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 back roads of southern Indiana, criss-crossing the unglaciated hill country 40 miles south of Indianapolis and 40 miles north of Louisville. It’s mostly wooded here, large remarkably unbroken stretches of hardwood forest, thick with red oak and shagbark hickory, tulip poplar and black walnut, white ash and wild cherry, American beech and sugar maple. The soil is mostly red clay, not productive for farming (or septic systems) but quite satisfactory for morel mushrooms, home grown weeds and copperheads. The towns are small, little more than villages, clustered close to railroads and old blue highways.

I spent my summers here for 20 years and lived here for a decade. We both raised our children here. And since we moved to Oregon in 1990, we’ve come back every year or so. For most of that time, not much about
the landscape, the people or the cities changed. They were much the same as they were in 1982 or 1972. To the north, the suburbs of Indianapolis were gobbling up more and more farmland and forest land, including my mother’s family’s 40-acre farm, which dated back to the 1820s. The fields are now covered by a super drugstore, a Kroger, a Chick-Fil-A, a furniture store and a church with a large parking lot where carloaders come in search of salvation. The place is Jesus wrong, though few could tell you more than a few garbled lines of his teachings. I can’t bear to go back without wanting to blow something up.

For years, the hill country seemed immune to this kind of cultural entropy that was considered progress. But in the last five years the economic decline has accelerated. Well-known shops are framed. Houses have been abandoned. Cars left to rust in fields and yards where they stopped running months ago. Handmade for sale signs are glued to telephone poles. It’s a farm sale economy. Even churches have padlocks on their doors, especially the denominational churches of my youth—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Catholic—replaced by evangelical and four-square churches in trailers, barns, and prefabricated buildings, their devotions advertised on yard signs as advertisements for the Second Coming.

The old family-owned grocery store that served people in a 20-mile radius for 50 years is gone, replaced by a Dollar General store whose aisles haven’t been washed in weeks, the air reeking of body odor and spilled 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 give you a chance to win your life in a game of chess or quick-mart Keno.

Closed restaurant, Trafalgar, Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

These stores replicate across rural America. There are now more dollar stores (50,000 of them at one time) than there are McDonalds and Walmarts combined. They hit $34 billion in sales during the first year of the pandemic, selling crap for a dollar, more or less. As they run out of local groceries, fresh food is being replaced with the kind of high-calorie, sugar-rich processed junk that is fueling the health crisis in low-income America. The owner of an IGA in a town 10 miles to the north where a Dollar General store was springing up told me that his store lost 35% of its sales the first year after Dollar General moved in, and sales have continued with falling every year since. . “We can’t keep up,” he told me. “We hang on by our nails and do not long for this world.”

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The average hourly wage for Dollar General workers — sales associates, they call them — is $9 an hour. An assistant store manager earns an average of $11 an hour. It’s hardly enough to shop for essentials at Dollar General if you can find the essentials on the banned shelves.

The advice is metastatic. Dollar General and Dollar Tree want to add another 30,000 stores in the next few years. Your business leaders is attuned to the scent of decay. They are retail carrion feeders. Their shops are as austere and bland as any state-run business 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 men under the age of 30. One was an acquaintance who shot himself in his mother’s house while his younger brother slept in the next room. No one saw it coming. Some hoped it had been an accident that he had been cleaning his gun when it went off. Those hopes, slim as they were, were dashed when they found his note. But there was no why. Yet deep down everyone seemed to know that he had looked into the future and seen no one.

He had come to believe that his life was a failure, that he was a burden to those he loved, a burden they struggled to pay, a burden weighing on his conscience, a burden he just couldn’t think on more and had to deal with a bullet in the head.

But it was this increasingly perverse society that failed him, failed his family, failed his dying community. A community that failed to listen, that didn’t care, that failed to act, until his funeral where the trustees donated 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 outside outlet. He could hang plasterboard and shoe a horse. He could lay a septic system and trim trees. These are valuable skills in a functional economy. But this is not a functional economy – it doesn’t work for people anyway. It grinds them down and doesn’t look back.

He should have been able to handle it. Life shouldn’t have been as hard as it was for him. But opportunities kept closing down, opportunities for escape kept closing. Abandoned by his father, protective of his mother and brother, he was stuck as the community around him, the few stable anchors in his life, began to crumble. There was nowhere to go, nowhere left to turn.

Dollar General is replacing a family-owned grocery store in southern Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

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

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Just down the block from the funeral home was a large sign advertising jobs in the county. The local high school cannot find a guardian. Little wonder. Starting wage is $13.50 an hour. McDonalds in another nearby town, a regional tourist spot, put up a sign announcing that they were closing at 20:00 on Friday and Saturday nights because they were short of staff. They also advertise jobs for less than $14 an hour for boring, thankless work. Corporate America believes that rural America has no choice but to take these crap pay jobs. The unions have been crushed. Politicians blame extended unemployment benefits. The churches are obsessed with gun rights and the tyranny of the Covid masks.

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

Still, people are starting to turn down the slippers offered to them. The Covid lockdowns – hated here in the caves and hills as intensely as everywhere – have taught people that there are other ways to get by, ways of life that don’t require you to submit to the bare minimum on offer, to work crap jobs for crap pay in dangerous conditions with no health care. It may be a silent resistance, but its building.

People don’t trust their bosses, their banks or their government. They don’t trust that the insurance they pay for will really cover them if they have a stroke or get cancer or get COVID on the job. Yet the people most in need of national health care are among the least likely to support it. If you don’t trust the government—if it’s never done much of anything for you except denigrate your existence, humiliate you for asking for help, and make life harder than it already is—why should you care your failing body or inject a vaccine (regardless of its effectiveness) into your bloodstream? The fear is not irrational. It has been learned through generations.

Dollar’s general theory 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 should you contact? The city you’ve known all your life is close by. The grocer and the hardware store are gone. The cafe is closed. The gas stations no longer have mechanics. Most don’t even have companions. Just insert a card and go. You need a credit card for everything now, even if your credit is in the toilet.

It is not only the supply chains that are broken. The threads that have bound these small communities together since the Great Depression are fraying. Nobody knows their banker anymore. Many of the local banks have been replaced by ATMs that charge hidden fees for each impersonal service provided. There hasn’t been a town doctor here for five years. People have to drive 20 miles west to Bloomington or 30 miles east to Columbus, and then they are often treated by a nurse practitioner or physician assistant for the diseases that plague these small towns: diabetes, congestive heart failure, emphysema, opioid addiction. The passed and forgotten diseases. The diseases that do not pay.

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For some reason I was struck by the recent proliferation of MIA flags, which I had 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 houses and schools, post offices and fire stations, city parks and some of the few remaining local businesses. It has been nearly fifty years since the fall of Saigon, and the end of the savage war seems more immediate than ever. I asked a few people if they knew anyone MIA. No one could name a single one. No surprise, there were hardly any. Few people even knew anyone who served in Vietnam. It seemed clear that what had really disappeared was an idea of ​​America itself, a void in national identity that remains dark and unexplained, and as the scenes of planes carrying desperate people out of Afghanistan play endlessly on cable -tv, it’s a hole that continues to grow and consume what we thought we knew about ourselves.

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

A few nights ago I met up with some old friends at a bar we used to frequent near Lake Lemon. It has seen better days and is now mainly kept afloat by the throngs of motorcyclists who pass through on 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 crackled with excitement. 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 with them. Fished smallmouth bass with them. Got drunk on the porch with them. Now every conversation seemed hard, strained, fraught with suspicion and latent anger. Everyone seemed wary of each other. The camaraderie of youth had been broken, like so much else. The mood was as sour as the beer. I rarely talk about politics. I usually think it’s the most boring subject on earth, other than NFL football. But now everything seems intensely political, which is perhaps as it should be. Every sentence, no matter how insignificant, was spoken with care, as if the wrong inflection could set off a chain reaction. All patience is lost. People are tired of waiting, even as they wait for what no one would, or perhaps even could, say. Yet we all agreed and then almost immediately questioned our agreement: Politics has failed. But what comes next?

Something has to give. Something must break wide open.

This essay is excerpted from An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. Only available from CounterPunch Books.

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