Notes From the Rest of the Country: 'Now That I've Got a Look at This Place, It's Not So Bad!'

Eastport, Maine, "the little town that might," where we're back for a return look at a city trying to remake itself. (James Fallows)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My wife Deb and I are on the road again this week, but as a reminder of the ongoing theme:

  • People across the country are aware of the serious economic, political, cultural, social, public-health, infrastructure, environmental, and other problems of contemporary America during this Second Gilded Age;  but
  • in most parts of the country, the possibility of dealing with those problems seems closer at hand, and more encouraging, than it does in national politics.

Updates for today:

1. Syrian Refugees in Erie. Two weeks ago, Donald Trump gave a big, angry speech in Erie, Pennsylvania, about the economic decline of the area and the threat posed in particular by Syrian refugees. Just after that, Deb spent time with a Syrian refugee family in Erie. You can read her report here.

The more we have traveled in parts of America that are actively undergoing ethnic and cultural change—whether western Kansas with its Latino immigrants, or South Dakota with its refugee arrivals, or Allentown, Pennsylvania, as it shifts from Pennsylvania Dutch to Latino, or Holland, Michigan, as it shifts from Dutch-Dutch to a more varied population—the more frequently we have witnessed the ongoing power of the American assimilative process.

Around the world and over the eons, ethnic change and newcomer-adjustment has never been automatic or problem-free. But the process moves on more irresistibly in the United States than in most other societies. And based on what we have seen, in most parts of the country it’s occurring with less tumult and trauma than at many other points in our past. (For instance: 1840s; 1880s-1910s; mid-1960s; early 1980s.)

Deb’s report on the Zkrit family—formerly of Aleppo, now of Erie—conveys part of what we have seen. But so does this response, which came in from a reader in the Midwest:

Is it possible to send the Zkrit family packages, welcoming them? Maybe a PO box?

My wife and I have two girls, 8 and 5, and are heartbroken at what is happening to the Syrian people. We’re blessed to know we’ll never know this type of suffering: for ourselves and for our kids.

Deb put the reader in touch with the refugee-resettlement group in Erie. Obviously this is just one note from just one (generous) family. My point for now is how heavily the anecdotal evidence weighs for us on this same side. Over the years we’ve seen and heard more of this kind of response than the “build a wall” “send ’em back” “we don’t want them here!” tone so familiar from political news.

***

2. Where government works, in Oklahoma. When it comes to national voting patterns, Oklahoma is arguably the very most conservative state. The current FiveThirtyEight polls-only reading gives Donald Trump a 99.4 percent chance of victory there. A reader in an Oklahoma city sends this note:

My wife and I were enjoying a libation on the front porch this Sunday evening in the heartland, when we hear someone cry out “Call 911!” We see smoke a few houses down. Within two minutes, the first fire engine. Within 10 minutes, two more, plus police and EMT. [JF: The reader sends a photo of the immediate response, which I’m not using because it would identify the neighborhood.]

After it is clear everything is under control, the fire is out, and the house was empty, we turn to leave. I mention to my neighbors, “Ya know, folks complain about gummint, but look what we just saw happen.” A neighbor replied, “Yep. Gummint works here in *[city name]*...”

And of course by extension it doesn’t work anywhere else.

***

3) Worst place in America. A year ago, Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post wrote that by some objective measures the “worst place” to live in America was the tiny city of Red Lake Falls, Minnesota. Of course he’s aware, as everyone is, that other cities could seem “worst” by other measures. San Bernardino, where Deb and I have spent a lot of time, is arguably worse-off than any other place in California. Mississippi usually has more than its share of “worst” lists. Erie is seriously threatening to close its public high schools.

But Red Lake Falls could make its case. Earlier this year, as a journalistic and data-analysis experiment, Ingraham, his wife, and their small children actually moved there. This past week he wrote about what he has found.

By now you can probably guess what’s coming: Ingraham reports that things are actually going better in this “worst” place than you would ever guess from afar. Sample from his story “What life is really like in ‘America’s worst place to live’”:

The data do not tell you about the relentless industriousness of the people here. Everybody seems to have three or four jobs. One of our neighbors runs a beef cattle operation during the day, drives a bulk mail truck between Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., at night, and picks up odd trucking jobs here and there on the side. He and his wife built a lovely stone patio behind their house earlier this summer, which I’ve seen them use twice.

The spirit of industry is shared by the younger generations, too. Shortly after we arrived, our friends who run a tubing business in town offered to see whether any of their high school-age summer staff would be interested in babysitting for us on the side. “A lot of the kids are looking for a second job,” they explained. Throughout the summer, kids have stopped by periodically to ask whether there’s any yardwork that needs doing, to make a few bucks for the county fair.

Even though everyone seems to be holding down multiple jobs, opportunities for additional work abound. Around here, you see “help wanted” signs everywhere—at gas stations and restaurants, even hanging on the window at the Red Lake Falls Gazette, the local newspaper serving the town, which publishes once a week.

Statisticians also have not figured out a great way to capture neighborliness, either. Since we moved here three months ago, folks have gone out of their way to help us feel at home.

Of course I realize (as Ingraham must) that the “everyone has three or four jobs” detail could also be a data point for the wage-slavery of modern America. And of course the pressure on middle-income jobs is the fundamental problem of just about every economy in the world, from America’s to China’s to Egypt’s.

But the part of the country where Ingraham now lives, like many others we have visited, was never based on the high-wage factory jobs whose loss has been so traumatic for former paper-mill workers in northern Maine or former steelworkers in Allentown. I know what Ingraham means in talking about “industriousness,” rather than immiseration, as a way some smaller communities have worked for a long time (it is familiar from my small-town upbringing) and that is not automatically associated with economic resentment or fatalism. The piece is very much worth reading.

***

4) The dynamics of news. In the same vein, a reader who I believe lives outside the U.S. writes about the split between widespread pessimism on America’s overall prospects, and much brighter feelings about the parts of America people know first-hand. During the Republican convention, Politico had the headline: “GOP Delegates Say the Economy is Terrible—Except Where They Live.” The reader writes:

If this is a generalized phenomenon, it would seem to be a result of the news and opinion media those folks were ingesting. That is, their view of themselves was sincere and positive but their view of the country as a whole was skewed by the information they were taking in.

The combined reality of each of their data points, however, would actually be that the general malaise we hear about is not supported, at least not by their anecdotal evidence.