EDITOR’S NOTE: The documentary film “Moundsville,” about the small town in West Virginia, currently airs on PBS. John W. Miller, one of the film’s creators, has stayed in touch with friends he made there during the year-long shoot. This article is republished from the documentary’s website.
Way up this fall’s U.S. election ballot is the presidential choice of Donald J. Trump or Joe Biden, and, in Moundsville (pop. 8,000), way down the list is 37-year-old David Seum, who’s standing for town council. You can watch the eight candidates for council debate in an online candidate forum Wednesday, October 7 at 6 p.m. (Two, Gene Saunders and Phil Remke, are stars of Moundsville, now playing on PBS.)
Seum (pronounced SEE-UM) is running on a platform of rebuilding shared physical public spaces, like new businesses and plants, and events, clubs and parks. “It’s nice to talk about how great things were 50 years ago, but my question is what is this place going to look like in the next 50 years,” he says. “Once the oil and gas industry fades, if we don’t diversify, we’re going to be in trouble.”
The question Seum is posing — how life in America can be happier and healthier in places like Moundsville — still escapes much of the vision of national politics, which is obsessed with the theater of famous persons, the circus of celebrity, and a surface stock market-based prosperity, and has lost sight of the importance of everyday lived human experience.
The national conversation usually avoids uncomfortable truths, especially the country’s gaping and growing inequalities, exploding poverty, and how dependent the U.S. economy has become on an underclass of tens of millions of service workers at companies like Amazon, McDonald’s and WalMart making under $15 an hour with limited benefits. That class includes Seum, who works at CVS as a cashier for $11.25 an hour and gets his healthcare via taxpayer-funded Medicaid. You don’t have to be a working-class populist or raving socialist to see the damage wrought by the hollowing out of America’s middle class and rotting of thousands of once prosperous and tight-knit communities.
In Moundsville, the economy is built on a thousand or so low-wage service gigs, and another thousand jobs working in local hospitals and a prison. There is only one unionized factory left, with jobs in the low hundreds, and it makes lids for jars. City government and the school system employ a few hundred more. The gas industry is relatively strong, but its best jobs are for migrating engineers and pipeliners who don’t settle down. The population is aging, and the brain drain has sapped the town of its best and brightest, making a rebuild feel out of reach. And yet some people stay- for family or work, or simply because they love the place. And like Seum, many are doing something. Against the odds, they are rebuilding. They are doing hard work worth celebrating. (For a broader celebration of the rebuilders, I recommend James and Deborah Fallows’ Our Towns book and upcoming documentary.)
I’ve been talking to Seum these past two weeks. He’s been out and about, knocking on doors and walking the streets talking to voters. We’ve been chatting via messenger apps, and on the phone, including once as he picked up McDonald’s drive-through in his 2010 Kia Sportage.
Politically, Seum is an independent. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care about at all about national politics. Any time I brought up Trump and Biden, he changed the subject. Conversationally, he’s earnest, polite and enthusiastic. His dream really is to improve quality of life where he grew up. I’m rooting for him, partly because unlike older town leaders, he’s from a generation that has struggled its entire life in a system without stable employment, strong unions and tight-knit communities.
Seum’s day-to-day toil and troubles right now are typical of young and middle-aged residents of small towns in the Rust Belt and Appalachia. After stints in other places, he returned to Moundsville care for his ailing parents, moving into a garage apartment behind his parents’ house. He has an ex-girlfriend and son in California.
On weekends, Seum supplements his CVS income by calling bingo games. His total income for a year of full-time work in 2019 was $19,000. “It doesn’t make sense that you can work full-time and not have enough money for life as a single person,” he says. His dream revenue is around $37,000, enough to take vacations, pay for his medical care and save for retirement. Right now, it’s hard to see how that could happen if he stays in Moundsville. CVS has trained him to work in their pharmacy, but that only offers a raise of 50 cents an hour, and the other places he could work are Walgreens and WalMart. Another challenge is that installing automated cashiers has allowed CVS to cut Seum’s weekly hours to 26 from 34.
For Seum, who’s still undecided on his presidential choice, politics feels so broken, so remote, that it’s hard to see how anything good at all could come from the government.
Big ideas like a higher minimum wage, universal health care, universal basic income, and investment in infrastructure and education don’t feel that realistic, even if campaigns still make those promises. The Biden platform, for example, includes support for a $15 an hour minimum wage. That sounds utopian, and even like something Seum doesn’t think he deserves. “I’ve been on my own since I was 17,” he says. “I don’t like to make excuses.” In Seum’s America, things fell apart a long time ago. Even in Moundsville, the $7.25 per hour minimum doesn’t amount to a prosperous life.
Really rebooting Appalachia and the Rust Belt would require some combination of big, sweeping ideas, plus specific investments in a new colleges, training centers, factories, or public institutions or offices.
But what counts as investment in Moundsville these days is a new armored car the town received as part of a Pentagon plan to steer used military gear toward local governments. The presidential campaign’s theater of personality, identity validation, and basic ideas feels feels distant. (The Democratic primary was more substantive, and Seum says he was attracted by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s pro-working class platform.)
Seum’s selling point in running for council is his aptitude for organizing concerts and other events, which he did in Wheeling when he lived there. “We need to give people stuff to do,” he says. “Right now, there’s nothing for kids to do but sports. I’d like to bring in more bands, more acts, and revive life here.” For example, he’d like to install a family entertainment complex with “a go-kart track, miniature golf, cornhole, darts, that kind of thing” on the former Fostoria glass factory site. That would bring in local tourists “from towns that don’t have the resources we have,” he say.
He hopes to attract investors. “Right now, the only businesses taking advantage of tax breaks that are available are these gambling parlors” catering to gas workers from out of town,” he says. There are around 10 gambling parlors in and around town. “That’s a detriment to the economy, because people spend money there instead of on their kids,” he says.
“Growth comes from the nuanced cooperation between local government and private enterprise,” Seum writes in his campaign bio, which notes that Seum has served on boards of organizations like an Italian festival and the Ohio Valley Jaycees, “group of younger people creating positive change.” The past, he tells me, “should be remembered and even celebrated” but it doesn’t “hold the answers as to what Moundsville can be in the future.”
In places like Moundsville, people run for town council partly for extra income. Council members make $250 per bimonthly meeting, says Seum. The mayor, chosen from its members, makes $1,000 a month.
John W. Miller is a global journalist with two decades’ experience reporting from six continents and 45 countries, on print, digital, video and audio platforms. He has reported for the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine and has won awards from the National Press Foundation and the German Marshall Fund. John has written several articles for the Daily Yonder. This article is republished from his website for the film “Moundsville.”