The Veblen Effect
it all started with...
for a home that never existed.
the #7 worst place to live in South Dakota
Veblen, South Dakota is a .31 square mile congregation in the northeast corner of the state. Its population is less than 500 people, its school system closed in 2003, and it is believed to be one of the most crime-ridden, destitute, immigrant work camps in the region.
In 2016, my hometown was voted by some off the wall travel website #7 on their top 10 list of small South Dakota towns no one would want to live. Largely, I agreed with them. But then I got to thinking why. I hadn't always wanted to leave Veblen. What was it that made me want to? What is it that made this town so unlivable?
Multi-Community Cooperative Dairy (MCC) opened its first barn just west of Veblen in 1997. In 2006, the Co-op built an even larger facility on the opposite end of town, boosted by the good press given to their first of its kind Low Profile Cross-Ventilated barns. In a constant stream since opening, busloads of executives from dairy operations around the world came to tour this little piece of history in the middle of nowhere South Dakota.
In order to operate, the dairies hired hundreds of immigrant workers. In rural America, many saw the dairies as the ultimate reason for Veblen's status shifting from quant small town to notorious, dangerous ghost town. People have pinned years of scandal on the dairies, and the families associated with them.
Including my own.
the veblen effect
When you search for Veblen, there are two hits: a town and a man. A man and his “Veblen Effect":
"Abnormal market behavior where consumers purchase the higher-priced goods whereas similar low-priced (but not identical) substitutes are available. It is caused either by the belief that higher price means higher quality, or by the desire for conspicuous consumption (to be seen as buying an expensive, prestige item). Named after its discoverer, the US social-critic Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857-1929)."
I am a woman who grew up in a town within its peak years of turmoil, gossip, and all-around deterioration with an ingrained understanding that I should not be proud of where I came from. And although Veblen is an extreme case, many rural Midwestern towns suffer reputations very similar to my town--that they are less than. That they are other. Which has led me to begin investigating why.
Can The Veblen Effect exist within places?
Can The Veblen Effect exist within Veblen?
Forthcoming “Consider the Sunflower” Prairie Schooner
"A Frontier, a Tale, a Town and the Name.” The Britton Journal 22 Feb. 2017. Print.
Longlisted for the 2019 Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize
“Living Where No One Wants To” selected as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2018 edited by Hilton Als