Who Killed the Knapp Family?
January 14, 2020 9:14 AM   Subscribe

They were bright, rambunctious, upwardly mobile youngsters whose father had a good job installing pipes. Today, only one of the Knapp siblings is still alive.

Writing for the NYT opinion section, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn look at Yamhill, Oregon -- site of the Kristof family farm -- and document "a humanitarian crisis unfolding in a community we loved."

Their conclusion:
A Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson, countered that the true underlying problem was lost jobs, and he turned out to be right. When good jobs left white towns like Yamhill a couple of decades later because of globalization and automation, the same pathologies unfolded there. Men in particular felt the loss not only of income but also of dignity that accompanied a good job. Lonely and troubled, they self-medicated with alcohol or drugs, and they accumulated criminal records that left them less employable and less marriageable. Family structure collapsed.

It would be easy but too simplistic to blame just automation and lost jobs: The problems are also rooted in disastrous policy choices over 50 years. The United States wrested power from labor and gave it to business, and it suppressed wages and cut taxes rather than invest in human capital, as our peer countries did. As other countries embraced universal health care, we did not; several counties in the United States have life expectancies shorter than those in Cambodia or Bangladesh.
Kristof's piece is the latest in the press's examination of a broken working-class America. Back in November 2019, the Los Angeles Times reported:
The nation’s lifespan reversal is being driven by diseases linked to social and economic privation, a healthcare system with glaring gaps and blind spots, and profound psychological distress.
The St. Louis Fed released a report in April 2019 enumerating some of those gaps from an economic perspective: "Since 2015, housing wealth, debt and financial distress have been rising the fastest in the poorest ZIP codes, increasing their vulnerability to housing price downturns."

(Indeed.com's chief economist Jed Kolko crunched numbers and concluded, "The economic challenges of blue metros — unaffordability and inequality — are different from those of red metros, which face lower living standards and greater risks of job loss.")

In 2017, Anne Case and Angus Deaton made the Washington Post with their research:
Sickness and early death in the white working class could be rooted in poor job prospects for less-educated young people as they first enter the labor market, a situation that compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies, according to a study published Thursday by two prominent economists.
and over at the New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells dug into the research and identified one factor amplifying the despair -- "returns to experience." As he explained:
The return to experience is a way to describe what you get in return for aging. It describes the increase in wages that workers normally see throughout their careers ... But even workers with less education and skills grow more efficient the longer they hold a job, and so paying them more makes sense.

“This decline in the return to experience closely matches the decline in attachment to the labor force,” Case and Deaton wrote. “Our data are consistent with a model in which the decline in real wages led to a reduction in labor force participation, with cascading effects on marriage, health, and mortality from deaths of despair.”
Not helping the decline in return-to-experience: the permanent loss of jobs which gave a predominantly male workforce the likeliest outcome for return to experience. Six years ago in 2014, the New York Times detailed the unemployed working-class men who just want the jobs they used to have -- jobs eliminated by overseas competition or automation. Three years ago, Clair Cain Miller, writing for The Upshot in the New York Times, dug into the data to show that not only are these men continuing to lose jobs in shrinking manufacturing and machine-operating sectors, they're refusing to retrain for jobs in the growing service sectors, because those are "women's work."

Also not helping -- in addition to the lack of jobs and the decline in return to experience -- in places like Yamhill are a lack of affordable rural housing (The Atlantic, 2015) and rural medical deserts where there's no care for hundreds of miles around (Texas Monthly, 2020).

Kristof and WuDunn's piece touches on a personal connection to Yamhill. For further reading from someone who's also watched disastrous politics and despair wreck lives, read Appalachia-based writer/scholar Joshua Wilkey's 2017 essay, "My Mother Wasn't Trash."
posted by sobell (30 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
That article is absolutely heartbreaking. I'll try to read some of the others after I stop crying.

Jesus fucking Christ this country what have we done.
posted by gwint at 9:33 AM on January 14 [9 favorites]


I do want to push back a bit on the assumption that the white working class people suffering the most are uniformly Trump supporters though. That's lazy reporting. See for instance: White Trump voters are richer than they appear
posted by gwint at 9:36 AM on January 14 [26 favorites]




This certainly enriches the discussion of the full range of effects - potentially not *entirely* positive - that UBI might have. This heartbreaking situation is partly about income, and partly about the personal meaning many derive from their paying work.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:46 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


return to experience

This seems like a thoroughly 20th century economic premise.

Especially if you look at stuff like this.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:57 AM on January 14


For decades when this occurred in urban areas the pundits would lecture African American families for their lazy, drug addled men, their lack of a work ethic, their broken family structure, and on and on. People are poor because they don't have jobs.

I'm a little tired if it becoming a national tragedy only when it happens to white people. Especially white people who continue to vote for the Republicans who put them there.
posted by JackFlash at 10:06 AM on January 14 [109 favorites]


For decades when this occurred in urban areas the pundits would lecture African American families for their lazy, drug addled men, their lack of a work ethic, their broken family structure, and on and on. People are poor because they don't have jobs.

I thought that the headline piece in this post did a fairly good job acknowledging the racist history of how poverty is portrayed and discussed, and contextualizing this work within that history:
In the 1970s and ’80s it was common to hear derogatory suggestions that the forces ripping apart African-American communities were rooted in “black culture.” The idea was that “deadbeat dads,” self-destructive drug abuse and family breakdown were the fundamental causes, and that all people needed to do was show “personal responsibility.”

A Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson, countered that the true underlying problem was lost jobs, and he turned out to be right. When good jobs left white towns like Yamhill a couple of decades later because of globalization and automation, the same pathologies unfolded there. Men in particular felt the loss not only of income but also of dignity that accompanied a good job. Lonely and troubled, they self-medicated with alcohol or drugs, and they accumulated criminal records that left them less employable and less marriageable. Family structure collapsed.
posted by entropone at 10:20 AM on January 14 [22 favorites]


I don't know. I grew up as a poor-as-fuck working class white boy. It was shitty. But, it was a thousand times less shitty than what most working class Black mothers put up with in every city in America today. Somehow incredibly few of them become abusive sociopaths, turn to addiction, kill themselves, or vote for fascists. I'm not usually a fan of "personal responsibility," but, if the alternative is depriving people of any agency or will. . . I'm not sure that's better. Economics are important, but that pretty clearly isn't the whole story.

Also, I'm cringing at the unironic use of the phrase "human capital."
posted by eotvos at 10:23 AM on January 14 [26 favorites]


This is an excerpt from a new book: Tightrope

And: return to experience

This seems like a thoroughly 20th century economic premise.


To some extent, and particularly for less-educated workers:

"... recent cohorts of both educated and uneducated workers are faced with flatter earnings profiles [that is, earnings do not increase with age as much as they used to]. The flattening is considerably more pronounced for less educated workers."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:43 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


I think the article really is about compassion. That we should look at the individual stories that are playing out in such heartbreaking ways. The NYT also had a piece on Joe Burrow's Heisman speech where he talks about the poverty that many experienced in his Ohio hometown, in stark contrast to his upper middle class upbringing.

When my parents immigrated to Canada in the 60's - they were welcomed by blue collar workers and we grew up quite well on union wages. Now, I am not being naive to say everyone was super nice and it was all milk and honey - there was awful racism and misogyny (directed at my mom). But on balance, this country has been great for my family. Now those blue collar jobs are really suffering, even here in Canada.

So if I need to turn around and support those in my country (and the US), I'm will to do so. I am a huge supporter of North American manufactured goods, even if I have to pay a premium (and I know I'm very privileged to be able to make those spending decisions). I mean, I spend alot of time trying to find locally produced food at my farmer's market, shouldn't that extend to all my spending decisions? Personally - I don't care if blue collar workers or anyone else in need agrees with my political views. I just want to help. Full stop.
posted by helmutdog at 11:03 AM on January 14 [14 favorites]


Somehow incredibly few of them become abusive sociopaths, turn to addiction, kill themselves, or vote for fascists.

Two of these things are not like the other two things. And if you don't think that black women (and men) face mental health crises regularly as a result of our totally shit society, it is because you aren't looking.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:07 AM on January 14 [25 favorites]


I don't know. I grew up as a poor-as-fuck working class white boy. It was shitty. But, it was a thousand times less shitty than what most working class Black mothers put up with in every city in America today. Somehow incredibly few of them become abusive sociopaths, turn to addiction, kill themselves, or vote for fascists.

I mean, the idea of Black women as perfectly stoic and long-suffering is itself not a great one.

When people handle grinding poverty well, it's because they have support from family, friends, neighbors, or institutions, or else because they've gotten very lucky. When people don't handle it well, maybe culture and gender help determine what effects it will have — outward violence versus self-destructiveness, suicide versus drinking versus physical collapse under the effects of stress — but they don't prevent it from having any effect. And, like, for sure Black people are less likely to vote for actively racist candidates, but there are plenty of other predatory organizations that they can be exploited by.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:12 AM on January 14 [24 favorites]


I am a huge supporter of North American manufactured goods, even if I have to pay a premium (and I know I'm very privileged to be able to make those spending decisions).

My job involves, in part, sending out small jobs for custom CNC machining. It's pretty basic aluminum milling, nothing super fancy. And I could probably get away with sending the work to local machine shops for a 50% premium. I could handwave about better communication, quality, whatever, and say it's worth the 50% cost increase, and the bosses would probably go along with it.

But it's not 50%. Domestic machining was 5x the price. So $1,000 here in California, or $200 in China. And the Chinese machine shop had a better website, faster quotes, more up-to-date CAD software, and had better quality results.

How do I justify 5x cost to my boss? I don't even try.

I also send out printed circuit board designs for manufacturing. The cost ratio is even larger for those.
posted by ryanrs at 11:26 AM on January 14 [14 favorites]


Based on the recent meta I hope we can have a discussion of working class people without denouncing them as all fascists. It's not correct and allows urban college educated white people distance themselves from racism and fascism in their own ranks.
posted by kanata at 11:40 AM on January 14 [44 favorites]


Based on the recent meta I hope we can have a discussion of working class people without denouncing them as all fascists. It's not correct and allows urban college educated white people distance themselves from racism and fascism in their own ranks.

Same as it ever was for the left - white urban college educated liberals punching down at white people who have lower status, by invoking the relative privilege said folks have over minorities.

Fascism is here - we either start finding common cause or it's all over.
posted by MillMan at 11:48 AM on January 14 [17 favorites]


My mom volunteers with Pantry Plus. They have started to work toward food that you can eat without running water, gas, or electricity. Whole communities in WV are missing a generation or two due to various problems. Getting food to the kids in these schools is vital.
posted by poe at 12:06 PM on January 14 [7 favorites]


They have started to work toward food that you can eat without running water, gas, or electricity.

I have a really hard time responding to this with anything but an utterly fatalistic and despondent proclamation to wrap it all up, nothing more to see here but I am not at all surprised really.

I just returned from my grandmother’s funeral in Walker County Alabama. I’ve referred to it as the foothills of the foothills of the Appalachians and it suffer from exactly all of these problems: exploited resources, undereducated populace, huge poverty and drug rates, and an imploding of the job market as the resources are depleted and what manufacturing there was dried up from trickle to nonexistent.

It’s bad. Piles of garbage along rural roads,roadkill uncollected, a failing local waterworks dept, asphalt roads that were always bad going even further to hell, a hollow shell of businesses (mostly closed thrift stores or local businesses killed by chains or lack of customer cash flow) where a town (Parrish, Alabama to be specific) once existed. Houses left to rot where they stand. I could go on and on.

Of course seeing and living with that sort of environment, not to mention the transition from one that was better and brighter post WWII, is going to impact people, adults or children. It’s like a developing country but in reverse and with more access to drugs and fireworks.

I morbidly joked to my wife via text that those things, along with some personal interactions I witnessed from strangers and family alike, was exactly how Stephen King would start a novel about that part of the country/the state of Alabama. It’s horrifying in more ways than one. I’ll miss my memories there but there’s nothing left for those that escaped. I’m not optimistic in the chances of it recovering.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:49 PM on January 14 [17 favorites]


Seriously, try street view. That’s the vault of Parrish first national bank, about all that is left in old downtown.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:53 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


Not to threadsit at all, but PhineasGage, you wrote:
This certainly enriches the discussion of the full range of effects - potentially not *entirely* positive - that UBI might have. This heartbreaking situation is partly about income, and partly about the personal meaning many derive from their paying work.
And this immediately put me in mind of the David Brin short story "Piecework," which I encountered in his anthology collection Otherness, back in 1994. The premise is pretty stark when laid out: a post-scarcity society provides abundantly for all, but meaningful occupations to fill one's time are scarcer and genuinely change how people view and value themselves:
At least this century frowned on ostentatious class distinction, and colored synthetic fabrics were cheap. So nobody dressed shabby unless they wanted to. It took a sharp eye to pick out types -- the dole-fed majority, who spent their days seeking distraction at state-subsidized entertainments -- then those with service jobs and some status -- and finally the elite, the proud ones, the ones with real work to do.

Mostly the difference could be found in the eyes. Workers had a look... as if they belonged in the world, and weren’t just marking time. It made Io more determined than ever to stay in school. To fight for not just any certificate, but the very highest. Nothing less would slake the hunger in her soul.
There's an abundance of critique in many of the story's underlying premises -- education is always the path to elite activities! People derive deep meaning primarily through work! -- but the idea that people are looking for a framework of personal meaning is a powerful one. It's also an idea we have to urgently mind in an age of increasing automation.
posted by sobell at 1:31 PM on January 14 [5 favorites]


I think one really good thing about modern Internet culture is that it provides many different status hierarchies, with many different kinds of work and traits being rewarded in each. If you suppose that tomorrow I became totally useless in the domain of "doing economically productive stuff in the real world", I would still be able to take pride in my online relationships, my achievements in games, my in-group knowledge about this or that, etc.
posted by value of information at 1:48 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


“Based on the recent meta I hope we can have a discussion of working class people without denouncing them as all fascists“

Based on the recent meta I hope we can have a discussion about “working class people” without silently assuming that means “white working class people,” because FOR GOD’S SAKE.

In this context I think Rhea Boyd’s just released work in the Lancet is worth considering. (Sorry if I’ve missed references above.)
posted by praemunire at 3:25 PM on January 14 [11 favorites]


Apologies, I was caught up in my attempting to head off the classism that comes up in these discussions without pausing that my words came across as not counting POC as part of the rural working class.
posted by kanata at 3:56 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


It's probably worth mentioning that Columbia statistician Andrew Gelman did a pretty convincing analysis of Case and Deaton's data showing that they had not adjusted for age correctly (e.g., the 45-54-year-old group skews closer to 54 now than before) and that there is an actual mortality increase but it applies only to women.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 5:20 PM on January 14 [9 favorites]


That last link - it’s specifically middle-aged white women in the South. That’s really specific, and steady over a decade. And I guess it’s even more specific than that; like RolandofEld, I went back to Alabama for a deathbed this year, but my family made it off the farm and out of the mines in my grandfathers’ lives and they’re fine.
posted by clew at 6:15 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Mourning in America.
posted by flamk at 6:41 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


Wow, that's a profound problem with statistics that compare age buckets over time that I had somehow never thought of before. I will think of that every single time I ever see a statistic about age buckets over time for the rest of my life and I wish I could favorite your comment ten times.
posted by value of information at 6:45 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


I’ll miss my memories there but there’s nothing left for those that escaped.

Hear hear.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:58 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Apologies, I was caught up in my attempting to head off the classism that comes up in these discussions without pausing that my words came across as not counting POC as part of the rural working class.

There's no reason to think you were only referring to white people. Your words did not come across that way and if anyone made different assumptions that's on them.

The most glaring thing to me about the article was the reference to stagnant wages. Minimum wage should be like $22 but is stuck at $7 something. That alone could lead to much of the despair, substance abuse, and other symptoms that we are all left to wonder, how could this possibly happen? I don't know, this isn't some unsolvable mystery, is it?
posted by JenMarie at 1:58 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


It's way worse than just wage stagnation. We have a class of parasitic rent seekers running our economy, and the instant the working class gets any surplus income, the rent seekers will turn the thumb screws and that surplus will vanish into their pockets.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 4:43 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]


Yes. It's less about "what we've done" and more about "who we've allowed to do whatever the fuck they want on the promise of a little more convenience".
posted by flabdablet at 6:41 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


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