Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Kids on the No. 6 Bus

In the 1970s, Nick Kristoff rode the bus to school with a bunch of working class neighbors in Yamhill, Oregon:
Chaos reigned daily on the No. 6 school bus, with working-class boys and girls flirting and gossiping and dreaming, brimming with mischief, bravado and optimism. Nick rode it every day in the 1970s with neighbors here in rural Oregon, neighbors like Farlan, Zealan, Rogena, Nathan and Keylan Knapp.

They were bright, rambunctious, upwardly mobile youngsters whose father had a good job installing pipes. The Knapps were thrilled to have just bought their own home, and everyone oohed and aahed when Farlan received a Ford Mustang for his 16th birthday.

Yet today about one-quarter of the children on that No. 6 bus are dead, mostly from drugs, suicide, alcohol or reckless accidents. Of the five Knapp kids who had once been so cheery, Farlan died of liver failure from drink and drugs, Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk, Rogena died from hepatitis linked to drug use and Nathan blew himself up cooking meth. Keylan survived partly because he spent 13 years in a state penitentiary.

Among other kids on the bus, Mike died from suicide, Steve from the aftermath of a motorcycle accident, Cindy from depression and a heart attack, Jeff from a daredevil car crash, Billy from diabetes in prison, Kevin from obesity-related ailments, Tim from a construction accident, Sue from undetermined causes. And then there’s Chris, who is presumed dead after years of alcoholism and homelessness. At least one more is in prison, and another is homeless.
Nick Kristoff blames the disappearance of good working class jobs, and I agree that this is the immediate and maybe the most important cause. But I would extend that by saying that the cause was the disappearance of jobs in a culture where working and supporting yourself and your family was the supreme value -- "standing on your own two feet" -- leaving nothing on which people could rely when their jobs were gone.


G. Verloren said...

I'm utterly convinced that a massive part of why today's kids aren't anywhere near as self destructive as kids who grew up in the 70s is that we no longer are living under constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

When the world could come to a horrific end at any moment and there's nothing you can possibly do to stop it, you face a sort of overwhelming existential dread which makes it much easier to engage in dangerous or reckless behaviors.

If you're more afraid of seemingly inevitable nuclear holocaust than of the potential dangers of drugs, alcohol, smoking, unprotected sex, reckless driving, gang activity, et cetera, than you're quite naturally going to pick the latter options because they allow you an escape and a distraction from the greater fear.

You think the problem is the disappearance of good working class jobs? Then why are Millenials and other young people today setting records for how little they engage in the self-destructive behaviors of their predecessors? They're no less affected by the lack of good working class jobs, and yet they don't engage in nearly as much drinking, drugs, criminality, et cetera.

But there is one thing that's different for the youth of today - they don't live in constant fear of being incinerated by atomic fire. A nuclear war seems almost like an impossibility to most people who were born near or after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Much more troubling for them are things like crippling student debts, stagnant wages and rising costs of living, lack of healthcare, societal ills such as racism and discrimination, and the slowly unfolding catastrophy of global warming.

JustPeachy said...

There's the jobs thing... but weren't those kids, just by virtue of when they were born and their socioeconomic status, also exposed to a lot of lead, higher rates of fetal exposure to alcohol and tobacco, that sort of thing...?

I've had to do a lot of reading lately about FASD, so that leaps to mind anyway... I was an 80s child, and when I look at those philtrum charts my heart sinks. There's always that flare of recognition: "oh, that looks like so-and-so that I went to school with..." And the thing is... we tend to associate FASD with those idiosyncratic facial features, but most FASD cases don't have those. What they do have is often impulse-control problems, poor executive function, and intellectual deficits of varying degrees. None of that gets better with age, and a majority of them have trouble as adults with basic stuff like staying employed.

Similar story with lead. We're pretty sure post-70s babies had a lot less of that going on. Are we seeing the same dismal stats with any cohort born after unleaded gasoline etc?

G. Verloren said...


Well said! Lead is another thing I'm absolutely convinced plays an incredibly big role here. And the scary thing is, there's still a HUGE amount of lead floating around.

Just because lead paints were banned decades ago doesn't mean every building has been scoured of lead paint yet. There are many millions of structures in the country where the lead paint was just "sealed" and covered over instead of being removed, and without proper and regular maintenance those seals wear away iver time and re-expose occupants to the lead hazard.

And when you consider how many poor people live in old, poorly maintained homes because they can't afford better - and because landlords are held to very lax standards and routinely get away with some shockingly shady practices and neglect - things start to seem a bit scary. The most vulnerable people in society are at the highest risk for lead poisoning in their homes, and they likely have no real way to know if they're even being exposed, and no resources available to fix the problem even if they somehow discover it.

I can only wonder how much of an effect this might be having on things like politics and societal division. I have to wonder if lead exposure correlates with party affiliation and general philosophy in some significant way, and I think we REALLY need to be studying this in comprehensive and exacting detail.

John said...

Lead is a really interesting question. I wonder if Nick Kristof has ever looked into the lead levels in Yamhill? I think I'll email him and ask.

szopeno said...

One of my friends committed suicide. One died in a car accident caused by the other, who was either drunk or under drunk. Fourth tried to commit suicide, but was saved.

Ah, the beauty of growing in Poland during 90s...

ANd the strange thing is actually now supposedly rate of suicides in Polish teenage children rises every year.