Arne Duncan, U.S. education secretary from 2009 to 2015, is managing partner at Emerson Collective.
On the U.S. map you won’t find two places more outwardly unalike than the West Side of Chicago and West Virginia’s McDowell County. Few people have been to both. Most haven’t visited either.
Lately, though, these two communities have been in the news. In Chicago, gun violence has been the story. It’s almost entirely concentrated on the West and South sides, away from the Loop and Millennium Park. McDowell figured in countless analyses of the presidential election. It’s the Appalachian coal community where 3 in 4 voters went for John F. Kennedy in 1960, and in 2016 that same proportion — of a deeply poor county now one-fifth its population peak — voted for Donald Trump.
My life and work have put me in both places. I grew up in Chicago, and I’m back home working for the Emerson Collective with unemployed and undereducated young adults after almost seven years in Washington as education secretary. It was in this latter job that I got to visit McDowell.
The county is 90 percent white. Half of its children live in poverty. At school, so many kids qualify for free breakfast and lunch that the food is given away to everyone — it’s just easier. The unemployment rate is more than twice the nation’s.
By contrast, Chicago’s West Side is more than 90 percent black. But that’s where the demographic differences end. As in McDowell, all kids get free lunch. Almost half of young black men don’t have jobs and aren’t in school. The big thing that Chicago and McDowell have in common is despair. It’s destroying lives in both places.
Among the young men I work with in Chicago, the manifestation of pain and hopelessness is stunningly violent: They kill each other with guns. In McDowell, people’s outlets are self-destructive: drug addiction, alcoholism, smoking, obesity, sometimes suicide.
My epiphany since the presidential election is that the pain behind it all is the same in a big city as it is for folks hurting in rural America and the Rust Belt, on tribal reservations and on foreclosed suburban cul-de-sacs. These Americans don’t want their country back. They want their dignity back. For many of them, a vote for Trump (or for Bernie Sanders) was not an affirmation of policy so much as a cry for the attention of leaders and institutions that they feel aren’t listening to them.
The 20-year-old guy in Chicago who left high school at 15 and sells drugs to support his kids has a lot in common with the 50-year-old veteran in West Virginia whose coal mine shut down or the immigrant mom in Maine whose job at the paper mill went to a robot or to Canada or to another mom making screens for tablets in Asia. They have all been disenfranchised.
You can watch the point I’m making in a sketch from “Saturday Night Live” that went viral online before Election Day. “Doug,” a white Southerner in a “Make America Great Again” hat, somehow finds himself on a game show called “Black Jeopardy” competing against two black women, “Keeley” and “Shanice.” Working through the game board, the contestants and the host are surprised to discover they think a lot alike. They don’t trust 401(k)s, cellphones or vote totals. The odds are stacked against them, and they’re barely scraping by.
My experience is that politicians and business leaders respond to popular demand when it’s surprising. In the face of a presidential budget that slashes programs supporting low-income families, there’s an opportunity to build new coalitions that will be shocking in their diversity, that defy the divisive categorizations of politics and marketing. If Doug and Shanice walk into a senator’s office together to demand health insurance, $15 an hour and an end to police violence, that’s a hard conversation to ignore.
The antidotes to despair are fundamental. They include more forward-thinking education and career training, with no assumptions that today’s jobs will be around forever; broadband everywhere to foster connection and knowledge-sharing; work that pays a living wage; reliable and affordable health care and child care; mixed-income housing close to employers; and transportation to get to work and school.
In urban and rural America, I’ve met business leaders who have figured out ways to make a profit and make a difference. In Detroit, Shinola is manufacturing high-end watches, bicycles and luggage with workers who used to make cars and parts. In small-town Carrollton, Ga., I met young people who were the first in their families to graduate from high school thanks to a training program at a wire and cable manufacturer called Southwire. It’s not charity, the chief executive told me — everyone’s making money. We need hundreds more employers to step up, and we need to create incentives for them to.
If we don’t, we all lose. It’s not sustainable to have a caste system whose foundation is millions of people with no way to support themselves. Restoring America’s upward mobility is the work our nation must do — together.