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Carbon Counties, U.S.A.

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

We have four of them, located in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Pennsylvania. All of them were named for coal deposits within their boundaries, all of them are rural, overwhelmingly white, and not very prosperous. I currently live in the one in Pennsylvania.

The western Carbons are large in area by eastern standards. The one in Wyoming is 7,964 square miles, more than twice the size of Rhode Island. Montana's is over 2,000 square miles, while Utah's is about 1,500. My Carbon is only a tiny 387 square miles. On the other hand, my Carbon has about 65,000 people by the 2010 census, more than the other three combined.

Here is another commonality. In 2016 and 2020 all four counties went for Trump bigly. All of them in the not too distant past tended to vote Democratic, but those days are over. The final figures for 2020 are not yet available in all four counties, but the Wyoming Carbon voted over 70% for Trump.

These are counties that prosperity left behind. The coal industry is dying; when drivers tire of counting pronghorns along I-80 near Rawlins, they can count hundreds of windmills. Tourism is growing in each of the Carbons, but tourism, as Covid-19 has shown, is an iffy economic activity.

It wasn't always like this. My own Carbon County was a thriving place to be in the 1950s. Three different major railroad lines criss-crossed the county providing good jobs. We still have railroad activity; on weekends a locomotive pulls carloads of tourists a short distance along the Lehigh River.

Sixty years ago in the Pennsylvania Carbon the anthracite mines were operating, with the miners getting good pay thanks to the United Mine Workers union. Miners' wives, members of the ILGWU, worked in shirt factories and silk mills. The southern end of the county was rich in family farms.

A large zinc manufacturing company in Palmerton employed over a thousand union workers. Other men drove to the forges at Bethlehem Steel. Apparel shops, shoe stores, appliance shops, department stores, and restaurants provided employment in Lansford, Lehighton and Palmerton.

Then the bottom fell out. The railroads couldn't compete with the trucking companies. The coal was expensive to dig. The shirt factories moved to "right-to-work" states and then to Mexico. The zinc company and Bethlehem Steel were outmoded. The stores were replaced by Wal-Mart. Family farms couldn't compete with factory farms. College grads moved to cities. The population aged.

When economists talk about depressed areas, they usually are using economic indicators like per capita income or housing stock, but the whole population is depressed. This is what the four Carbons, from the wide open spaces of Montana to the coal patches of Pennsylvania, have in common. They are full of hopeless people who drink too much, take too many drugs, buy too many guns, and don't see a way forward.

Along comes Trump who tells them he will "make America great again." It isn't their fault. It's China or those blacks or those immigrants or those college-educated elites who think they know better that are causing the problem. Past presidents, whether Clinton or Bush or Obama, really didn't better their lives in any obvious way.

You can point out that the lives of our Carbon Counties's inhabitants have not improved in the last four years. You can explain that other countries are doing better with their Covid response. You can talk about life expectancy, or STEM proficiency, or democratic values. Won't matter. This is about despair, and despair is not generally amenable to reasoned argument.

~ Roy Christman





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