In The American Prospect, freelance writer Monica Potts tells the sad story of Crystal Wilson of rural Cave City, Ark., a high-school dropout and 38-year-old grandmother who in 2012 died suddenly in her trailer-home after an evening of babysitting her 17-year-old daughter's newborn.
For me, it was a story of a cascade of personal misfortunes, some under Wilson's control, some not. She was seriously overweight (more than 200 pounds) and had been diagnosed as diabetic. She wasn't the brightest bulb in the box (by ninth grade, Potts reports, Wilson was "struggling" in school, and her younger sister was helping her with her homework). She dropped out of high school with two years to go shortly after meeting the 28-year-old man she married–who soon developed a raft of medical problems of his own that prevented him from working. Dropping out of high school was a family pattern for Crystal Wilson; not one her five siblings possessed a diploma.
A series of miscarriages preceded and followed the birth of Wilson's daughter, Megan, an only child on whom Wilson lavished an enormous array of material goods for a woman whose main source of income was her husband's disability check: "any new toy she wanted and, later, name-brand clothes, a four-wheeler, a laptop, and a phone." Megan, pregnant at age 17 and living off and on with her boyfriend and his parents in their trailer, seemed poised to repeat her mother's lifestyle pattern (after her mother's death, however, she married her boyfriend, finished high school, and enrolled in community college.)
Still, there was something touching about Crystal Wilson. She stayed married to her husband, Carl "Possum" Wilson–a rarity these days in which marriage itself is rapidly disappearing in the lower income brackets–and by all reports she was devoted to Possum, diagnosed with cancer and heart problems shortly before her death, and Possum seemed equally devoted to her. She adored babies and baby-sitting, and although she didn't get out much, she loved having her kinfolk over for visits. Crystal Wilson seemed to have done about as well as she could, given her mental limitations and personal shortcomings. Dying early was another family pattern for her. She had lost both parents plus two siblings by the time of her death (heavy smoking ran in the family, although she herself neither smoked nor drank; liter bottles of Dr. Pepper were her only vice.)
That was Crystal Wilson's story for me. But to Monica Potts, it was a story about how all could have been different if only Crystal Wilson had a 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.
Furthermore, Wilson had a husband, and in the progressive world of The American Prospect, that means oppression:
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.
Actually, it struck me that Crystal's relationship with Possum, like her relationship with her daughter and other family members, was a source of rich emotional benefit for her. Let's face it: Crystal Wilson, barely making it through tenth grade, wasn't a brain trust. She had terrible health, and she didn't have the wherewithal to mind her health in the first place. What kind of job could she ever have hoped to hold? Surely not a job as a writer for The American Prospect.
She–and Possum, too–did, however, have a large capacity for loving and caring for other people. Relatives described her devotion to Megan's softball games as a child and the snacks she and Possum generously provided for the other players and their parents.
Crystal Wilson was many things but she wasn't a poster child for the two favorite progressive mantras: that marriage is bad for women, and that working outside the home will solve all their problems.