The Retail Carrion Feeders of Rural America

When Dollar General came to town. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I’m so tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you

– The Kinks

For the last month and a half I’ve driven the backroads of southern Indiana, crisscrossing the unglaciated hill country 40 miles south of Indianapolis and 40 miles north of Louisville. It’s mostly forested here, large remarkably unbroken stretches of deciduous woodlands, thick with red oak and shagbark hickory, tulip poplar and black walnut, white ash and wild cherry, American beech and sugar maple. The soil is largely red clay, not productive for farming (or septic systems), but quite satisfactory for morel mushrooms, homegrown weed, and copperheads. The towns are small, little more than villages, clustered near the railroads and old blue highways.

I spent my summers here for 20 years and lived here for a decade. We raised both of our kids here. And since moving to Oregon in 1990, we’ve come back every year or so. For most of that time nothing much about
the landscape, the people or the towns changed. They were much as they were in 1982 or 1972. To the north, the suburbs of Indianapolis gnawed up more and more farmland and woodlots, including the 40-acre farm of my mother’s family, which dated back to the 1820s. The fields are now covered by a super-drugstore, a Kroger, a Chick-Fil-A, a furniture store, and a church with a vast parking lot, where carloads come in search of salvation. The place is Jesus mad, though few could tell you more than a couple garbled lines of his teachings. I can’t bear to go back without wanting to blow something up.

For years, the hill country seemed immune to this kind of cultural entropy billed as progress. But in the last five years, the economic decay has accelerated. Familiar stores are boarded up. Houses have been abandoned. Cars left to rust in fields and yards where they stopped running months ago. Handmade for sale signs are tacked to telephone poles. It’s a yard sale economy. Even churches have padlocks on their doors, especially the denominational churches of my youth–Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic­–replaced by evangelical and Four Square churches in trailers, barns and pre-fab buildings, their devotional services announced on yard signs like advertisements for the Second Coming.

The old family-owned grocery store, which served people in a 20-mile radius for 50 years, is gone, replaced by a Dollar General store, whose aisles haven’t been washed in weeks, where the air smells of body odor and spilled dairy products. I took it as a sign. When Dollar General shows up in your town, it’s like a death notice for your community and don’t expect it to offer you a chance to win your life in a game of chess or quick-mart Keno.

Closed restaurant, Trafalgar, Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

These stores are replicating across rural America. There are now more dollar stores (50,000 of them by one count) than there are McDonalds and Walmarts combined. They rang up $34 billion sales during the first year of the pandemic, selling crap for a dollar, more or less. As they drive out the local groceries, fresh food is replaced with the kind of high-calorie, sugar-rich processed junk that is fueling the health crisis in low-income America. The owner of an IGA in a town 10 miles to the north, where a Dollar General store sprouted up, told me that his store lost 35% of its sales the first year after Dollar General moved in and the sales have kept declining each year since. “We can’t keep up,” he told me. “We’re hanging on by our fingernails and not long for this world.”

The average hourly wage for Dollar General workers–sales associates, they call them–is $9 an hour. An assistant store manager makes, on average, $11 an hour. That’s hardly enough to shop for essentials at Dollar General, if you can find any essentials on those forbidding shelves.

The rot is metastasizing. Dollar General and Dollar Tree want to add another 30,000 stores in the next few years. Their corporate executives are attuned to the scent of decay. They are retail carrion feeders. Their stores are as austere and bland as any state-run outlet in Ceaușescu’s Bucharest. Step inside one and you couldn’t tell whether you were standing in Bean Blossom, Indiana or Hinton, West Virginia.

There have been three suicides in this sparsely populated county in the past two weeks, all of them men younger than 30. One was an acquaintance who shot himself in his mother’s house, while his younger brother slept in the adjacent room. No one saw it coming. Some hoped it had been an accident, that he had been cleaning his gun when it went off. Those hopes, slim as they were, were dashed when they found his note. But there was no why. Yet deep down, everybody seemed to know that he’d looked into the future and saw none.

He had come to believe that his life was a failure, that he was a burden on those he loved, a burden they were struggling to afford, a burden that weighed on his conscience, a burden he just couldn’t think about anymore and had to silence with a bullet to the head.

But it was this increasingly perverse society that failed him, failed his family, failed his dying community. A society that failed to listen, that failed to care, that failed to act, until his funeral when the trustees donated some money for his funeral and burial.

I didn’t know the young man well, but I knew the contours of his life. He was bright, honest, good with his hands. He could fix a broken engine or rewire an exterior outlet. He could hang drywall and shoe a horse. He could lay a septic system and trim trees. These are valuable skills in a functional economy. But this isn’t a functional economy–it doesn’t function for people, anyway. It grinds them down and doesn’t look back.

He should have been able to make it. Life shouldn’t have been as hard as it was for him. But opportunities kept shutting down, options for escape kept closing. Abandoned by his father, protective of his mother and brother, he was stuck, as the community around him, the few stable anchors in his life, began to crumble. There was nowhere to go, nowhere left to turn.

Dollar General replacing a family-owned grocery in southern Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Of course, I’m not attributing his death to the coming of Dollar General…directly…but to an economic model that favors, in nearly every aspect of our lives, that kind of predation on the vulnerable and the marginalized.

Just down the block from the funeral home, there was a big sign advertising jobs in the county. The local high school can’t find a head custodian. Little wonder. The starting salary pay is $13.50 an hour. The McDonalds in another nearby town, a regional tourist spot, put up a sign announcing they were closing at 8PM  on Friday and Saturday nights because they were short of staff. They too are advertising jobs at less than $14 an hour for dull, thankless work. Corporate America thinks rural America has no choice but to take these jobs at shit pay. The unions have been beaten down. The politicians blame extended unemployment benefits. The churches are obsessed with gun rights and the tyranny of Covid masks.

Abandoned house, Hope, Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Still people are starting to refuse the slops that are offered them. The Covid lockdowns–hated here in the hollows and hills as intensely as anywhere–have taught people there are other ways to get by, modes of life that don’t require you to submit to the least that’s offered, to work crap jobs for crap wages in dangerous conditions with no health care. It may be a silent resistance, but its building.

People don’t trust their bosses, their banks, or their government. They don’t trust that the insurance they pay out the ass for will really cover them if they have a stroke or get cancer or contract COVID on the job. Yet, the people most in need of national health care are among the least likely to support it. If you don’t trust the government–if it’s never done much of anything for you, except demean your existence, humiliate you for asking for help, and make life harder than it already is–why would you want them tending to your failing body or injecting a vaccine (no matter its efficacy) into your bloodstream? The fear isn’t irrational. It’s been learned over generations.

The Dollar General Theory is as cruel as it is simple. They want you to work cheap, live cheap and die cheap. They don’t want to pay you what you’re worth or pay for you when you’re ill, even if they caused your sickness. Where are you going to go? Who are you going to turn to? The town you’ve known all your life is boarded up. The grocery store and hardware store are gone. The coffee shop is closed. The gas stations no longer have mechanics. Most don’t even have attendants. Just insert a card and go. You need a credit card for everything now, even if your credit is in the toilet.

It’s not just the supply chains that are broken. The threads that have bound these small communities together since the Great Depression are fraying. No one knows their banker any more. Many of the local banks have been replaced by ATM machines, racking up hidden fees for every impersonal service rendered. There hasn’t been a town doctor here in five years. People have to drive 20 miles west to Bloomington or 30 miles east to Columbus and then they are often treated by a nurse or physician’s assistant for the diseases that are ravaging these small towns: diabetes, congestive heart failure, emphysema, opioid addiction. The diseases of the passed over and forgotten. The diseases that don’t pay.

For some reason, I was struck by the recent proliferation of MIA flags, which I’d rarely, if ever, noticed down here before. There are now more of them than Trump flags, of which there are still many. These black flags fly from houses and schools, Post Offices and fire stations, city parks and some of the few remaining local businesses. It’s been nearly fifty years since the fall of Saigon and the end of that savage war seems more immediate than ever. I asked a few people if they knew any MIAs. No one could name a single one. No surprise, there were hardly any. Few people even knew anyone that served in Vietnam. It seemed clear that what had really gone missing was an idea of America itself, a void in the national identity, that remains dark and inexplicable, and, as the scenes of planes ferrying desperate people out of Afghanistan play endlessly on cable TV, it’s a hole that continues to grow, consuming what we thought we knew about ourselves.

Open sign for a closed business. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A couple of nights ago, I met up with some old friends in a bar we used to frequent near Lake Lemon. It’s seen better days and is now kept afloat largely by the throngs of bikers who pass through on most weekends. As a group, we didn’t have much in common except our youth. Those differences in background and education never stood in the way before. But tonight the room crackled with tension. You could feel it in the air. It was palpable. I grew up with many of these people. Played baseball with them. Got lost in the woods looking for chanterelles with them. Fished for small-mouthed bass with them. Got drunk on the porch with them. Now every conversation seemed hard, strained, freighted with suspicion and latent anger. Everyone seemed wary of each other. The camaraderie of youth had been broken, like so much else. The mood was as sour as the beer. I rarely talk about politics. I usually find it the most boring topic on earth, aside from NFL football. But now everything seems intensely political, which is, perhaps, as it must be.  Each phrase, no matter how inconsequential, was spoken with caution, as if the wrong inflection might set off some chain reaction. All patience has been lost. People are tired of waiting, though waiting for what no one would, or perhaps even could, say. Yet, we all agreed and then almost immediately questioned our agreement: Politics has failed. But what comes next?

Something’s gotta give. Something’s gotta break wide open.

This essay is excerpted from An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. Available only from CounterPunch Books.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3