The US is a large and often very disparate country, yet the parts we hear about the most are the parts that are most the same: blue cities and well off suburbs where you can always find a Starbucks, a Whole Foods, an Apple Store, people with their noses in their smartphones, and other artifacts of what back in the day was called yuppiedom. Another facet of this sort of provincialism is that the too much of what passes for political and economic reporting that goes beyond those enclaves tends to be based on convenience. So while stories on neighborhood gardens or police abuses in poor city neighborhoods are important, they are still over-represented relative to the sprawl of the US. That’s one reason why reporters going to interview people in places like Iowa or Oklahoma or that recently discovered state, West Virginia, too often come off like exercises in ethnography.
I try not to be guilty of this sort of thing yet worry that I am. I spent most of my childhood in blue-collar towns dominated by one or two manufacturing plants. All the kids I knew lived in houses I thought we nice even though some were small with tiny yards and modest modern furniture. Parents took pride in being good members of their community and doing their best for their kids. But it seems that being a responsible adult is no longer valued; only “special” people, per Thomas Frank, deserve esteem and rewards, and they use that to justify cutting themselves bigger and bigger pieces of the collective pie.
However, since I don’t travel much, I have only very limited window into how people outside the top 10% or 20% are getting by. When I visit Birmingham, while there are more foodie restaurants and more McMansions going up in the good ‘hoods, the poor ones seem to be stuck in the same place or maybe even doing a bit worse. There’s a stretch I go through on the way to the airport that even had a collapsed house that it disgracefully took the city over 18 months to tear down that if anything is slowly getting even more desperate-looking. There’s another, just a three or four minute drive from some of the pricey houses that looks to be occupied by the economic stratum called “battlers” in Australia. It’s full of 1940s and 1950s starter houses on generous-sized lots, but in a district with bad schools. That looked like an area with the potential to be a sleeper for people who didn’t have kids. But its proximity to large malls that are now full of empty stores looks to have kept this enclave in a deep freeze.
Similarly, in Maine, while Portland is being colonized by out-of-staters who are driving real estate prices way up, some tourist spots further up the coast, like Boothbay Harbor, still have kept up their spiffy appearances but have been markedly less busy in peak season for the last three years.
This is a long-winded intro to soliciting reader input into what they see as the economic trajectory over longer timeframes (five years plus) of “below the top 20%” areas they visit often enough to have a good feel for how they are doing. For instance, from reader Daniel G via e-mail:
I also use my trips to WV as a barometer of the economy. During the housing bubble recent house maintenance was more evident and many new vehicles were in driveways. Even with today’s apparent bubble in auto loans there still is not the same prevalence of new cars/trucks as in 2007. And housing maintenance is not as prevalent. Huzzah, recovery.
Please weigh in if you have some intel! Thanks!