The Dire Emergency of Small-Town America
The historic home, one on a row of old, venerable houses on Main Street, appears quaint to a passersby.
Main Street doubles as a state highway, so there is no lack of admirers. Yet look a little closer, maybe take a stroll in front of the house or step inside, and the rustic charm soon dissipates. The front door, the siding, the white picket fence, are all covered in soot from the passing vehicles. That same traffic is audible, at all hours of the day and night, from every bedroom in the house. It’s an apt metaphor, the owner of the house told me, for what it’s like to live in a scenic country town—attractive at first glance, but dirty and noisome when more carefully examined.
The owner, who recently contacted me to tell his story, moved to this rural town several years ago to take one of a limited number of white-collar jobs there. It wasn’t just the rural setting—with its lower housing prices and less expensive cost of living—that attracted a young married man with several children and no little amount of debt. As devout, well-read Christians, he and his wife yearned for the kind of small, tight-knit community described in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. So the two purchased that historic home and he began his career in earnest.
Yet all has not been well in this country community. “I’m not sure whether the incomplete happiness of this life is enough to explain the dissatisfaction I feel or whether the modern way of living really does make it all that much more unbearable,” he writes. These are strange words to read from a man who would seem to be fairly resilient. He grew up in a military family and previously worked in the fishing and agricultural industries.
“All our troubles here seem reducible to the road that runs through our front yard,” he explains. It was off that highway that a young mentally disabled man approached his wife while she was outside with her kids. He warned her that “bad people” were in the town “kidnapping and raping children.” The man admitted that he had himself previously been abused by these people. Not long after, a male stranger in a car asked one of her sons to open the gate. The child refused. At the time, several locals assured her, “that kind of thing doesn’t happen here.”
Since then, neighbors have acknowledged that their children, too, were approached by strangers in parked cars, including one who asked a child: “Do you want some candy?” Another was threatened with physical violence. Then a few months ago, a four-year-old girl from a nearby town was abducted in the middle of the night from her home by a man who slept next to her and masturbated. She was later found taped up in a box. “There is a real and definite threat locally, and I am not sure if it’s related to human trafficking, rage, boredom, or something else…. I am having nightmares and other health issues associated with this problem,” said the man’s wife.
Their town, though somewhat isolated, is only a few miles from an artery of a multi-state sex trafficking route. Highway rest stops, bus stations, and truck stops have become hubs for this activity. According to a 2013 non-profit report, the problem is “spreading beyond the grasp of police, prosecutors, and social work agencies.” This crisis is a national one—there are an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 underaged child sex workers in the United States, and another 250,000 youths are at risk of being drawn or forced into this underworld. The average age of those being trafficked is 13. There is big money to made in sex trafficking. One estimate places the number at approximately $9.5 billion a year in the United States alone.
This is not the only crisis confronting the community. Families are collapsing. The husband explains: “When older denizens of town describe golden days full of Christian schools, neighborhood grocers, and social groups, I wonder what world they are from—not this one. Do they even know that families of the town, ancient ones, are in their heirs falling apart?” As is well catalogued in J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy and Timothy Carney’s Alienated America, the working-class, blue-collar family is no longer in decline. It has suffered catastrophic destruction. The familial crisis is compounded by abuse of opioids and other narcotics. “The drug problem is a rather open secret among the under 35 crowd,” the man observes.
All of this has taken its toll on the couple. She increasingly suffers from sleep deprivation and anxiety. He is more melancholic and is fighting off depression. They would willingly consider counseling, but they cannot afford such a luxury: their family relies entirely on his salary to pay the bills. The husband barely has enough expendable income to afford regular haircuts, and the family has been forced to eat rice and beans several days a week. The couple still lauds many of the blessings of their new community: they know their neighbors well, receive much-appreciated help from members of their church, and enjoy a slower pace of life that is great for kids. All the same, the husband laments, “the social fabric is too threadbare to hold my confidence regarding watching out for one another.”
Despite these hardships, I’d wager that they will almost certainly survive, and likely still thrive, in spite of their circumstances. They are a deeply devout family whose religious faith remains the center of their identity and a source of comfort and spiritual and emotional renewal. The husband and wife are both intelligent and resourceful, with degrees and professional experience to prove it. Both come from intact, financially stable extended families that can provide all manner of necessary support. Their parents are themselves professionals. If things were to really deteriorate, they could probably move back in with those retired parents, or rely on the charity of other friends and family.
Little if any of this, however, is true for many who grow up in such communities. Millennials in these towns (like this couple) will likely have to look back a generation or two to find examples of stable, cohesive families on firm financial grounding that might serve as exemplars of a realized “American dream.” Economic opportunities in these communities are sparse. The school systems are subpar if not terrible, and few people have the motivation or familial guidance to achieve educational success. The pull to engage in substance abuse is strong. So is the tendency to conceive children out of wedlock to partners one has little long-term commitment to, thus proliferating this impoverished paradigm to the next generation. Such persons have little if any of the support network enjoyed by the couple. Should we then be surprised that so many of them are failing?
There are many like this family who want a coherent vision of “the good life,” of strong Christian families living down the street from one another, supporting one another and building lasting communities that our children would be proud of. This Benedict Option-style arrangement is flourishing in places like Hyattsville, Maryland and Front Royal, Virginia, among others. Yet for those considering smaller, rural communities, they will likely have to consider the kinds of threats—abduction, sexual abuse, drug addiction—described by the above couple. That makes the decision between a town in the Rust Belt or Appalachia and our current “soulless,” atomized suburban existence a bit more challenging.
This couple still yearns for the small-town Middle America of our grandparents’ generation, and even, to a lesser degree, of our parents’ generation. Yet that kind of community, defined by economic stability, vibrant local civic institutions, and strong churches has disintegrated and may never return. They have come up against the cold, hard reality of a globalist economy that benefits the coastal elites at the expense of flyover country, a digital era that atomizes Americans and undermines local community relationships, and a libertarian ethos that shrugs its shoulders at addiction, be it from substances, pornography, or anything else.
J.D. Vance in a recent speech demanded a conservative agenda that addresses and overcomes all of these trends and rescues American communities like the one this couple now lives in. Certainly such an agenda would not only help those living in such places, but incentivize others with welcome capital and professional skills to more seriously contemplate living in such communities. Based on what this family is experiencing, that lifeline had better come soon. For others, it might already be too late.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative.