By Chris Nagavonski, TES Contributor
Many people think of poverty as just a lower average level of prosperity. To them, a poor neighborhood is still a row of houses or a block of apartments with people in them, albeit less fortunate people. But as Chris Rufo’s documentary America Lost shows, poverty doesn’t just stunt communities – it wipes them out, leaving only small pockets of existence. A poor neighborhood in one of the forgotten parts of America may have just a few houses remaining, with the rest demolished, burned down, or stripped to their foundations. The people who remain do their best to survive through work, faith, and hope, but as the documentary shows, it’s not always enough.
Rufo focuses on three cities. In Youngstown, Ohio, the people he interviews represent the white working class – or what’s left of it. In Memphis, Tennessee, Rufo explores a once-thriving black community now plagued by violence and crime. In Stockton, California, he gets the perspectives of a Hispanic police officer, a young couple, and a priest.
The documentary is at its strongest when it’s bringing attention to individuals and their struggles. When Rufo tells the story of a woman named Jennifer from Youngstown, he mentions that she “has made ends meet as a bartender, collecting public assistance, and selling pints of blood.” It’s a chilling observation that perfectly sums up the points that Rufo is making. In dying post-industrial cities like Youngstown, people are stuck with dead-end jobs at best. For most of them, this isn’t enough to make a living, and they’re forced to rely on government assistance to stay afloat. But the bureaucracy fails to provide anything above the bare minimum necessary to get by. As a result, the fight to survive is draining the life out of people – in Jennifer’s case, literally.
In Memphis, a woman whose neighboring house was burned down by drug dealers and who fears for her children’s safety at night mentions that she once had a guard dog, but someone poisoned it. When asked how she protects herself, her only answer is that she mostly relies on faith and that if she’s a good person, God won’t let anything happen to her. The woman’s faith is admirable, but it’s faith in the face of nearly-complete civilizational collapse, where gang violence is routine and criminals arbitrarily kill innocent animals. Hoping for the best appears to be the only means of protection she has.
Rufo’s focus on individuals brings powerful stories to light, but it somewhat limits the documentary’s ability to tackle broader trends. Rufo concludes that “our approach to poverty has failed” because “real change” happens not “from the top down” but from “within each individual human heart.” The evidence that he provides of ineffective government solutions – which generally begin and end with benefits programs – suggests that he’s right. But the documentary seems to jump from the beginning of societal decline to individual efforts at resisting it without enough attention to the transition period.
Rufo says that most of the jobs in Stockton “have been mechanized or chased away” – a partial explanation that doesn’t address the question of what could “chase away” an entire agricultural sector and light manufacturing industry. When it comes to de-industrialization in Youngstown, he says that “the experts are still trying to figure out what happened.” Here, Rufo misses an opportunity by not touching on issues like globalization and automation. Instead, the viewer comes away with only a surface-level understanding of American heartland’s decline: the jobs went away, and now people are poor and hopeless.
The grassroots individual approach to restoring hope and opportunity yields varying results. By the end of the documentary, the people in Youngstown and Stockton are trying their best to make things work. The single mother in Memphis can’t seem to catch a break – she’s diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is forced to continue relying on government benefits. But the Memphis man who joined a faith-based rehabilitation program is arrested for assault and goes back to prison. Whether there really are enough people who “still believe in the old moral order,” as Rufo describes it, is unclear.
Chris Nagavonski is a writer and translator from Washington, D.C.