Travel teaches. In this small, sociable community a few miles south of Minneapolis, I have been learning more about the quiet crisis that is finding its murmurous way into American lives. For the past few months, I have visited a multitude of places and listened to a diversity of voices. If an economic recovery is going on, I haven't seen it.
Life remains perilous in the South Bronx, the nation's poorest congressional district, where I spoke with counselors who try to comfort black and Hispanic families. In central Baltimore, displaced Appalachians who fled the coal fields for jobs in northern industries are now seeing the last-hope factories close.
It is the same in Iowa: Farmers pushed off the land because of poor crop prices and debt went to work for John Deere, the state's largest employer, only to find thousands being laid off.
In central Florida, the elderly who spent their working lives contributing to the government for social programs now find those programs being eliminated or cut. The Wild Rose Hospitality House sheltered 500 homeless people last year in Ames, Iowa, where citizens in the past have known hardship but not abject destitution. Skid row now intersects with Main Street. Here in Burnsville, I spoke with high school students whose subconscious fears about their future -- nuclear war, unemployment -- leave little room in their hearts for optimism or altruism.
The one image that lingers with me is that each of these groups feels isolated in its pain. A natural coalition of anguish should exist, one that could be organized into a national political force. Instead of coalitions, there are containments. In Burnsville, a few of the activists in the local high school would like to have more say in their class schedules and curriculum. But they remember when similar efforts were made last year and nothing changed. "Why try again?," they wonder.
The problems of these kids are minor compared with the grief of fathers or mothers who can't feed their children or the elderly with no money for the utility bills. But as much as any national sentiment, "Why try again?" seems to express the subduing that has taken hold of the country. A myth is spreading that only the 1960s were a time of unrest. In fact, so were the 1970s. Farmers in Iowa and Minnesota told me of supporting their brothers who drove their rigs to Washington in 1979 to protest the imbalanced economics of raising America's food. Farmers, the only major group of businessmen in the country that must buy retail and sell wholesale, parked their vehicles on the Mall. They raised some dust and some hell. The politicians listened.
But now farm foreclosures continue and rural America gets poorer. One hundred and fifty-six of the nation's 161 poorest counties are rural. According to the Rural Coalition, "more than 25 million rural people still lack adequate water-sewer sysems . . . But federal loans and grants for rural water-sewer systems have been cut in half since 1980."
At the same time that victimized citizens are unorganized in their pain, the documentation of that pain increases. Trustworthy, nonpartisan groups such as the Children's Defense Fund, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Environmental Policy Center pour forth information on the harm being done to citizens in the name of sound government. Ronald Reagan's triumph -- so far -- is to create the impression that he is caring for the nation's general interest. America is back and standing tall. Those who disagree are depicted as enemies of national vitality.
This has become Reagan's major semantic deception. People who have justified claims to special consideration from the government, or even people such as workers who want to see the government enforce the health and safety laws in the workplace, are the special interests. Meaning the greedy interests. And Reagan poses as the national defender against them. "I question the need for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration," he said in 1980.
Reagan has made it appear that the normal democratic basics -- social justice, economic security, investments in peace -- are abnormal, and anyone advocating them too strenuously doesn't want to move forward with the new beginning.