What's Killing Poor White Women?

What's Killing Poor White Women?

For most Americans, life expectancy continues to rise—but not for uneducated white women. They have lost five years, and no one knows why.

September 3, 2013

On the night of May 23, 2012, which turned out to be the last of her life, Crystal Wilson baby-sat her infant granddaughter, Kelly. It was how she would have preferred to spend every night. Crystal had joined Facebook the previous year, and the picture of her daughter cradling the newborn in the hospital bed substituted for a picture of herself. Crystal’s entire wall was a catalog of visits from her nieces, nephews, cousins’ kids, and, more recently, the days she baby-sat Kelly. She was a mother hen, people said of Crystal. She’d wanted a house full of children, but she’d only had one.

The picture the family chose for her obituary shows Crystal and her husband holding the infant. Crystal leans in from the side, with dark, curly hair, an unsmiling round face, and black eyebrows knit together. She was 38 and bore an unhealthy heft, more than 200 pounds. Crystal had been to the doctor, who told her she was overweight and diabetic. She was waiting to get medicine, but few in her family knew it, and no one thought she was near death.

Crystal’s 17-year-old daughter, Megan, split her time between her parents’ house in Cave City, Arkansas, and that of her boyfriend, Corey, in nearby Evening Shade. Megan made sure that each set of grandparents could spend time with the baby. The night before Crystal’s death, Megan and Corey were moving with his parents to a five-acre patch near Crystal. Megan and Corey were running late, so they didn’t pick the baby up until 11 P.M. Crystal seemed fine. “You couldn’t tell she was sick,” Megan says. “She never felt sick.” They went back home, and Megan got a text from her mom around midnight. “She said she loved me, give Kelly kisses, and give Corey hugs and tell him to take care of her girls and she’d see me in the morning. I was supposed to drop Kelly off at ten o’clock and finish moving.”

Instead, at around 9:30 the next morning, when Megan was getting ready to leave, Corey’s grandfather called and said Crystal was dead. Megan didn’t believe him. If one of her parents passed, it had to be her dad. “I thought it was my dad that died because he was always the unhealthy one.” Megan left Kelly with her mother-in-law and raced with Corey and his dad in the truck, hazards on, laying on the horn, and pulled into the dirt driveway outside her parents’ tan-and-brown single-wide trailer. “Daddy was sitting there in the recliner crying,” Megan says. “It was Momma gone, not him.” Crystal had died in her bed early in the morning.

Just after 10 A.M., nearly every relative Crystal had was in the rutted driveway in front of the trailer. Crystal was the last of six children and considered the baby of the family. She was the third sibling to die. Her brother Terry, the “Big Man,” who hosted all the holiday dinners and coached the family softball team, had died three months earlier at age 47, and her sister Laura, whom everybody called Pete, died at age 45 in 2004. The police—dozens, it seemed, from the county and from the town—had arrived and blocked off the bedroom where she lay and were interviewing people to figure out what had killed her.

The coroner arrived and pronounced Crystal dead at 11:40. Her body was rolled out on a gurney and shipped to the state lab in Little Rock. One of the officers, Gerald Traw, later told me an autopsy is routine when someone dies without a doctor present. “We like to know why somebody died,” he says.

Courtesy Wilson Family

Everything about Crystal’s life was ordinary, except for her death. She is one of a demographic—white women who don’t graduate from high school—whose life expectancy has declined dramatically over the past 18 years. These women can now expect to die five years earlier than the generation before them. It is an unheard-of drop for a wealthy country in the age of modern medicine. Throughout history, technological and scientific innovation have put death off longer and longer, but the benefits of those advances have not been shared equally, especially across the race and class divides that characterize 21st--century America. Lack of access to education, medical care, good wages, and healthy food isn’t just leaving the worst-off Americans behind. It’s killing them.

The journal Health Affairs reported the five-year drop last August. The article’s lead author, Jay Olshansky, who studies human longevity at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a team of researchers looked at death rates for different groups from 1990 to 2008. White men without high-school diplomas had lost three years of life expectancy, but it was the decline for women like Crystal that made the study news. Previous studies had shown that the least-educated whites began dying younger in the 2000s, but only by about a year. Olshansky and his colleagues did something the other studies hadn’t: They isolated high-school dropouts and measured their outcomes instead of lumping them in with high-school graduates who did not go to college.

The last time researchers found a change of this magnitude, Russian men had lost seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they began drinking more and taking on other risky behaviors. Although women generally outlive men in the U.S., such a large decline in the average age of death, from almost 79 to a little more than 73, suggests that an increasing number of women are dying in their twenties, thirties, and forties. “We actually don’t know the exact reasons why it’s happened,” Olshansky says. “I wish we did.”

Most Americans, including high-school dropouts of other races, are gaining life expectancy, just at different speeds. Absent a war, genocide, pandemic, or massive governmental collapse, drops in life expectancy are rare. “If you look at the history of longevity in the United States, there have been no dramatic negative or positive shocks,” Olshansky says. “With the exception of the 1918 influenza pandemic, everything has been relatively steady, slow changes. This is a five-year drop in an 18-year time period. That’s dramatic.”

Researchers had known education was linked to longer life since the 1960s, but it was difficult to tell whether it was a proxy for other important factors—like coming from a wealthy family or earning a high income as an adult. In 1999, a Columbia economics graduate student named Adriana Lleras-Muney decided to figure out if education was the principal cause. She found that each additional year of schooling added about a year of life. Subsequent studies suggested the link was less direct. Education is strongly associated with a longer life, but that doesn’t mean that every year of education is an elixir. “It is the biggest association, but it is also the thing that we measure about people the best,” Lleras--Muney says. “It is one of those things that we can collect data on. There could be other things that matter a lot more, but they’re just very difficult to measure.”

As is often the case when researchers encounter something fuzzy, they start suggesting causes that sound decidedly unscientific. Their best guess is that staying in school teaches people to delay gratification. The more educated among us are better at forgoing pleasurable and possibly risky behavior because we’ve learned to look ahead to the future. That connection isn’t new, however, and it wouldn’t explain why the least-educated whites like Crystal are dying so much younger today than the same group was two decades ago.

Cave City gives itself the low-stakes title of “Home of the World’s Sweetest Watermelons.” Beneath the ground, the Crystal River carves out the caverns that lend the town its name. Above it, 1,900 people live in single-wides in neighborhoods dotted with fenced lawns or along spindly red-dirt trails off the main highway. In this part of Arkansas, the Ozark Plateau flattens to meet the Mississippi embayment, and the hills give way to rice paddies. About 17,000 people live in Sharp County, a long string of small towns with Cave City at the bottom and the Missouri border at the top. Most of the residents are white—96 percent—with a median household income of $29,590. Nearly a quarter live in poverty, and Crystal was among them; for most of her married life, she relied on income from her husband’s disability checks.

For work, people drive to the college town of Batesville, about 20 minutes south, which has a chicken-processing plant that periodically threatens to close and an industrial bakery with 12-hour shifts that make it hard for a mother to raise children. Less than 13 percent of county residents have a bachelor’s degree. Society is divided into opposites: Godly folk go to church and sinners chase the devil, students go to college and dropouts seek hard labor, and men call the shots and women cook for them.


Crystal’s parents, Junior and Martha Justice, had moved to the area when her three oldest siblings were still toddlers. “My aunt told my dad that he could make better money up here, but it wasn’t so,” says Linda Holley, one of Crystal’s sisters. Junior farmed, which fed his family and brought in a little money. He found a piece of land on a country road called Antioch and bought a prefabricated home from the Jim Walters company. It was on this land they had their next three children. Crystal, born July 6, 1973, was the sixth and youngest.

Their life was old-school country. They raised chickens and goats and grew their own vegetables. The house was small, with only three bedrooms. Crystal’s closest sibling, Terry, was 7 years older. Linda was a full 15 years older than Crystal, which made her more like a second mom than a sister. When Crystal was two, Linda’s twin sister, Pete, began having children and, fleeing a string of abusive relationships, turned over custody to her parents. Having four slightly younger nieces and nephews in the house gave Crystal playmates her own age.

It was Linda, the doting older sister and aunt, who would take all the kids to Dogpatch, a creaky little Ozarks amusement park based on the comic strip, with actors playing Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner. Linda keeps Polaroids of Crystal from that time. They show her with long, curly blond hair and often half-clothed, happy, covered in clay and mud. “Grandpa used to call her his little Shirley Temple,” says Crystal’s niece, Lori.

When Crystal was starting out in elementary school, the family moved to a trailer to be closer to town. Her dad worked occasionally for lumber companies, and the proximity made jobs easier to find. Crystal was well behaved in school, and teachers would ask Lori, only two years behind, “Why aren’t you like her, she was so quiet and shy?” Crystal loved basketball and, especially, softball, which she played in summer clubs even as an adult. As she got older, her hair darkened and she became stocky and muscular. She played ball like a bulldozer and was aggressive on the field and mouthy off. The whole family would play and bicker and joke. Crystal would smack people across the butt with the bat if they weren’t moving fast enough.

“It wasn’t until we got in high school that I realized she was struggling so bad in school,” Lori says. “I was in the seventh grade, and she was in the ninth, and I wasn’t really smart myself. But I could help her do some of her work.” In 1988, Junior died from lung cancer at age 55. Both he and Martha were smokers. The next year Crystal met Carl Wilson, whom everybody called Possum. He was related to a cousin through marriage and, at 28, was 12 years her senior. They kept their relationship secret for a few months. “He came up to see her at the school,” Lori says. “So I pretty much put two and two together. I was the one that told my grandmother.” Lori thought that would put an end to it; instead, Martha let them marry. According to Linda, Martha had one admonition for Possum: “Momma said, ‘As long as you take care of her and don’t hit her, you have my permission.’ He done what he could do for her. They was mates.”

Possum moved in with the family in the trailer. He and Crystal had one room, Martha another, and the four nephews and nieces shared two bunk beds in the third. Crystal dropped out in the tenth grade because she had married. That was the way things were. None of Crystal’s siblings finished high school. Instead, they became adults when they were teenagers. Crystal would spend the rest of her years as a housewife to a husband who soon became ill and as a mother to a daughter who would grow up as fast as she did. 


Researchers have long known that high-school dropouts like Crystal are unlikely to live as long as people who have gone to college. But why would they be slipping behind the generation before them? James Jackson, a public-health researcher at the University of Michigan, believes it’s because life became more difficult for the least-educated in the 1990s and 2000s. Broad-scale shifts in society increasingly isolate those who don’t finish high school from good jobs, marriageable partners, and healthier communities. “Hope is lowered. If you drop out of school, say, in the last 20 years or so, you just had less hope for ever making it and being anything,” Jackson says. “The opportunities available to you are very different than what they were 20 or 30 years ago. What kind of job are you going to get if you drop out at 16? No job.”

In May, Jennifer Karas Montez of the Harvard University Center for Population and Development Studies co-authored the first paper investigating why white women without high-school diplomas might be dying. Most research has looked at which diseases are the cause of death, but Montez and her co-author wanted to tease out quality of life: economic indicators like employment and income, whether women were married and how educated their spouses were, and health behaviors like smoking and alcohol abuse. It is well known that smoking shortens life; in fact, smoking led to the early deaths of both of Crystal’s parents and her sister and brother. Crystal, though, never smoke or drank. But the researchers discovered something else that was driving women like her to early graves: Whether the women had a job mattered, and it mattered more than income or other signs of financial stability, like homeownership. In fact, smoking and employment were the only two factors of any significance.

At first, Montez and her co-author suspected that women who are already unhealthy are less able to work and so are already more likely to die. When they investigated that hypothesis, however, it didn’t hold up. Jobs themselves contributed something to health. But what? It could be, the authors suggested, that work connects women to friends and other social networks they otherwise wouldn’t have. Even more squishy sounding, Montez wrote that jobs might give women a “sense of purpose.”

Better-educated women are the most likely to work and to achieve parity with men: Seventy--two percent are in the workforce, compared with 81 percent of their male counter-parts. Women without high-school diplomas are the least likely to work. Only about a third are in the workforce, compared to about half of their male counterparts. If they do find work, women are more likely than men to have minimum-wage jobs. They account for most workers in the largest low-paying occupations—child-care providers, housecleaners, food servers. Even if they do have minimum-wage jobs, this group of women is more likely to leave the labor force to take care of young children because child care is prohibitively expensive.

Montez’s joblessness study, however, raised more questions. Would any job do? What does giving women a “sense of purpose” mean? And why would joblessness hit white women harder than other groups? Overall, men lost more jobs during the Great Recession. Why are women losing years at a faster rate?


Cave City life revolves around its rivers, thick with runoff from the mountains and barreling toward the Mississippi. Crystal loved the area, but she also didn’t know anything else. She hunted squirrels and rabbits in the fall, but spring was filled with what she loved most. School ends, and softball season begins. It is a brief, lovely time, before humidity and mosquitoes, when the world smells of wildflowers and dirt and storms. Every year, one of Crystal’s brothers made sure she had a fishing license for the spring-swollen White River and the less touristy Black River, where they had better hauls. People come from around the state to float lazily, drunkenly down the rivers in canoes and rafts. Songbirds come too—buntings, mockingbirds, whippoorwills, woodpeckers—settling in for the season near the quieter streams, ponds, and water-filled rice paddies. Deer fill the kudzu-covered woods. Copperhead snakes awakened from hibernation nest in muddy puddles.

Crystal wanted to start a family as soon as she was married but couldn’t. Her first three pregnancies, in the early ’90s, ended in miscarriages. The first two occurred so late she gave the babies names, Justin and Crystal; the last was a set of twins. None of her relatives knew if she ever went to a doctor to find out why she miscarried. “I just thought maybe it was one of those things, you know, some people can have them and carry them and some can’t,” Lori says. Megan said her mother had had “female cancer,” a catchall phrase for cervical cancer and the infections and dysplasia leading up to it.

When Lori’s son was born, Crystal teased her about stealing him. She was always volunteering to baby-sit the kids in the family. When Crystal finally got pregnant with Megan, no one was sure she would make it, least of all Crystal and Possum. “They ended up just praying for me,” Megan says. She was born July 20, 1994, and became the center of Crystal’s world.

By the time Megan was born, Crystal and Possum were living in their own trailer but were struggling financially. Possum had worked the first four years of their marriage at the chicken-processing plant before quitting for good because of health problems. An accident on an oil rig when he was a teenager had left him with a plate in his skull. Chicken-processing plants are tough places to work, and besides, he qualified for disability. Crystal spent her life taking him to specialists—he was covered by Medicaid—but the problems piled up. He had a congenital heart condition and a bad back. A young-old man.

When Megan was 12, Crystal worked for a brief spell as a housekeeper at a nursing home in Cave City, where Linda and Lori worked. Mostly, though, she stayed home to take care of Possum and Megan. Baby-sitting brought in small amounts of cash, but she and Possum relied on disability, which was about $1,000 a month. Outside of a brief trip to Texas after Megan was born to show her off to Possum’s family, and a trip to a small town near St. Louis to visit a niece after one of the trailers they lived in burned down, Crystal passed her entire life in Cave City.

Crystal spent what money she had on Megan. She gave her any new toy she wanted and, later, name-brand clothes, a four-wheeler, a laptop, and a phone. When Megan started playing softball, Crystal spent money on shoes, gloves, and club fees. “Crystal was a super mom,” says Steve Green, the school superintendent and Megan’s softball coach. “They didn’t have a lot of revenue, but they put everything they had into Megan.” Crystal and Possum made it to every practice and every game, even if it meant driving for an hour, deep into the mountains. They brought snacks and sports drinks for Megan’s teammates. Crystal would watch her nieces, nephews, and cousins’ kids play, and she still played for her family team in Batesville. Crystal went with Linda to a missionary Baptist church near the family road in Antioch, but she and Possum weren’t every-Sunday Christians—it was the softball field her spring weekends revolved around. But when Terry was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, the family stopped playing, and Crystal lost her favorite activity.

When her relatives look back, they think Crystal was probably lonely. Her mother had died three years after Megan was born. Although she and Possum had a Ford Contour, Crystal seldom drove, relying on relatives to come by to take her to the grocery store. It was a chance to visit. When Linda’s daughter took her truck-driver husband to pick up his 18-wheeler for his next haul, Crystal would always want to go with them. She would call her family members throughout the day, gossiping. She didn’t stir up trouble, but she reveled in drama. Crystal would often go to Linda’s for homemade biscuits and gravy for breakfast, and she’d ask Linda to buy her liter bottles of Dr Pepper whenever she ran out. She was addicted to Dr Pepper. Sometimes, relatives paid for Possum’s medicine; Linda’s daughter remembers paying as much as $64 in one visit. Crystal’s nieces and nephews had gotten older and started their own families, and now she relied on them as much as she had her older siblings.


Another mystery emerged from the lifespan study: Black women without a high-school diploma are now outliving their white counterparts.

As a group, blacks are more likely to die young, because the factors that determine well-being—income, education, access to health care—tend to be worse for blacks. Yet blacks on the whole are closing the life--expectancy gap with whites. In a country where racism still plays a significant role in all that contributes to a healthier, longer life, what could be affecting whites more than blacks?

One theory is that low-income white women smoke and drink and abuse prescription drugs like OxyContin and street drugs like meth more than black women. Despite Crystal’s weight and diabetes, those problems are more common among black women and usually kill more slowly. Meth and alcohol kill quickly. It could be that white women, as a group, are better at killing themselves.

Still, why would white women be more likely to engage in risky behaviors? Another theory is that the kind of place people live in, who is around them, and what those neighbors are doing play a central role. Health is also a matter of place and time.

In March, two researchers from the University of Wisconsin reported that women in nearly half of 3,140 counties in the United States saw their death rates rise during the same time period that Olshansky studied. The researchers colored the counties with an increase in female mortality a bright red, and the red splashed over Appalachia, down through Kentucky and Tennessee, north of the Cotton Belt, and across the Ozarks—the parts of the South where poor white people live. Location seemed to matter more than other indicators, like drug use, which has been waning. The Wisconsin researchers recommended more studies examining “cultural, political, or religious factors.”

Something less tangible, it seems, is shaping the lives of white women in the South, beyond what science can measure. Surely these forces weigh on black women, too, but perhaps they are more likely to have stronger networks of other women. Perhaps after centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, black women are more likely to feel like they’re on an upward trajectory. Perhaps they have more control relative to the men in their communities. In low-income white communities of the South, it is still women who are responsible for the home and for raising children, but increasingly they are also raising their husbands. A husband is a burden and an occasional heartache rather than a helpmate, but one women are told they cannot do without. More and more, data show that poor women are working the hardest and earning the most in their families but can’t take the credit for being the breadwinners. Women do the emotional work for their families, while men reap the most benefits from marriage. The rural South is a place that often wants to remain unchanged from the 1950s and 1960s, and its women are now dying as if they lived in that era, too.

Crystal’s world was getting smaller and smaller and more sedentary. Everyone was worried about Possum, but Crystal’s own health was bad. She’d had a cystic ovary removed when Megan was 13, and about a year before her death she had a hysterectomy. The surgery was necessary after Crystal had started hemorrhaging, which was brought on by another miscarriage—something her family didn’t know about until the autopsy. It’s unclear when she learned she was a diabetic. Megan thinks her mom might have heard it for the first time when she was pregnant with her, but Crystal never had regular medical care because she didn’t qualify for Medicaid as Possum did.

Megan started spending more time away from her mom in the tenth grade, when Corey and his family moved to town. Crystal consented to their high-school romance, though she warned Corey that if he ever hit her daughter, she’d put him in the ground herself. Within a year of going out with Corey, Megan was pregnant. She swears she didn’t know it until she was seven and a half months along, when Corey’s mother made her take a pregnancy test. They had a short time to prepare for Kelly’s birth in February 2012, but Crystal was happy about the new baby. It was a way for her to have another child. But after Kelly’s birth, Crystal and Megan argued; Megan was worried her mother would spoil Kelly. Because Corey’s father worked, his family had a bit more money, and they bought more baby clothes than Crystal could, which only made her feel worse.

In the final months of her life, Crystal complained of chest aches, but when she went to the emergency room, the doctors assured her it wasn’t a heart attack. She said that she felt like she had the flu or allergies. In hindsight, it was after Terry’s death—he died a week after Kelly was born—when Crystal really began to suffer. He had been the linchpin of the family, and now they were breaking apart. After he died, Crystal would call Linda’s daughter and say, “I wish God would have took me instead of Terry.” Crystal posted regularly about Terry on her Facebook page. Crystal had stopped coming to Linda’s for breakfast, too, because Possum was growing sicker and had started falling when he tried to walk on his own. He was diagnosed with cancer about a week before Crystal’s death. “I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe some of it might have been attributed to her system just being drug down from having to take care of Carl and Megan,” says Steve Green, the school superintendent. “Just everyday stress.”

The night before she died, Crystal made herself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for dinner. After Megan took Kelly home, she went to bed and fell asleep, but Possum said she woke up at 1 A.M., said she was thirsty, and went to the kitchen. She was a fitful sleeper, and she returned to bed. When Crystal wasn’t up before him the next morning, it struck Possum as odd, but he let her sleep. Crystal usually called her relatives around 6 or 7 A.M. to see what their plans were for the day. They wondered if something was wrong when their phones didn’t beep. Finally, Possum sent in his brother, who’d been staying with them, to wake Crystal up; they were always going after each other, and he thought the teasing would spur her out of bed.

Crystal’s funeral was small, mostly attended by family, and held at the funeral home in Cave City. They buried her in a tiny graveyard next to a little white chapel on Antioch Road, near the land where Crystal was born. Megan went to stay with Corey’s family, and they offered to buy Possum a prefabricated barn so he could come live near them, but there was no need. He spent most of the next four weeks in and out of the hospital, until he died of massive heart failure on June 22. Possum was buried right beside Crystal. Both graves are marked with temporary notices. Linda has promised Megan she will help buy tombstones.

The medical examiner’s investigation into Crystal’s death was closed because it was determined she died of natural causes. The police report lists no official cause. With untreated, unmanaged diabetes, her blood would have been thick and sticky—the damage would have been building for years—and it could have caused cardiac arrest or a stroke. Linda has her own explanation: “Her heart exploded.” And, in a way, it had.


After her mom’s death, Megan was 17, hitched, and living on the same land where Crystal had given birth to her. Was it going to be the same life over again?

At school, a number of administrators and teachers stepped in to make sure Megan felt supported; one of them was the technology coordinator for the Cave City schools, Julie Johnson. With big gray eyes and a neat gray bob, she seems younger than 46. When I visited the school this spring, Julie showed me a picture of Megan with Kelly, Corey, and his family that Megan copied and gave to her. They became close last winter when Julie walked into one of Megan’s classrooms and the teacher asked, “Have you congratulated Megan?” Julie turned to her and said, “What have you done, sister?” Megan told her that she’d given birth only a week before but that she’d wanted to come back to school. Julie said, “Dang, you’re tough!”

Julie has seen a lot of teen mothers. Arkansas ranks No. 1 in the country in teenage births. About a month before Megan gave birth to Kelly, another young woman from the school had gotten married and had a baby, then died mysteriously. Nobody knew what had caused it, and the girl, Bethany, was in the back of Julie’s mind when she saw Megan. “I’ve been in education for 25 years. I kind of got a good eye and sensed where she was coming from. And I was troubled because, as I kept thinking, OK, if a teacher here at school has a baby, they have a big shower for her, and if somebody at church has a baby, they have a shower for her, but if you have a child as a child, we don’t do anything.”

She prayed on what to do, and prayed some more. It led her to start the Bethany Project, a donation program that would give Megan and other young mothers baby clothes, school supplies, and community support. Megan was only in the spring of her junior year when she had Kelly. Megan told Julie she’d promised her mother she’d stay in school—Megan told me Crystal wanted her to have a good job so she could take care of Kelly and spoil her rotten—and Julie thinks Megan’s mother-in-law helped her uphold her promise. “Corey’s mother, I think she would have fought the devil to make sure those two finished school.” They did. Megan and Corey finished school on May 3 of this year, were married eight days later on May 11, and then graduated on May 18, just a few days shy of the anniversary of Crystal’s death. Megan found a job at Wendy’s and plans to enroll in the community college in Batesville. Finishing college would give her the best chance to escape her mother’s fate.

Julie knows a lot of young women who will never break the cycle. She has her own thoughts about what might be dragging down their life expectancy. “Desperation,” she says. “You look at the poverty level in this county—I love this place. It’s where I’m from. I don’t want you to think I’m being negative about it.” But she gestures toward the highway and notes how little is there: a few convenience stores, a grocery, and a nursing home. You have to drive north to the county seat in Ash Flat for a Walmart, or you can negotiate traffic in Batesville, where you might get a job at the chicken plant or a fast-food restaurant. “If you are a woman, and you are a poorly educated woman, opportunities for you are next to nothing. You get married and you have kids. You can’t necessarily provide as well as you’d like to for those kids. Oftentimes, the way things are, you’re better off if you’re not working. You get more help. You get better care for your kids if you’re not working. It’s a horrible cycle.

“You don’t even hear about women’s lib, because that’s come and gone. But you hear about glass ceilings, and I think girls, most especially girls, have to be taught that just because they’re girls doesn’t mean they can’t do something. That they are just as smart, that they are just as valuable as males. And we have to teach boys that girls can be that way, too. They all need the love, nurturing, and support from somebody from their family or who’s not their family. Somebody who’s willing to step up. There has to be something to inspire kids to want more, to want better. And they have to realize that they’re going to have to work hard to get it. I don’t know how you do that.

“It’s just horrible, you know? I don’t know if ‘horrible’ is the right word.” Julie puts her face into her hands. “The desperation of the times. I don’t know anything about anything, but that’s what kills them.”

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