In March Hillary Clinton told a CNN interviewer, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” That was a true but dumb thing to say in advance of the West Virginia primary. So this week Clinton went on an apology and listening tour through Appalachia.
She heard tales of loss and renewal. Then she gave a speech proposing an agenda for the region. It was a perfectly serviceable speech. Yet you can see in it some of the reasons the Clinton campaign has not exactly caught fire.
The core problem is that she sounds like a normal Democratic candidate in the noble tradition of Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, but she doesn’t sound like an imaginative candidate who is responding with fresh eyes to situations today.
This year it seems especially important to show voters that you see them and know them, and can name the exact frustrations in their lives. Clinton’s speech was filled with the flattery that candidates always offer their audiences – “Appalachia is home to some of the most resilient, hardworking people anywhere.” But the political rhetoric was conventional and she didn’t really capture the texture of life.
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She didn’t really capture the way economic loss has triggered a series of complex spirals, and that social decay is now center stage. A few decades ago there were 175,000 coal jobs in the U.S. Now there are 57,000. That economic dislocation has hit local economies in the form of shuttered storefronts and abandoned bank buildings.
Everywhere there are local activists trying to rebuild, but it’s hard to hold off the dislocation, distrust and pessimism. Birthrates drop. Family structures erode. Life expectancy falls. People slip between the cracks and inevitably drug use rises. According to The Charleston Gazette-Mail, between 1999 and 2009, per-capita consumption of oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl tripled. By 2009 West Virginians were annually filling 19 painkiller prescriptions a person.
Heavy opioid use often slides over into heroin use. Heroin overdose deaths tripled between 2009 and 2014. In those years the state had the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.
It’s not surprising that there’s so much drug use in towns where there’s so little to do. But the root of this kind of addiction crisis is social isolation. Addiction is a disease that afflicts the lonely. It is a disease that afflicts those who have suffered trauma in childhood and beyond. And once the social fabric frays it’s hard for economic recovery to begin. I ran into employers in Pittsburgh who had industrial jobs to fill but they couldn’t find people who could pass the pre-employment drug test.
Clinton did gesture toward some of these truths, saying, “They’re dying from suicide, but I thought Bill really put his finger on it. He said, ‘You know what they’re really dying of? They’re dying of a broken heart.’” But her policy ideas don’t exactly respond to current realities.
She vowed to “take a hard look at retraining programs.” She’d expand tax credits to encourage investment. She’d get tough on trading partners who are trying to dump cheap steel. These are the normal, sensible ideas candidates propose, but they are familiar and haven’t exactly done much good.
A daring approach might have been to use the speech to propose a comprehensive drug addiction and mental health agenda. That would have grabbed the attention of all those Americans whose families are touched by addiction and mental health issues – which is basically everybody.
A more imaginative approach might have been to unfurl a vision to reweave social fabric, the way David Cameron has in Britain. In areas of concentrated poverty, everything is connected to everything else – job loss, family structure, alcoholism, domestic violence, neighborliness. It would be nice if America, too, had creative politicians who could put together a comprehensive agenda that nurtures social connection, rather than just relying on economic levers like job-training programs that have consistently disappointed.
A more timely approach would have noted this fact: That for all of American history, people have moved in search of opportunity, but these days we’re just not moving. The number of Americans who move in search of jobs has been declining steadily since 1985.
Place-based federal anti-poverty programs discourage mobility; if you move in search of opportunity you risk losing your benefits. The government could offer mobility grants to help people get their families from one place to another. It could set up migration zones – helping people find housing and connection in places where jobs are available.
Clinton’s speech was not bad by any means. But she could have offered something inspiring and audacious – to tackle mental health problems, to reweave community, to make America the daring mobile place it used to be. She could have grabbed the nation’s attention.
This is a country seriously off course. A little creativity is in order.