“They’re all on dope or they’re dying up here,” one Ohio woman says of men in a recent Atlantic piece, investigating the burden of male demise in the Rust Belt region (theatlantic.com).
As the article explains, the exodus of manufacturing jobs starting in the 1950s and 60s in industrialized regions of the Northeast, Midwest, and Appalachia sowed the seeds for a major crisis among Rust Belt males. As stable, respectable jobs departed, many faced chronic unemployment and/or completely departed from the workforce, discouraged from continued rejection. This is especially true in areas of Ohio, like Middletown, where Go Big Read author J.D. Vance grew up. In regions in southern Ohio, 42% of men are either jobless or out of the labor market, compared to the national average rate of roughly 20% (theatlantic.com). For those that found jobs, it was not in Dayton, Utica, or Pittsburgh, but in more service-based economies like Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York. Formerly impressive industrial cities of Detroit, Gary, Buffalo, Charleston (West Virginia), and Cincinnati now have deteriorating populations. In Detroit alone, the population loss has been astounding- diminishing from 1,850,000 to 675,000 over the course of the last 60 years (detroitnews.com). For those men that remained in Rust Belt cities and small towns, without opportunity for retraining, education, or employment, many turned to drugs, particularly opioids. As drug abuse has increased in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, many men eventually lose their lives.
As the article highlights, deindustrialization, unemployment, and drug addiction have the Rust Belt devoid of men. For instance, in Kanawha County, West Viriginia, an area that has seen upwards of a 55% loss in manufacturing and some of the most concentrated rates of opioid overdoses in the country, women outnumber men 100:93 (whitehouse.gov). This is a dramatic divergence from the natural rate of roughly 100:99 and this trend is widespread throughout the region. With such losses, women in particular – wives, mothers, sisters, and partners of the unemployed and addicted men – are left to “pick up the pieces,” raising children and supporting households financially (theatlantic.com). The region has seen declining marriage rates and increasing proportions of single-parent homes.
This single reality is hard for many: lack of second incomes, emotional support, and shared childcare responsibilities weigh heavy on an individual. Many women have defaulted on their mortgages after their partner’s overdose, while others care for upwards of five children by themselves. For anybody, whether man or woman, these kinds of Rust Belt burdens are overwhelming. In this year’s Go Big Read book, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D.’s Mamaw lived out this reality, supporting her grandchildren while her own daughter battled addiction. This immense responsibility always weighed on her.
Hopefully, heightened attention to the region’s struggles and the increasing need for action against opioid abuse will begin to reverse these heavy burdens many Rust Belt women face.