Tea Party: Not Actually to Blame for Midwest Deindustrialization, Sad Personal Stories


Janet Reitman produced a blockbuster piece of close-focus reporting on some people from and around Lima, Ohio who have had some hard times, made some bad choices, used welfare, complained about others using welfare, and had kids, and for some reason framed it as being about the "Tea Party"'s dire effects on America.

The Tea Party hook, in the story's title and cover headline ("Where the Tea Party Rules"), comes strictly from the fact that Lima's congressman, Republican Jim Jordan, is by her telling a serious Tea Party small government ideologue. (One of Ohio's senators, Sherrod Brown, is a Democrat.)

As Reitman writes of Jordan, he has a record of:

opposing virtually any government-spending proposal: the TARP stimulus package, the auto bailout, the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, raising the debt ceiling, even emergency aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. He has voted to defund the Affordable Care Act 52 times.

She lays out some of the overarching facts about Lima. Average home price $39,000, 34 percent of citizens below the poverty line with an average household income in Lima of $28,000 (much lower than $53,000 national average) and an unemployment rate of 6 percent (pretty much the national average).

She explains that state-level budget balancing has left cities with less money for services, though the overarching sadness of crummy towns with opportunities drying up is not easily solvable by slightly richer city governments, nor does she try to claim it is.

Reitman does find, and tell, a handful of stories of people disappointed in their income, mortgages, or job prospects. They are well told enough, and a bit depressing. If you wanted to scan them for times when maybe it was choices and not just malign fate (and certainly not their congressman's record of failed votes) that made things harder on her subjects, you could do that.

Turns out leaving your six-figure oil industry job for reasons of scruples to teach college chemistry might leave you less well off later on than you want to be. And while you can retrain yourself for new careers, like in wind turbines, if you get a good job in that field out of state but then leave it rather than relocate your family, you might end up working a maintenance job. Turns out if you run a "specialty wine and beer shop" in this desolate sad wasteland, some customers might make you feel uncomfortable for being Democrats by things they say.

Lots of women have kids young, even though abortion is theoretically legal though hard to get in this state. The uncharitable might get the sneaky feeling that Reitman is sorta implying some of Lima's current infant class would have been better off never having been born.

An unredacted excerpt:

Most of the young middle- and working-class women I meet in Lima had children very young, many before they were 18; Allen County has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Ohio. And yet, Ohio has been at the forefront of recent attacks on reproductive rights. The state has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, and its most recent budget placed $1.4 million in funding for Planned Parenthood at risk, while allocating money to Christian-based "crisis pregnancy centers." Lima's one family-planning clinic offering limited abortion services recently closed down; today, a search for abortion clinics in Lima will turn up a pro-life organization called Heartbeat of Lima. Though the county health department offers free birth control, a woman wanting an abortion must travel more than an hour to Toledo, to a clinic that, thanks to restrictions that have closed almost half of Ohio's abortion clinics in the past year, may soon be forced to shut its doors. "People don't talk about abortion in Lima," says Carissa.

She's just sayin',perhaps, but it's kind of a weird way to lead into your completely disinterested discussion of the availability of abortion in grim Lima.

You will learn the basics of the politics of these people she profiles struggling through hard times, and they will be neither surprising nor interesting, except maybe for the woman who wrote in "Mickey Mouse" for president, or the "What's the Matter with Kansas?" 33-year old "aspiring writer who blogs in verse and writes reviews for a small culture website, -TheCultDen.com, [and] has spent much of his adult life in the service industry" (currently working a tech support call center), carless and spending half his meager income on child support.

He calls himself an anarchist disgusted with politics and:

he insists the system is being manipulated. His divorced father worked sporadically during McKenzie's childhood, and since 2009 he has received disability, which McKenzie thinks he doesn't need. "I love my father, he is one of my best friends, but he is lazy. He gets disability, food stamps, and he has a plasma TV with all the HD channels." Several of McKenzie's relatives are also on disability, which he blames on the welfare system itself. "They've all been ushered through the process of how to get it, and so they take advantage. It's become the American dream to get everything for free without having to do a lot of work."

Reportorially, despite some diligent work in painting its sad picture, this is the kind of story that troubles to repeat that a "Lima Democrat" referred to the way state Republicans gerrymandered the state to lock the Democrats into only four statewide House seats as leading to a district that "kind of looks like a deformed salamander."

If you wanted to question whether the very fact of living in American modernity is as dispiriting and awful as she wants to make you feel, you could do that. Reitman's sad, sad Lima features:

gigantic homes on lots with their own private ponds, each of them a near-mirror image of one another. Out on the broad, open streets, the faceless strip malls, chain hotels and smaller one- and two-story houses fade into a seamless tableau. Even in Lima's urban neighborhoods, where, [retired nursing instructor, and pal of Reitman's mom, Sandie] Kinkle tells me, some of her friends from the country club refuse to go, there is a strange homogeneity. 

Grossed out yet? How about seeing:

Rent-a-Center, a Dollar Tree, an American Budget Co. and a Check Into Cash, as well as the requisite nail salon and pet-supply shops. There is also a gigantic Walmart Supercenter fronting an empty lot. 

Ain't that America? If you don't live in New York City, yes, that's what life looks like, mostly. Want to kill yourself yet?

If you wonder what the Tea Party has to do with any of these people's lives or samey houses or faceless strip malls or chain hotels or strange homogeneity or dollar stores, you won't learn much. Longterm well paying jobs with great benefits have been replaced in many cases by temp work; it's harder to make ends meet for many residents of Lima; welcome to the 21st century, or at least one small part of it.

If inclined to blame all bad aspects of anyone's lives on political parties or movements, ponder that of the eight Ohio cities known as the "big 8" of deindustrialization,  Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, Dayton, Canton, and Youngstown–at least four of them (Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland and Akron) are represented in whole or in part by Democrats.

Could it be that framing this story about general diminution of industrial presence and union power in one American city (though it is true of other cities as well, to be sure) as a "Tea Party" story is merely based in an unlovely desire to demonize a political Other rather than reason or evidence? But I suppose a cover headline reading "Some Midwesterners Unhappy with their Jobs, Podunk Burg" wouldn't fly off the stands, or allow RS readers to pat themselves on the back for having such evil enemies.

Reason on how to save Ohio's jewel, Cleveland.