Cornfields in Preble County, Ohio.(Source: Ohio Farm Bureau,)

As I embarked on my morning ritual of taking a quick peek at politics on social media, I stumbled upon a post from U.S. Congressman Warren Davidson from Ohio. It said: Freedom surrendered is rarely reclaimed. #NoMandates. It’s a pithy quote the readers can interpret as they see fit while the quote remains broad enough to say very little. It’s not a new strategy, but social media has amplified its effectiveness.

Slogans are a politician’s best friend. Slogans remove the need to think. They succinctly, and prejudicially, frame a situation so it resonates with the reader. Somewhere along the way, based on the social media interactions of Likes and Hearts with Davidson’s post, readers lost freedom or at least perceived that they did.

We Need Solutions, Not Slogans

The evening before Davidson posted his slogan, a Preble County message board was filled with complaints, observations, and concerns about a local grocery store that is struggling to stay open. It’s the last standalone grocery store in this Southwest Ohio county of 40,000. Grocery stores were once the glue that held the county, filled with 10 villages and one city (Eaton) together.

In the not-so-distant past, at least three additional grocers, and in the early-to-mid 1970s, even more, were open for business. But, three of the remaining four groceries fell like dominoes once Walmart built its Super Center in Eaton more than a decade ago. And, as this last grocery store, located just a block or so from Walmart, struggles to stay open, there’s a slogan for its demise: “No One Wants To Work Anymore!”

This desire to stop working, or at least a slogan proclaiming it as truth, snowballed during the pandemic as Enhanced Unemployment checks, Payroll Protection Program loans/grants, and stimulus checks turned a once willing workforce into moochers. It’s an odd slogan to chant in a rural county like Preble since rural America has long prided itself on its work ethic. At least that’s a selling point for Preble County in a promotional video posted on its Economic Development website.

Local business owners and recruiters praise the local workforce. They say:

“It’s a top-caliber workforce. They stay for a long time. They are very dedicated. They have an incredible work ethic. Our turnover rate hovers at about two percent.”

But, if you believe the slogans, all this changed in 18 months.

What Does The Future Hold?

Preble County’s workforce has been at the 21,000 mark for about a decade, and despite these amplified posts that ‘no one wants to work,’ only 111 people were ‘drawing an unemployment check and only 18 workers filed a new claim this week (as of October 2, 2021).

Slogans, of course, oversimplify complex issues. After all, as Davidson knows, no one wants to lose their freedom. But, science and math are complex, so is epidemiology, and slogans provide a sleight of hand to con a willing public. Today, with more than 700,000 Americans dead from Covid, the odds of you dying is still statistically small. At this point, 1-in-500 Americans have contracted Covid, but that also means 499 have not. But, and this is important, the situation is more than an issue of odds, predictions, science, or math, it’s an issue of what kind of community do you want. Do you find it acceptable to let a friend of a friend die because a sloganeer said cloth masks represent tyranny?

In April of 2020, author Jared Yates Sexton wrote on Twitter: “…The consequences (of Covid-19) are going to be horrific, and the media is simply not going to notice or tell their stories. If you have trouble believing this, just take a look at what the meth and opioid epidemics were like. Rural communities can be RAVAGED without anyone with a television show even taking notice.

America is going to “reopen” while these communities burn.“

In April, when Sexton penned the Tweet, the country had about 3,000 deaths. Preble County had recorded its first. By May 1, in Preble County, Commissioners unofficially declared us open for business. The board, would not, and did take long-term action to offset the impending economic churn. Today, the county is still open for business, but dollar stores close sporadically on a mid-week day, restaurants operate on limited staff, and area schools struggle to find substitute teachers as deaths in the county increased 10 percent year-over-year and people moved away. 

It’s A Complex Issue That Slogans Can’t Solve

Rural Americans are standing at a crossroads. They are dying. In Preble County, the number of deaths has outpaced births for a decade. It happened statewide in 2020. The median age is rising in Ohio and quality jobs began leaving the state when “Just Say No” was being popularized. Today, many rural communities are a decade-deep into the overdose crisis, even as Covid claims lives and younger people move away. In Ohio, most of the population loss, at the county level, occurred in rural areas. Preble County was no exception. It lost three percent of its population — how many were workers? The county also lost 115 to Covid. The nation — more than 700,000.

Again, slogans can’t fix this.

But sensible public policies can. Policies that confront the wage gap rural Americans face by bringing livable-wage jobs to these communities. Policies that tackle entrenched poverty. Policies that solve food insecurity. Policies that promote a harm reduction strategy to the overdose crisis. Policies that financially invest in the community, as a whole, and not just funneling money into select institutions based on political cronyism. It will take a committed core of leaders, mostly young, armed with progressive politics to restore rural America to a place of hope and community.

The alternative is pithy slogans echoing on the abandoned streets of rural America’s ghost towns

Charlie Claywell is a former journalist who worked in weekly and daily newspapers as a copy editor, reporter, and Web content producer. A resident of Preble County, Ohio for more than 50 years, Claywell recently moved a few miles south into rural Butler County.

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