Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

How Modesto Became an American Dystopia

What moral gate has broken open, allowing obvious social pathologies to fester without stigma?

Modesto has always been a have and have-not kind of place. Located evenly about 100 miles from San Francisco, Sacramento, and Fresno, it has been a crossroads in California agriculture and shipping for more than a century. A grand steel arch over Main Street, built in 1912, promised Water Wealth Contentment Health in 696 state-of-the-art, hydroelectric-powered electric light bulbs. Modesto and California welcomed the world as the land of progress, sunshine, and opportunity.

Dust Bowl emigrants came and stayed. So did seasonal workers from Mexico, picking grapes for the E.J. Gallo wine empire. In American Graffiti (1973), Modesto-born George Lucas celebrated coming of age in his provincial hometown. Fertilizer salesman-murderer Scott Peterson brought the town notoriety. Modesto has never been a stylish place, but for generations of independent farmers with small stakes, central California promised—and delivered—a better life.

No longer. Today, Modesto is a tale of two municipalities, one functional but sapped of civic pride, the other in several degrees of dependency and self-ruin. It’s Charles Murray’s Fishtown come to life, an ongoing declension swamping what remains of its stalwart working class.

Functional Modesto endures in plaid, short-sleeve cotton shirts and khakis. Third-generation Okies and native-born Mexican Americans make things work. There’s still money in town. Drive down Sycamore Avenue, and Modesto’s residential beauty and farm wealth remain vividly on display.

But a block or two away, EBT ACCEPTED HERE flags flap in the breeze. Electronic benefit transfer is a way of life for a share of Modesto. Men and women missing teeth, with dirty, sunburned skin, old before their age, stand outside stores, at bus stops, and on street corners, going through waste cans, asking for change and cigarettes. After vagrants trashed a city park, Modesto set up a tent city under a freeway bridge for some 400 homeless.

A decade ago, residential overbuilding, bad house loans, and foreclosures brought Modesto to its knees, as it did other inland cities. But economic reversal is only part of the story. Since the housing bust, Modesto has become a dumping ground for the lowest cluster of the welfare state. Section 8 portability (“ports”) allow indigents and near homeless with vouchers to move from expensive coastal cities inland to cheaper housing and keep their benefits, a migration that welfare and housing officials often assist.

Unemployment is high, but more to the point, many incoming Modesto residents are not looking for jobs, incapable of holding them. Too uncouth or troubled to be employable, an army of marginal itinerants—not exactly homeless but close, without any attachment to the locale—is content with Section 8 housing and family services. It’s a life of EBT and Medicaid, of getting by tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow.

McHenry Avenue cuts through the center of town. There’s an empty shopping mall with its anchor store boarded up and peeling. Down the street, a security guard in dark glasses with a serious pistol strapped to his leg holster is vaping outside the unmarked entrance to a turquoise warehouse building. This turns out to be Phenos, a big-box marijuana dispensary. Dozens of cars sit in its huge parking lot. They come and go day and night, Mercedes SUVs and wrecks, truckers and teenagers, everyone doping up. Uptown, the handsomely built and landscaped Planned Parenthood Modesto Health Center is the place to go for quickie abortions. Close by, the Emerald Tattoo parlor pitches Tattoo Financing No Money Down on a bright day-glow green sign.

Who pays for the dope, abortions, and tattoos? That’s often hard to determine. Inked, unexercised, pasty women with greasy ponytails range from plump to morbidly obese. Unkempt, bearded men flashing angry eyes dare anyone to mess with them. Modesto’s demi-monde comes in white and color, much of it covered in florid body tattoos that reify insane slogans, fantasies, and ideations. “Drugs, homeless, your shit being stolen, with sloppy drunken fights and even someone getting shot or stabbed,” is how one resident describes low-life Modesto.

Modesto’s 200,000-strong population is stable by numbers, but taxpaying residents are dying and departing, while the lumpen and tragic arrive. Many residents are profoundly angered by state and federal authorities’ willingness to warehouse these newcomers at their civic expense, but welfare bureaucracies are local extensions of Sacramento and Washington, D.C. From rough truckers to homeschooling moms, the white working class turns to Donald J. Trump for relief. Democratic officials court Latino voters and pro-immigrant interests.

There’s white-haired Margaret with her British accent and manners, still beautiful in her seventies, born in Rhodesia and dispossessed of her 1,500-acre farm by Mugabe’s henchmen. Margaret landed on her feet in Modesto because of an American-born mother, but life was never the same. Margaret thinks what she went through decades ago will eventually come to the U.S. The “you didn’t build that” attitude, she believes, will in time challenge rule of law and old titles to property.

How did the nation’s stewards let this happen? What moral gate broke open, allowing obvious social pathologies to fester without stigma? Get used to it will not do as a response. And it’s not just Modesto or California. Alexander Payne and Bruce Springsteen mourn what’s happened in their native Nebraska and New Jersey, respectively. To wave away such melancholy and call it nostalgia is both wrong and deeply insulting. As social critic Robert Nisbet once observed, the custodial state leads to mass boredom, and efforts to offset that boredom—through media, sports, pornography, or drugs—stimulate emotionalism while undermining character and community.

Could Margaret’s apocalyptics ever come true? Americans can no longer believe that it can’t happen here. It’s no longer entirely a Mad Max fantasy to imagine a 21st-century Madame Defarge in the back of a dented pickup truck, gleefully watching vigilantes or marshals forcibly evict ranch families, declared enemies of the people with fortunes built on the backs of the oppressed.

But this Defarge won’t be knitting. She’ll more likely be digging into a jumbo bag of BBQ potato chips with gold-flecked, stiletto-clawed fingernails. Relieved of tedium, excited by her own special live reality show, she’ll fixate on the injustices she’s suffered and the future she deserves.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.