LTE: In Defense of “Senator Bread Bags”
People who know me well know that I have two very strong qualities. One is loyalty to the people I care about and who I see as “my people.” The second is sense of protectiveness and willingness to go to the mat for them.
With my roots in Adams County, I consider the people of southwest Iowa to be my people, and I will defend them vigorously, even if they’re people I usually disagree with. And yes, Joni Ernst is one of my people. Our home turf is only thirty miles apart, and despite our differences, I know there are a lot of experiences that we share. And those shared experiences are why I feel like I need to come to her defense, and the defense of her supporters, when I feel she is being unfairly targeted.
That’s why I feel compelled to speak up about the memes I see making fun of Joni Ernst for her story about putting bread bags on her shoes. You see, for me and many rural Iowans, Joni’s story isn’t a joke, it’s reality.
The above picture is one of my favorite pictures of my dad. It shows him and his dad feeding the geese on their farm. Look closely at my dad’s feet. Do you notice anything missing? He went barefoot when he could in order to save his single pair of shoes. When you can only afford one pair of shoes, you do whatever you have to do to take care of them, and you use whatever materials you have on hand.
When I hear people make fun of Joni’s story, I hear people who don’t understand the extent of rural poverty and the experiences of rural life. Moreover, I hear people who don’t even want to try to understand those experiences. Sure, her story is superficially amusing, but the underlying story it tells, and that we need to hear, is the pervasiveness of a level of poverty in rural communities that many of us have never known.
Here are a few additional rural experiences that I want to share. My mom went to a one-room schoolhouse. My grandma lived in a boardinghouse when she was in high school because the school was too far for her to make the journey every day. When I was a child, my grandparents’ phone was still a party line and their water came from a well. I spent summers in Brooks being comfortable using outhouses when necessary. Not port-a-potties, mind you, but actual outhouses that pre-dated indoor plumbing (and that are still standing today).
The level of poverty portrayed in Joni’s story and the myriad of experiences that go with them aren’t a joke. They aren’t an amusing story. For rural people, these are real, lived experiences. And things like one-room schoolhouses aren’t history, they are memories. When we talk about understanding rural voters, these experiences are the things we need to understand, and they are what we need to be able to relate to with our values and policies.
Adams County, the least populated county in the state, is where my family has lived for five generations. Adams County voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, then Trump in 2016. The voters in Adams County aren’t lock-step Republican voters. But when we turn rural experiences into jokes, we earn our reputation as the party of the urban elite. Rural voters have no reason to believe we have their best interests at heart when we fail to even try to understand their lives.
We can get the support of voters in places like Adams County, but we have to earn it. And in order to earn that support, we need to stop merely valuing rural votes and start valuing rural voters.