When I think of the crisis of job loss in rural America, I always think of Dennis, my best friend from high school.
We went our separate ways in 1975 when I left our small town in the Virginia mountains to head to college. He stayed behind, believing that he could work his way to success at home. Honest and always ready to do more than people ask, he is a prime example of the very bedrock of small town values and productivity. People like him built America.
But after decades of factory relocations and closings, as highlighted by news of tariffs and an impending trade war, that America is barely recognizable.
Dennis started working summers in a factory when he was 16. By our senior year, he worked at least eight hours every night before heading to school the next morning. He gave more than was expected. Management noticed. By the end of high school, Dennis had already moved up several rungs on the company ladder. When I graduated from college, he was a supervisor. We thought he had proved that if you give your all, you will get ahead.
We never questioned why factories like his had come to our town. Our analysis was simple: a factory relocates nearby, people apply for jobs, and the good ones do well, growing with the company. If you work hard, you succeed. None of that prepared us for what followed 25 years later.
It was 1999 and Dennis was the plant’s production supervisor. He got the call from the big boss in New Hampshire. Dennis had to tell the others, and then supervise the loading of all of the knitting machines onto the boxcar waiting on the tracks out the back door. Every last knitting machine in the plant was headed to Mexico. Everyone lost their jobs and the factory closed.
NAFTA was a bipartisan idea, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1994. Many blame the politicians and their flawed trade agreement for taking jobs from people like Dennis, and I’m certainly sympathetic. But I also remember that the companies were the ones doing the leaving. When the trade barriers were lowered, the factory slithered south again, no more dedicated to our small Virginia town than it had been to the town it left up north. The company continued seeking diligent workers, but for less pay. Nationalities didn’t matter. I’m sure in small-town Mexico there were equally hard-working men and women willing to give their all to the knitting mill.
I went to Mexico to see the border factories in 2010. A few were still hanging on then. But the majority of the huge buildings, some still emblazoned with brands we know in the U.S., sat vacant. The neighborhoods around them were ghost towns. The infrastructure built to lure the plants was decaying. Where had the factories gone? China. Turns out they had been no more dedicated to Mexico than they had been to our town or the town before that.
Today, the closure of factories and mills is an oft-repeated American tragedy. And yet, underneath the ruin, the bedrock is still there.
I believe there is hope in rural America today, embodied by local entrepreneurs, musicians, farmers, craft-persons and those who build upon the uniqueness of their cultures and places to promote new local economies. I remain skeptical of outsider solutions. But give local people the means — through development grants, education, and advertising — to build up their communities and they will make it happen. I write this while visiting Floyd, Virginia, a mountain hamlet where visitors can tour new businesses built locally, from farms to a distillery to local woodworks and crafts.
Small towns should never try to compete for the lowest wages or give up their natural resources on a global playing field. Rather, through reinvention, I believe small-town people can, using their gifts and values that cannot be mass produced or outsourced, rebuild from the ground up. New inhabitants can work side-by-side with the old. They can succeed because of who and where they are.