Working alone, localism can mitigate some of the effects of larger root causes. In a thicker community, there would be fewer Cannells, because there would be more “preventative care.”
A few weeks ago, the Portland Press Herald published a disheartening article entitled “‘Nobody would choose this:’ A turnpike rest area and a van become home for one Maine family.” The piece documents the travails of an elderly Maine couple, Roger and Jeanie Cannell. Due to a variety of circumstances, the Cannells have been living out of a van in the parking lot of a highway rest stop with their daughter Margaret. Roger’s cancer and other health problems prevent him from stable employment, forcing the family to rely on Jeanie’s job at Cabela’s for income. With no kitchen, the Cannells have to eat most of their meals out despite the greater cost. Local social services agencies, overwhelmed with other cases, can do nothing but put them on a waitlist. Their lives have become a complex web of problems with no ready-made solution.
Every paragraph of this piece screams, “how could this happen?” In addition to adverse but far from unique personal circumstances, the piece attributes their situation to a few “root causes”: housing policies and the real estate market, the structure of our health care system, under-resourced social service agencies. To this we might add things like runaway inflation and the erosion of thick communities of mutual support.
But perhaps there is a ready-made solution: money. In a few short weeks, a GoFundMe campaign for the Cannells has raised more than $45,000 from 714 donors, almost doubling the campaign’s initial $24,000 goal. The campaign was started by someone who “was compelled, as a Maine resident, to do something after hearing of their terrible situation.” In addition, someone lent their RV to the Cannells as they look for a more permanent home. It feels like a happy ending.
Not quite, though. Of course, I wish the Cannells all the best, and the assistance they have received will go a long way. But people will soon move on to the next story, and the $45,000 they have received will not remedy the underlying causes.
The response to this story feels localist—the grassroots response to help community members in need—but it really isn’t. William Schambra quotes Jeremy Beer defining “philanthrolocalism” as “a philosophy of giving that prioritizes the use of resources to help one’s own place, including one’s neighbors, community members, churches, businesses, cultural institutions, civic associations, and ecology. Philanthrolocalists seek to deploy resources to promote human ﬂourishing and civic life in their own local communities.”
Given the national media attention this story has garnered, it’s safe to assume that some if not many of those 714 GoFundMe campaign donors aren’t fellow Mainers. Local connection may have been the beginning, but the whole campaign, the whole story isn’t very localist—it’s not really tied to a place in any meaningful way.
In another sense, though, it’s almost too localist: that is, too focused on a concrete, specific situation at the expense of the broader picture. The subtext of the initial story is that the Cannells are far from alone in this life situation. The waitlists at local social services agencies tell us as much. What about everyone else in similar straits? Will their lives improve as a result of this story and the response to it? They haven’t been the subject of a newspaper article. They don’t have GoFundMe campaigns. The Cannells’ story might motivate a few others to take up the broader cause, but most will donate and move on.
Research shows that American citizens would be far healthier and our health care system far less costly if everyone sought recommended preventative care and attended well visits. The difference between a genuine localism and this “pseudo-localism” feels similar. A genuine localism anticipates the needs of neighbors and community members and can deploy resources for “preventative care,” preventing issues from snowballing and becoming hopelessly complex—and desperate. A pseudo-localism does not recognize these needs until the issue is so serious and obvious that far greater resources are needed. Genuine localism helps the Cannells before a newspaper article is necessary; pseudo localism responds after the fact, and insufficiently.
At the same time, stories like this display both the virtues and the limits of localism. Working alone, localism can mitigate some of the effects of larger root causes. In a thicker community, there would be fewer Cannells, because there would be more “preventative care.” Moreover, while localism tends to focus on those institutions that mediate between the individual and the state, local government also exists to “use resources to prioritize [a specific] place.” A good local government works with and is responsive to neighbors, community members, churches, businesses, cultural institutions, civic associations, and ecology. It would enact, for instance, policies to facilitate affordable housing and invest in local social services agencies. And yet other far-reaching causes, such as runaway inflation and the health care system, remain.
Where does this leave us? Should we focus all of our attention on those pesky “root causes”? Perhaps it’s enough to conclude that a world with genuine localism is better than one without it. After all, it bears clarifying that the localist does not claim that root causes do not exist, but rather that we should be modest in our confidence that they can be eradicated. The poor will always be with us, as Jesus taught. We may want to take him at his word and be humble in our approach, even as we do what we can to help our neighbors and community.