The Retail Carrion Feeders of Rural America

When Dollar General came to town. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair

i am so tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you

– The Kinks

For the past month and a half, I’ve been driving the backroads of southern Indiana, crossing the glacier-free mountain country 40 miles south of Indianapolis and 40 miles north of Louisville. It’s mostly forest here, remarkably unbroken stretches of deciduous woodland, thick with red oak and shagbark hickory, tulip poplar and walnut, white ash and wild cherry, American beech and sugar maple. The soil is largely red clay, not productive for agriculture (or septic systems), but quite satisfactory for morel mushrooms, house weeds, and copperheads. The towns are small, little more than villages, clustered near railroad tracks and old blue highways.

I have spent my summers here for 20 years and lived here for a decade. We raised both of our children here. And since we moved to Oregon in 1990, we’ve been back every year or so. For most of this time there is nothing much about
the landscape, the people or the cities change. They were as many as they were in 1982 or 1972. In the north, the suburbs of Indianapolis have eaten away more and more farmland and woods, including the 40-acre farm of my mother’s family, which was dated back in the 1820s. The fields are now covered by a super-drug, a Kroger, a Chick-Fil-A, a furniture store, and a church with a vast parking lot, where carloads come in seeking salvation. The place is angry Jesus, even if not many people can tell you more than a couple of his teachings are confusing. I can not bear to go back without wanting to explore something.

For years, the hill country seemed immune to this kind of cultural entropy billed as progress. But in the last five years, the economic decay has accelerated. Familiar stores are up. The houses were abandoned. Cars left to rust in fields and yards where they stopped running months ago. Handmade for sale signs taped to telephone poles. It’s a yard sale economy. Even the churches have locks on their doors, especially the denominational churches of my youth—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic—replaced by evangelical churches and four square in trailers, warehouses and prefab buildings, devotional services announced on signs yard like advertising. for the Second Coming.

The old family grocery store, which served people within a 20-mile radius for 50 years, is gone, replaced by a Dollar General store, whose aisles haven’t been washed in weeks, where the air smells of body odor and spills. dairy products. I took it as a sign. When Dollar General shows up in your town, it’s like a death knell for your community and don’t expect it to offer you a chance to win your life in a game of chess or kick-mart Keno.

Restaurant closed, Trafalgar, Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair

These stores are being replicated across rural America. There are now more dollar stores (50,000 of them by one count) than McDonalds and Walmarts combined. They made $34 billion in sales during the first year of the pandemic, selling crap for a dollar, more or less. As local supplies are driven out, fresh foods are replaced with high-calorie, high-sugar processed junk that is fueling the health crisis in low-income America. The owner of an IGA in a town 10 miles north, where a Dollar General store has sprung up, told me that his store lost 35% of its sales in the first year after Dollar General moved in and sales have continued to decline every year since. . . “We can not keep up,” he told me. “We are hanging on by our fingernails and have no desire for this world.”

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The average hourly wage for Dollar General workers — sales associates, they’re called — is $9 an hour. An assistant store manager makes, on average, $11 an hour. This is hardly enough to buy essentials at Dollar General, if you can find any essentials on these shelves it is prohibited.

The rot is metastases. Dollar General and Dollar Tree want to add another 30,000 stores in the next few years. Corporate executives they adapt to the smell of decay. They are retail food carts. The stores are as austere and bland as any state outlet in Ceaușescu’s Bucharest. Step into one and you couldn’t tell if you were standing in Bean Blossom, Indiana or Hinton, West Virginia.

There have been three suicides in this sparsely populated county in the past two weeks, all of them men under the age of 30. One was a friend who shot himself in his mother’s house, while his younger brother slept in the adjacent room. No one saw it coming. Some hoped it was an accident, that he was cleaning his gun when he disappeared. Those hopes, slim as they were, were dashed when his note was found. But there was no why. But deep down, everyone seemed to know that he looked into the future and saw none.

He came to believe that his life was a failure, that he was a burden to his loved ones, a burden they were struggling to pay, a burden weighing on his conscience, a burden he just couldn’t think about anymore. and he won. shut up with a bullet to the head.

But it is this increasingly perverse society that has failed him, failed his family, failed his community. A society that did not listen, did not care, did not act, until his funeral when the trustees gave some money for his funeral and burial.

I did not know the young man well, but I knew the contours of his life. He was bright, honest, good with his hands. He could fix a broken motor or rewire an exterior outlet. He could hang drywall and shoe a horse. He could install a septic system and cut down trees. These are valuable skills in a functional economy. But this is not a functional economy—it doesn’t work for people, anyway. He chewed them up and didn’t look back.

He should be able to do it. Life shouldn’t be as hard as it was for him. But the opportunities were kept closed, the option of escape kept closed. Abandoned by his father, the protection of his mother and his brother, he was trapped, as the community around him, some stable anchor in his life, began to break. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to turn.

Dollar General replaced a family grocery store in southern Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair

Of course, I don’t attribute his death to Dollar General…directly…but to an economic model that favors, in almost every aspect of our lives, this kind of predation on the vulnerable and marginalized.

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Just down the block from the funeral home, there was a big sign advertising county jobs. The local high school cannot find a supervisor. Small wonder. The starting wage is $13.50 per hour. The McDonalds in another nearby town, a regional tourist spot, put up a sign announcing that they were closed at 8PM on Friday and Saturday nights due to lack of staff. They are also advertising jobs at less than $14 an hour for dull, thankless work. Corporate America thinks rural America has no choice but to take these shit-paying jobs. They beat the unions. Politicians blame extended unemployment benefits. Churches are obsessed with gun rights and the tyranny of Covid masks.

Abandoned house, Hope, Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair

Still people are starting to refuse the slops that are offered. Covid Lockdowns – hated here in the pits and hills as intensely as anywhere – have taught people there are other ways to get by, ways of life that do not require you to submit to the minimum offered, work crap for crap . wages in dangerous conditions without health care. It may be a silent resistance, but its buildings.

People don’t trust the leaders, nor the banks, nor the government. They don’t believe that the insurance they pay the donkey will really cover them if they have a stroke or if they get cancer or if they get COVID at work. Yet those who need national health care the most are among those least likely to support it. If you don’t trust the government—if it’s never done much of anything for you, except debase your existence, humiliate you for asking for help, and make life harder than it already is—why would you want them to take over take care of your weakened body. or inject a vaccine (regardless of its effectiveness) into your blood? The fear is not irrational. He learned about generations.

The general theory of the dollar is as cruel as it is simple. They want you to work cheap, live cheap and die cheap. They don’t want to pay you what you’re worth or pay for you when you’re sick, even if they caused your illness. Where are you going? Who will you turn? The city you have known all your life and board up. The grocery store and hardware store are gone. The cafe is closed. Gas stations no longer have mechanics. Most don’t even have assistants. Just insert a card and go. You need a credit card for everything now, even if your credit is in the toilet.

It’s not just the supply chain that’s broken. The thread that has bound these small communities together since the Great Depression is crumbling. No one knows the bankers anymore. Many of the local banks were replaced by ATM machines, which raised hidden fees for each impersonal service rendered. There hasn’t been a town doctor here in five years. People have to drive 20 miles west of Bloomington or 30 miles east to Columbus and then are often treated by a nurse or a physician’s assistant for the diseases that plague these small towns: diabetes, congestive heart failure, emphysema, opioid addiction. . The diseases are passed on and forgotten. Illnesses that do not pay.

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For some reason, I was struck by the recent proliferation of MIA flags, which I’d rarely, if ever noticed down here before. There are now more of them than Trump flags, of which there are still many. These black flags fly from homes and schools, post offices and fire stations, city parks and some of the few remaining local businesses. It has been almost fifty years since the fall of Saigon and the end of this savage war seems more immediate than ever. I asked a few people if they know of any MIA. No one could name one. No surprise, there was hardly any. Few even knew anyone who had served in Vietnam. It seemed clear that what had really disappeared was an idea of ​​America itself, a void of national identity, which remains dark and inexplicable, and, as the scene of the planes transporting desperate people from Afghanistan is played endlessly on cable television, it’s a hole that keeps growing, consuming what we thought we knew about ourselves.

Open sign for a closed business. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair

A couple of nights ago, I ran into some old friends at a bar we used to frequent near Lake Lemon. It has seen better days and is now kept afloat largely by the crowds of cyclists who pass by most weekends. As a group, we didn’t have much in common except our youth. These differences in background and education have never stood in the way before. But tonight the room crackles with tension. You could feel it in the air. It was palpable. I grew up with many of these people. Played baseball with them. Lost in the woods looking for chanterelles and them. Smallmouth bass fishing with them. Was on the porch with them. Now every conversation seemed difficult, strained, charged with suspicion and latent anger. Everyone seemed wary of each other. The camaraderie of youth was broken, like so many other things. The mood turned like the beer. I rarely talk about politics. I usually find it the most boring subject in the world, aside from NFL football. But now everything seems intensely political, which is, perhaps, as it should be. Every sentence, no matter how inconsequential, was spoken with caution, as if the wrong inflection might set off some chain reaction. All patience was lost. People are tired of waiting, even waiting for what no one would, or maybe even could, say. Yet, we all agreed and then almost immediately questioned our agreement: Politics failed. But what comes next?

Something has to give. Something must be broken wide open.

This essay is an excerpt from An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair Available exclusively from CounterPunch Books.

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