Economy & Business

If Your Town Is Failing, Just Go

Downtown Booneville, Ky., in 2012. (Mario Tama/Getty)
A prescription for impoverished communities

The town where my parents grew up and where my grandparents lived no longer exists. Phillips, Texas, is a ghost town. Before that it was a company town, a more or less wholly owned subsidiary of the Phillips Petroleum Company. Phillips had already lost a great deal of its population as highway improvements sent residents off to the relative urban sophistication of Borger, and there were fewer than 2,000 people living there in 1980 when an explosion at the refinery destroyed practically all of the town’s economic infrastructure, along with a fair number of houses.

Phillips, Inc., in the end decided it had no need for Phillips, Texas, and the town was scrubbed right off the map. The local homeowners owned their houses but not the land they sat on, which belonged to the company. (These sorts of arrangements were, and are, more common than you’d think, as in the case of the many Californians in the Coachella Valley who own their houses but lease their land from the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians.) Many of the residents of Phillips were uneager to be evicted from their homes, and they sued the company with the help of the famously theatrical Texas trial lawyer Racehorse Haynes, who informed the good people of Phillips: “They might whup us fair and square, but they better bring lunch.” Lunch was served, and Phillips is just gone.

It was the right thing to do. Some towns are better off dead.

I couldn’t help but think of Phillips while reading Paul Theroux’s extraordinarily stupid and dishonest account of economic life in the American South. Theroux’s claim is that the South is dotted by impoverished villages “that looked like towns in Zimbabwe,” and that this is in the main the result of the migration of manufacturing to “China or India, Vietnam or Mexico.” Theroux and his editors at the New York Times seem to believe that he has written a scathing indictment of globalization; what he has in fact written is an advertisement for the dangers of being a one-horse town, and a pretty good case for giving a few old relics the Phillips treatment.

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There is no reactionary like the anti-trade reactionary, and Theroux and his ilk make the original Luddites look like Steve Jobs by comparison. He gives us Hollandale, Miss., where the 3,500 residents constitute a tax base of less than $300,000. (I do not think that Theroux knows what a “tax base” is, unless the assets of the people of Hollandale total $85.71 each; given that the Hollandale school district manages to spend nearly $9 million a year on 669 students, this seems to me unlikely.) But, yes, woe unto Hollandale:

When Hollandale’s citizens lost their jobs in the cotton fields to mechanization they found work nearby, in Greenville and elsewhere, in factories that made clothes, bikes, tools and much else — for big brands like Fruit of the Loom and Schwinn.

Theroux may not have picked this up this tidbit while growing up on the mean suburban streets of Medford, Mass., but the fact is that given a choice between a) picking cotton and b) almost anything else, the vast majority of people choose b. (Or at least they used to; picking cotton is a pretty good job now.) They didn’t lose their jobs to mechanization — they were liberated from them by new economic development.

#share#It is emphatically not the case that the South, or the United States in general, engages in less manufacturing today than it did in the so-called golden age of the postwar era (during which years a lot of poor people in the South, members of my family included, supplemented the wages they were earning during the manufacturing boom by . . . picking cotton, by hand, and being paid by the pound). We manufacture much more today than we did in the 1950s, and we grow a lot more cotton, too — and both enterprises require fewer workers today than they did back then. When one worker can produce what ten workers used to produce, or a hundred, wages go up, which is why you can make $100,000 a year harvesting cotton today, massive capital investments and innovation having turned what was once the work of slaves into a fairly lucrative skilled occupation.

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Nor is it the case, as Theroux writes, that “globalization is the search for a new plantation, and cheaper labor.” There is in fact relatively little foreign direct investment in low-wage countries. The top destination for globe-trotting capital is . . . the United States, which takes in almost twice as much as the second-place finisher, the not remarkably impoverished United Kingdom. Other than China (No. 5), you won’t find a relatively low-wage country anywhere near the top of the list. Instead, you find: Germany, Belgium, France, Canada, Switzerland, Spain, Ireland, Singapore, Brazil, Australia, the Netherlands. . . . And even China isn’t really a low-income country anymore; it’s been classified as upper-middle-income by the World Bank for years, and investment in China has grown as wages have grown. They still aren’t making BMWs in Rwanda. Some race to the bottom.

Beyond the shopworn banality of his prose (“the catfish farms and the cotton fields and the blues bars . . . the gun shows and the church services and the football games”) Theroux is guilty of thinking and analysis that is beyond sloppy — he fails to account for the basic facts of the case. The South was an extraordinarily poor and backwards place until the day before yesterday. In the 1950s, about half of the households in the South didn’t have indoor plumbing. The economic transformation of the South in the past 50 years has been astounding, a success story for the ages.

The best thing that people trapped in poverty in these undercapitalized and dysfunctional communities could do is — move. Get the hell out of Dodge, or Eastern Kentucky, or the Bronx.

As it has been for what development nerds sometimes call the “global south.” Just as the gentlemen of the Times were putting the headline on Theroux’s daft little tantrum, the World Bank published its estimate that this year — this year, not at some point in the happy-happy future — the number of people living in extreme poverty on this planet will dip below 10 percent for the first time in the history of the human species. Change will always inconvenience somebody, it is true, and those great jobs sewing underwear in Southern factories for $100 a week no longer exist. Famine no longer exists and several million formerly poor people get to eat, and the terrible tradeoff is what? A fellow who used to work in a sneaker factory has to go hustle real estate or become a restaurant proprietor? Meanwhile, the poor people of Mississippi, still our poorest state, on average have to get by on a mere 118 percent of the median income in France.

But, oh, oh, oh, that scheming Chinaman! The inscrutable Oriental, always out to stick it to the naïve round-eye.

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There are some desperately poor places in these United States, in the rural South, true, but also within walking distance of Fifth Avenue. My own experience in Appalachia and the South Bronx suggests that the best thing that people trapped in poverty in these undercapitalized and dysfunctional communities could do is — move. Get the hell out of Dodge, or Eastern Kentucky, or the Bronx. Cheap moralizing of the sort that Theroux engages in, or the cheap sentimentalism that informs the Trump-Buchanan-Sanders view of globalization — “globalization” being another way of saying “human cooperation” — helps exactly no one. We spend a great deal of money trying to help poor people in backwards communities go to college; we’d probably get better results if we spent 20 percent of that helping them go to Midland, Texas, or Williamsport, Pa., or San Jose, Calif., where they’re paying delivery drivers $25 an hour to bring people their fruity gluten-free lunches. Send them to Marysville, Ohio, where they can build high-tech supercars in the employ of the wily Japanese.

But whatever we do, let’s liberate ourselves from the superstition that every spoonful of rice going into a Chinese mouth is stolen from an American pantry. This world is radically better off than it was in 1990, 1980, or 1950, and those billions are not being fed by the efforts of smug travel writers.


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