What’s In a Name?

I hated the term “flyover country” long before I moved there and was curious about the phrase. It wasn’t meant to be the elitist slight it is now. In fact, according to Gabe Bullard writing in a 2016 National Geographic article, the term was first listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1980, influenced by the early non-stop, transcontinental commercial flights 30 years prior.

The first popular usage came from writer Thomas McGuane in an Esquire magazine article about the landscape painter Russell Chatham. They both lived in Montana and McGuane wrote: “I recall being annoyed that the places I loved in America were places that air travel allowed you to avoid.”

A kissing cousin of flyover is “middle America.” It’s both a geographic term and the reputed middle both economically and socially in contrast to the two coasts. The word “heartland” is another cousin, but generally used by people who live there or when an election time is near and there are votes to be won.

What is the truth about the heartland?

Fact: There is no single answer.

The book White Rural Rage launched several better researched articles and a new book, all of them providing a counter argument. Here are just a few of the reasons that rural America is “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The Working Class –

  • White working-class defections from the Democratic Party are concentrated in rural areas that have been hit the hardest by mass layoffs. It’s estimated that there has been over 30 million jobs lost since 1996. (From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama to Chuck Schumer – they share a belief that the growth of the knowledge economy makes this inevitable).
  • The epidemic of mass layoffs, impacting working people of all colors and ethnicities, flows directly from public policy choices, not inevitable economic laws or new technologies like AI.
  • Financial deregulation from the Reagan and Clinton administrations (rare before 1980) has created opposition from millions of working people to financialization and free-trade agreements – and they hold politicians accountable. This is a sign of a healthy class interest, not populist irrationality or an example of xenophobia as often portrayed.
  • Defense contractors increased their stock repurchases and dividends to shareholders by 73 percent in the last decade. How to make windfall profits? For defense contractors it’s a no­-brainer—take it from our tax dollars.
  • For the business sector, it is often extracted from the troubled companies through cost-­cutting—including mass layoffs, wage and benefit cuts, shifting production to low-­wage areas, and cut­ting spending on things like health, safety, environmental safeguards, and research and development.
  • There’s little doubt that the combination of corporate debt financing and unfettered stock buybacks has created powerful incentives to go ‘lean and mean’ – to send workers packing, whether by shifting production overseas, outsourcing at home, or simply shutting down entire operations.
  • The chapters in the book shown below, describing the lives of coal miners, the mining industry, and land destruction are heartbreaking. When you name the buyout of the infamous Peabody Energy company to Patriot Coal, you should be forewarned.

All of the above facts are from Wall Street’s War on Workers: How Mass Layoffs and Greed are Destroying the Working Class and What To Do About It by Les Leopold (published 2024)

And More Facts –

  • For the past century, rural spaces have been preferred destinations for military bases, discount retail chains, extractive industries, manufacturing plants, and real-estate development.
  • The U.S. now contains more than 4,000 military bases, with a combined acreage the size of Kentucky. This has pushed rural people into the armed forces. By early 2007, nearly half of the U.S. service members killed in Iraq had come from towns smaller than 25,000. One fifth were from towns smaller than 5,000. Imagine those funerals and the community’s loss of young people.
  • With so few income sources available, rural people depend heavily on each employer. The opening of a mine, a factory, or military base might bring flush times, but their closure spells ruin.
  • Economic growth skirts small towns. After the 2008 recession, counties with fewer than 100,000 people LOST 17,500 businesses. By contrast, counties with more than 1 million residents ADDED, altogether, 99,000 firms.
  • As jobs rushed out (or overseas in the rush of global trade of the 1990s), discount retail chains swooped in – notably Dollar General, which has more than four times as many stores in the U.S. as Walmart. Although its former CEO, Cal Turner, jr. has written a book about Dollar General’s “small-town values,” the corporation essentially preys on distressed rural communities. It pursues profits by minimizing staff and pay, and by shutting its stores whenever they stop making money. Turner has bragged of his company, “We can close a store and be gone in 24 hours.”

All of the above taken from “Beyond the Myth of Rural America,” by Daniel Immerwahr. Published in The New Yorker, October 16, 2023

There was so much more I wanted to cover in this post. But let me end with this. I haven’t mentioned healthcare in rural America and will say more in a future post and in my serialized memoir. If you agree that the American healthcare system is deteriorating, rural healthcare is like the canary in the coalmine. When a large employer or a single industry leaves a community, it takes with it a tax base that helped support the local hospital, clinics and doctors’ practices, funds for schools, parks, and more often leaves behind its toxic waste and empty buildings.

Photo credits: Rural fence – art wave, Barn with flag – specphotops, We Can’t Thank You Enough – tim mossholder.