On a recent family trip from South Bend to the Florida panhandle in search of warming rays, I drove through endless rural communities. It was an easy 14-hour drive—an ease that catapulted me back in time. My GPS was pointing me down the figurative highways of my youth.
Along the route, I saw an inordinate number of shuttered businesses and factories, with a few of the vacated facilities appearing to have been converted into places of worship. I couldn’t help but wonder: Had the lack of jobs blossomed into prayers for answers?
I grew up in rural Arkansas in the 1970s and 80s, and, yes, stereotypes apply. There were occasions when my family did not have running water—especially during smoldering Julys and Augusts, when the springs retreated deeper into the earth. I baled hay and tended to cattle. My graduating class from Wonderview High had a whopping 25 seniors. The school’s perch on a mountain provided, well, a wonderful view. In many ways, I lived the idyllic small-town life.
Even though we considered the world through a lens that was rather simplistic, we were not immune from global economic shifts. The effects of the vanishing American manufacturing base hit our doorstep in 1984. My family’s wellbeing was swept up in this vast tornado of change.
My father was a “machine fixer” at the local cotton mill in Morrilton, Arkansas, until it closed that year. The mill was the largest employer in the region, so its closure leveled the local economy. Dad spent months in search of a permanent job. I remember joining him on trips to the unemployment office where he sheepishly reported his attempts to find work—and the embarrassment he felt knowing he was reporting job leads that had no hope attached in this foundering community.
In this issue’s article, “Remaking ‘Made in America,’” Finance Professor Jeff Bergstrand discusses the nostalgia many Americans feel toward manufacturing and its heyday—the pride in our country’s tremendous growth and the pure satisfaction of work. As a boy, I was in the wrong decade to experience the promise manufacturing presented. I saw only the demise of one textile manufacturer and how it scarred my family.
As I drove along the roads of rural America recently, I remembered the conversations that were at my dinner table—the hurt, the disappointment, the honor lost by a man who for way too long was unable to provide for his family.
My family eventually found its way. My mother worked out of the home, and her income carried us through. My father found a job as a meat processor.
It’s hard to tell what “Made in America” might look like in the future—the kinds of jobs, the education required, the impact on our economy. But it is clear we won’t be revisiting the past. This highway only leads us forward to a new economic reality.
Director of Marketing Communications and Editor