February 18

Rural Narratives 1: My Childhood Home

Me (left) and a friend in 1970.

I grew up in northern New England in a town of 800 people spread out in four villages. Our school district served eight towns. It had a better graduation rate than most, but few went on to college. This was a town of families who’d been there for hundreds of years. I was born in the same hospital as my father. We can track his line back to 1799 in rural Maine. My mother’s line goes back to the Mayflower.

There were no jobs to speak of back then. The interstate wasn’t constructed until the late 1970s, so we were pretty isolated. It took over an hour on winding state highways to get to the state capitol. (Now it takes about 25 minutes.) Most residents tried to make a living doing what they could: selling and fixing chainsaws, or fishing and hunting equipment, or lawnmowers, plowing driveways, or working in local restaurants. These did not provide much of a living. In 1959, our state had one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. My dad was a CPA whose clients did all those things. He often received payment in barter because cash was scarce. I remember my mom complaining, “I can’t take that new lawnmower to the grocery store!”

Occasionally, someone would get an idea for a new business, like manufacturing RVs. These usually went bankrupt fairly quickly, often taking with them the already-scarce wealth of residents who dared to believe something better was possible.

The only major industry was tourism. Every summer, every foliage season, and every ski season, the state would get deluged with rich folks from Boston, New York, and Montreal. Many were rude in both their interactions and their driving, so we had a love-hate relationship with the tourists. Most people looked at them as simply a source of income. Some in my generation discovered the benefits of stealing from them, because they had much more portable wealth than we did. My first job was as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, where for 90 cents an hour I washed plates from meals that cost $10-$25 each.

There were no minorities in our town. With no jobs and brutal winters, why would there be? There were plenty of better places to live. There was one local TV station, if by local you mean in the same state. Most of our media came from Boston, and we were deluged with stories about urban problems: gangs, violence, and white flight. As a child, I most remember that they cancelled school in Boston for a half inch of snow, but we had to wait for the bus in the dark in up to a foot. The news impacted adults much differently than it did me. When, in the 1970s, the government opened a research facility not far away, the first black family moved to town. This was an upper-middle-class family, wealthier than most of us. But I remember adults whispering concerns about accompanying gangs, violence, and white flight. They only knew about Blacks what they’d heard on the urban news. The narratives we hear are the narratives we know.

Not surprisingly, in this environment of poverty, everyone sought to feel better about themselves. Those of us who were different got bullied on the school bus and at school. I was one: my parents were marginally better off, and I was too smart (and socially inept) for my own good. The two sons of the black family were also targets, as was the son of a Japanese-American family that also moved there to work at the research center. Sameness was important.

Education was less so. Those whose parents had professions were likely to go to college; those whose parents didn’t were far less likely. Generations of “just getting by” leave their imprint, and you don’t need a college degree to sell chainsaws or work at the local ski area.

Alcoholism was rampant. There wasn’t much to do after work besides drink. When I later joined a Twelve Step program, it was filled with people I knew: some peers my age, my seventh grade teacher, my dad’s former business partner, and the owner of a local restaurant. (The latter’s sons, my peers, would also benefit from such a program. Alcoholism, too, seems to be a generational phenomenon.)

Not surprisingly, I and most of my peers left as soon as we were old enough. I don’t know where most of them went. I went to Los Angeles. When I return home now, it’s rare to meet anyone I grew up with. And things have changed. Many urban folks have moved there for its lower tax rates, and they commute to jobs in the city. The population of my hometown has become somewhat more ethnically diverse, which is to say you might see a person of color once in a while. It’s funny to observe how gangs and white flight never materialized…

The state now boasts one of the lowest poverty rates in the nation, and unemployment is low. But these statistics are deceiving. Because of the brutal winters, the cost of living is high, and even the many who live slightly above the federal poverty line struggle to make ends meet. Most of the new jobs created locally are minimum wage jobs. There remains a division between locals and skilled urban workers, just as there remains a division between locals and tourists.

When I was a child, our family was friends with a family whose head of household poached deer. This wasn’t something he was proud of. He had to, or his kids wouldn’t eat. I have no doubt such things still go on in the woods of New England.

Think about how an anti-gun, pro-environment, hunter-shaming message plays to someone who did, does, or might need to poach deer to feed their family.

Think about the divide that grows up between that native and their urban-liberal neighbor who built a McMansion on the hill, figuratively looking down on everyone around them (and who perhaps complains that these rural roads have neither street lights nor sidewalks).

Think about a diet of urban news conditioning a population of rural people, who now see what they thought were urban problems like drugs and crime invading their rural communities. Who do they blame? On the urban news, it’s often people who look different. While that may be simply because urban communities have people who look different, unless you’ve lived there you don’t really get that. (Trust me on this. My move to Los Angeles caused major culture shock.)

I’m not saying any of this is right. But perhaps it can be understandable. Until we realize that there are bridges of understanding that need to be crossed, we can’t even begin to cross them. And without understanding, without a common frame of reference, communication isn’t possible.

January 10

Our Broken Social Service System

,

The purpose of our social service system is to help people climb out of poverty, right? But too often, it does the opposite. Let’s take a fictitious but representative example.

Bob is married and has two young children. He has a decent job that provides health insurance. His wife is a full-time mom. They live in a 3-bedroom home that costs $1,200 per month– a little higher than the average 3-bedroom apartment, but not much. Their utilities cost $300 per month. They get by, but they haven’t saved much.

Bob loses his job. Without a job he can’t pay his rent, much less afford the $600 per month payment for COBRA health insurance. Fortunately, his family becomes eligible for food stamps ($650 per month) and Medicaid. He can also apply for HUD vouchers to help with his rent, but the waiting list is over a year out. He can’t move to a cheaper place because he has no income. What landlord in their right mind will rent to someone without a job?

Bob is having trouble finding a position that pays as well as his last one. So he takes a $12 per hour part-time job– a decent paying job in these parts– that leaves him time to pound the pavement looking for a better one. He now earns $1,500 per month. That’s just enough to cover his rent and utilities, but not gas or car insurance for the family’s (one) car, or clothes for interviews, or anything else. And his food stamps get cut to $450 because he’s now earning money. And the more he makes, the more his food stamps get cut. At $2,000 per month, which is just enough to get by with food stamps. they phase out completely. If he replaces the $650 per month subsidy with income, he loses his Medicaid. Then, not only does he have to come up with a premium for insurance, but his family faces a $10,000 per year deductible. And he starts to owe income taxes, which aren’t taken into account for social programs.

To break even, Bob now has to earn $50,000 per year, or $24 per hour. Or he has to find a job that provides health insurance. Neither is common in this area. The median income in the city is $33,807, which is 27% lower than the average for the nation. And if Bob’s wife looks for a job, they’ll have to pay for childcare. Childcare Aware lists this state’s average cost of childcare for an infant and a toddler at $19,396 per year— the equivalent of $9 per hour at a full-time job. Is it worth it to have Bob’s wife work for a net increase in income of maybe $3 per hour, while putting the kids with strangers for the day?

But let’s back up a little. Is Bob better off making less than $1,000 per month and getting enough food stamps to feed his family and have health insurance (Medicaid), or making enough to pay the rent and not being able to feed his family or pay for medical care? Ultimately Bob faces a choice between feeding his family and paying his rent. Neither is an attractive proposition. Where is the incentive to earn, when earning actually causes you to lose ground?

This state is not unusual. In fact, New Jersey has a higher cost of living and a lower earning threshold for social services. So does Pennsylvania. In Arkansas, the Medicaid limit is $114 per month!

How does this help get people out of poverty? If you can’t drive to an interview, if you can’t afford presentable clothes, it doesn’t matter what your skill set is. You’re going to wind up in a job like eviscerating chickens for $12 per hour. Or security for $10 per hour. Or a minimum wage job doing manual labor. And the inevitable medical expenses become long-term debt, putting you further in the hole.

Yes, unemployment is low. But the majority of jobs where I live won’t support a family. And if you lose the one you have… well, welcome to the world of perpetual need.

Category: Economy | LEAVE A COMMENT