My Two Cents

Middletown, USA

Chris Farrell Mar 19, 2009

We’re in Muncie, Indiana. Marketplace and American Radio Works are working together on an hour long documentary on Muncie.

Why Muncie? It’s America’s most famous “typical American city”: Middletown. In 1924, Sociologists Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd wrote two classic books, Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937). The books are fascinating, and they capture a town during the roaring ’20s and during the Great Depression. Here’s one intriguing finding in the books. The Middletown/Muncie culture celebrated a thrifty pay-as-you-go mentality in the 1920s yet its citizens rushed to buy on credit. In their follow-up study in the 1930s, belts were tightened and debts days paid off. Still, “[p]eople give up everything in the world but their car,” was a refrain the Lynd’s heard over and over again.

Even before the current crisis the town grappled with problems many people identify with, such as factories leaving, BorgWarner, which makes parts for GM and Ford, is closing its Muncie plant next month and moving the work to Mexico. That’s the last of the great factories in Muncie. the two main employers now are Ball State University and the medical complex. In a sense, that’s the story of the U.S. economy, right? Manufacturing is shrinking and education and health care are expanding.

What does this mean for the middle class? How vulnerable are the incomes and aspirations of the “brittle class” with this dramatic economic transformation from an economy based on tangibles to an economy based on intangibles. What about the poor?

These are the kinds of questions we’re pursuing.

Kai comes in today to do some reporting, too.

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