Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Dust-up over small-town library makes returnee conclude that struggling rural areas will remain conservative

The nation's deepening political divide makes it difficult, sometimes, for one side to understand the other. Author Monica Potts attempts to convey to The New York Times' mostly urban audience how a rural Arkansas town sees the world, as illustrated by a dust-up about the local librarian's pay.

Potts moved back to her hometown of Clinton, pop. 2,500, to write a book about low-income women in Arkansas. She is frustrated not just by conservative politics, but conservative rural people, and displays that: "People like my neighbors hate that the government is spending money on those who don’t look like them and don’t live like them — but what I’ve learned since I came home is that they remain opposed even when they themselves stand to benefit," Potts writes. "Since coming back, I’ve realized that it is true that people here think life here has taken a turn for the worse. What’s also true, though, is that many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor."

Clinton, Arkansas
(Wikipedia map)
Potts' main example is a local imbroglio over increasing the salary of the county's new head librarian to $25 an hour, since she had assumed far greater responsibilities. The library serves more than 16,000 people in Van Buren County and provides important services, Potts notes: "summer reading camps for children and services like high-speed internet, sewing classes and academic help. I grew up going to the library and visited it often when I returned. It was always busy. I thought people would be supportive."

However, Potts writes, many locals believed $25 an hour was far too much. One commented on a community Facebook page: "If you want to make $25 an hour, please go to a city that can afford it . . . We the people are not here to pay your excessive salaries through taxation or in any other way." Potts notes that other Clinton residents who make similar incomes, mostly teachers, kept quiet on the issue to avoid drawing their neighbors' ire.

When Potts wrote in the Facebook thread that librarians must have a master's degree, others responded by questioning that. "Call me narrow-minded, but I’ve never understood why a librarian needs a four-year degree," someone wrote. "We were taught Dewey decimal system in grade school. Never sounded like anything too tough." The library board withdrew its request.

Potts draws bitter conclusions: "I didn’t realize it at first, but the fight over the library was rolled up into a bigger one about the library building, and an even bigger fight than that, about the county government, what it should pay for, and how and whether people should be taxed at all. The library fight was, itself, a fight over the future of rural America, what it meant to choose to live in a county like mine, what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here. The answer was, for the most part, not very much."

That's troubling, she writes, because state governments don't step in to help financially troubled localities as much as before, so small-town residents must rely on each other more than ever. That drives an increasingly libertarian mindset: "The people left in rural areas are more and more conservative, and convinced that the only way to get things done is to do them yourself," Potts writes. "Especially as services have disappeared, they are more resentful about having to pay taxes, even ones that might restore those services."

That's why Potts believes rural areas will continue to be more conservative, and the impeachment scandal won't hurt President Trump in such places. "They believe every tax dollar spent now is wasteful and foolish and they will have to pay for it later. It is as if there will be a nationwide scramble to cover the shortfall just as there was here with the library," she writes. "As long as Democrats make promises to make their lives better with free college and Medicare for all sound like they include government spending, these voters will turn to Trump again — and it won’t matter how many scandals he’s been tarnished by."

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