I often shop in Walmart. Most people in this rural region of West Virginia do. The store offers 90% of the ordinary commodities I need, of reasonable quality, at astonishingly low prices. Dishware, boots, groceries, greeting cards, shampoo. On a typical day, the customers represent a cross-section of the community. I recognize many from seeing them elsewhere in the village. I know that all social classes shop at the superstore. I recognize the Episcopal minister, a truck driver for an excavation contractor, the owner of a large beef farm, the woman who organized girls wrestling for the high school, high school and college students who work out at one of the two gyms. Most customers dress rural down. Blue jeans or blue jean farmer coveralls, cotton sweatshirts or hoodies, cameo shirts and pants, work boots. On a warm, sunny day, sneakers. Many of the men sport beards, some men long hair in pony tails.
What impresses me about my fellow citizens is the high percentage of men, middle aged and older, who are disabled or carry permanent injuries, and the high percentage of middle aged and older women, who are morbidly obese and many of whom drive motorized carts. I have never seen a disabled man in a motorized cart. Many men have damaged their legs or arms. They hobble, sometimes slightly dragging a leg, or rest their disabled arm in a pocket. Often a hand looks paralyzed or crushed. Injuries easy to attribute to construction and farm equipment, gates, and cattle. I watch, appalled as the women, who are so heavy that their weight laps over the rims of their motorized chairs, select and place foods in shopping carts pushed by children, that certainly contribute to their ill health.
I know this rampant destruction of health is a new phenomenon. I have spent hours studying historic diets and examined historic photographs and movie clips taken before 1941 of American street scenes and social gatherings. In these images, almost without exception, everyone is slender and lean and no disabilities are visible. Between then and now, something happened, and it was not the wars, to spread disability and obesity through the general rural population.
I believe I know. For labor class men of this region, what happened was the collapse of the ladder of economic opportunity, trapping them in dangerous manual occupations, logging, farming, construction, mining, when they were too old to work in them safely. And for both men and women, changes in their diets spurred adult obesity. Smoking and methamphetamines, both common addictions here, provide some momentary relief for them, but also make their ill health worse.
What caused these social disasters? Thanks to historical and scientific research, we now know the answer to this question, too. The economic collapse was caused by state and national governments. Here antiquated tax and social policies and laws discouraged small business startups and manufacturing innovation. Economic analyses of West Virginia counties neighboring counties in Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio reveal how the state’s constitution and laws stifled economic innovation and small business.
The problems cannot be entirely blamed on the decline of the coal industry, as capital and labor should have been invested in other enterprises, but were not. They also cannot be blamed on educational failure to teach adequately to the future, STEM, for instance. Only a small percentage of high school students have the mental aptitudes for advanced STEM jobs. On the other hand, plenty of industries, businesses, and occupations require only a high school education plus apprenticeships and skills businesses can train. Welders, carpenters, diesel mechanics, jet engine mechanics, for instance, earn good salaries, but schools no longer teach appropriate mental and vocational skills. Nor do they teach home economics and homemaking, where knowledge would enable many young people to navigate the poisons and pitfalls of commodity and processed foods.
For diet, a combination of USDA nutrition and diet policies and policies favoring large commodity agriculture framed the problem. USDA guidelines regarding fat and sugar, based on false science, virtually poisoned processed food. This is an issue separate from pesticide use. At the same time, USDA rules regarding commodity farming, which prohibited localities from using federal funds to discriminate against interstate producers in favor of local producers, prevented schools and other state institutions from developing local producer markets, making fresh local foods vastly more expensive than commodity processed foods.
Briefly, the USDA guidelines promoted diet that disrupted the human insulin and leptin cycles, creating in consumers the metabolic syndrome, eventually obesity, and, as a further consequence, many scientists now think, Alzheimer’s disease (diabetes III, as they are calling it). This agricultural regulatory policy-dietary catastrophe was quickly replicated, because it produced low commodity food prices, in Europe and quickly nearly everywhere else in the world.
Both disasters are evidenced in Walmart, which is a convenient window into the retail world. We see the older generation of the labor class, whose stagnant incomes and declining standard of living trapped them after 1950, bearing wounds and scars of the great governmental regulatory binge. We see also some of the young men and women who have not yet experienced a lifetime of fallout from this dietary Chernobyl, good looking, healthy, lean, tall – so many of them fulfilling the healthy active lifestyle of being raised on the region’s farms. But these favored few are destined to leave this region, where it is difficult to start up farming, for economically prosperous regions and non-manual jobs. Left behind is the human debris of a social experiment conducted by governments based not on valid science but political expediency, ideology, and wishful thinking. As the saying goes, the road to hell.