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COMMENTARY: A postcard from the ‘forgotten America’

DU QUOIN, Illinois — Here, in one of the many small towns dotting the southernmost tip of Illinois, what can only be described as rural decay has gripped communities that bustled back when coal mining provided a steady middle-class living.

But as with so many tiny hamlets dependent on coal or manufacturing, Du Quoin — a town I’ve visited annually for the past two decades — has seen a reversal of its fortunes that seems to have hit harder in the last few years even than in the depths of the Great Recession.

This is, in part, because coal mining has practically ground to a halt in Illinois. The 3,600 people employed in the state’s coal mining industry in 2016 was the lowest number since 2010, and far fewer than the 10,000 who were employed in 1990 when the federal Clean Air Act took effect, according to the State Journal-Register.

Another blow occurred in 2010 when Du Quoin lost its claim to fame as the home of the World Trotting Derby, a prestigious harness race that had a purse of half a million dollars. It disappeared, in part, due to the state’s ongoing budget crisis.

In the subsequent seven years, the population has contracted by 260 to a mere 5,849 souls. Longtime main street businesses have shuttered, giving way to a raft of storefront title loan agencies, pawn shops and fast-food restaurants. Only the town’s Walmart remains as dominant as ever.

The once-majestic Grand movie theater shut down, reopened and went under for good in January 2016, paving the way for a general decline of the north side. Too many tidy middle-class neighborhoods have morphed into weed-strewn ghettos dotted with abandoned school buildings and ramshackle homes that look as though they are one strong gust away from falling apart.

As described in a recent special report by The Wall Street Journal, this is the story of many such towns across the nation — rural America is the new “inner city.”

“In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas). In fact, the total rural population — accounting for births, deaths and migration — has declined for five straight years.”

Though the internet heightened the hopes that towns that formerly relied on manufacturing or coal mining might transition to information-economy work that would not discriminate by geography, this has largely not happened. “As jobs in manufacturing and agriculture continue to vanish, America’s heartland faces a larger, more existential crisis. Some economists now believe that a modern nation is richer when economic activity is concentrated in cities.”

Indeed, last year Kevin D. Williamson put it in blunt terms in his controversial essay “Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction,” in which he skewered those who want to live in close-knit communities away from urban centers.

“There is more to life in the 21st-century than … cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. … Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. … They need real opportunity,which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”

For the vast majority of people in Du Quoin, like my in-laws — and like most residents of small, isolated communities — moving away from the only home they’ve ever known is neither desirable nor viable.

Urbanites accustomed to moving along with jobs and love interests can’t conceive of why quiet, abundant wildlife, vast tracts of greenery, church-going neighbors and family ties keep people so connected to small towns. Those who live in places like Du Quoin don’t need relocation advice, they need economic investment.

In 2011, President Obama announced the formation of the White House Rural Council, designed to improve the quality of life in rural America. It eventually published a report about how to best address the concerns and aspirations of rural Americans.

Our current administration would do well to restore it on whitehouse.gov and kick off a new conversation about how to revitalize what’s been called the “forgotten America.”

Contact Esther Cepeda at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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