matter who wins the election.** Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, no matter how much they try to portray themselves in a different light, are out of touch with the average lower-middle class American. The message of Bernie Sanders is a fantasy story, although it sounds appealing when taken at face value, and I can see why people like him. (I mean, who doesn’t want free stuff?)
The people profiled in the article reminded me strongly of people I went to high school with and old friends I used to hang out with when I was younger. They seem to be salt-of-the-earth people: good red-blooded Americans, in the sense that they are kind and they care for and are willing to help others. Their hearts are in the right place, and they want a better life for themselves and their families—just like anything else. But the government can only do so much—the individual still has to push him- or herself and work hard. From reading about the people in the article, it seems clear why they are not where they want to be in life:
- The prevailing culture they were born into (including guidance [or lack of it] from parents/family). Who your parents are and how they raised you has an enormous effect on your life, and it is very difficult to erase negative behaviors that have been ingrained from childhood.
- Personality traits they were born with and their overall outlook/mentality. It’s harsh, but some people simply do not have a good work ethic or the skills to do well in school. They just don’t have it, and they do not necessarily have the drive to cultivate it. Not everyone is cut out to succeed in college or even high school.
- Opportunities (or lack of them) in the area in which they live.
- Peer pressure/the “culture of one’s friends.” It seems to me that “vaping” and playing video games are part of a youth culture that is all about living in the moment and escaping reality. People have always tried to escape reality in various ways (through reading, movies, writing, etc.), but at some point, you have to come back to earth because you do in fact live there.
- Consumer culture/conspicuous consumption/relentless advertising. Everyone knows it: The culture urges you to spend money on things you do not need and cannot afford.
- How they manage their money and what they spend their money on.
- How they manage their time and what they spend their time doing.
- Making decisions based on emotion rather than logic.
- Not knowing how to delay gratification.
In short, it is a bad combination of inborn traits and life circumstances that have led these people to where they are. The government can throw money at them all they want. The government can pour money into schools and colleges all it wants. But nothing negates the fact that human nature is flawed and that some people simply do not have what it takes to live the stereotypical “American dream.” The culture and the government do not value the talents that these people do have and the gifts that they can offer. Instead, they try to push people through the typical “American” channels of success—study hard, go to college, work in a “traditional” type of job (definitely not a “vape shop”)—even while knowing good and well that one size does not fit all.
It’s no wonder that people are fed up. For those in Wilkes County and many other areas of the United States, their typical avenues of success and a good, decent life (through blue-collar manufacturing work, mostly) have been blocked off and do not look like they will be opened again anytime soon. It is upsetting, but America seems to have moved past the times when a person could raise a family on a single salary working at a blue-collar job. Presidential candidates have been saying for years that they intend to bring jobs back and do better by those people who are only trying to live and do the best with what limited resources they have, but not much has been done, and things aren’t getting much better. I just don’t see any of the current political candidates being able to change this (although I’d love to be proven wrong).
*Disclaimer: I live in an area of North Carolina that is still fairly rural but is closer to the Research Triangle area (so it’s definitely not as bad economically as Wilkes County). Even so, the description of the location and the people is sadly familiar.
**And most of the people in the United States, except the very rich.