We’ve regularly featured “How Is Your Economy?” queries to readers to get a more granular view of how different regions and industries in the US (and selectively abroad) are faring. A short thread in Links yesterday has me wondering if I’ve been asking the wrong question all these years. Asking about overall conditions can direct commentary away from reports on signs of desperation, unless there’s a lot of local distress.
In fact, with seemingly ever-rising inequality and in the US, escalating (and in the case of healthcare, obscenely escalating) costs of essentials versus decades of stagnant real wages translates into more poverty and economic insecurity. A couple of years of somewhat improved average hourly wages does not change this overall picture.
It’s way too easy to cite supporting data point from memory. Deaths of despair and ever more widespread addiction. Homeless encampments and feces on sidewalks in San Francisco. WalMart parking lots as a sometimes safe haven for those living in cars. Hepatitis A among the homeless in Los Angeles. New York City with a Gini coefficient as high as China’s. A 70% increase in the past ten years in the number of homeless students in public schools.
It’s easy to pretend that these problems exist mainly in flyover, but as the examples above show, they are often in affluent areas where exploding housing costs have squeezed and often displaced those of modest means.
And out of embarrassment, reluctance to confront our powerlessness or potential culpability, or being already besieged by our own difficulties, many of us either ignore or only partly register the distress of others. Lambert and I have often commented on how the Acela classes seem able to block out the evidence just outside the train window that a lot is not well in America. There are always homeless in New York City; I usually give some of them small bills, yet that feels like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound, or like trying to assuage my guilt over my inability to make a difference, even though I know intellectually these problems need to be addressed on a collective level, not via charity. And then there are cases like Torso Man, a legless beggar on a square board with wheels who I usually encountered on the corner of 86th Street and Third Avenue, where I’d have to contain my reflexive horror at his condition when giving him money…and worse, knowing that he’d probably value some conversation, but having no idea how to go about doing that (with the benefit of hindsight, offering to pick him up some food might have been the best approach, but I always ran into him when time pressed).
Forgive the long-winded introduction to some sightings from the Pacific Northwest yesterday. Hopefully readers will volunteer whether they see similar examples of desperation in their environs. Some picks from Links yesterday:
January 26, 2020 at 10:34 am
Consider this “On The Ground Reporting”:
I drove down I-5 from Olympia, WA past Eugene, OR yesterday. I have never seen this in my travels before, but the rest stops were full of people suffering form the economy. Young women holding signs “Pregnant, Low on gas, Anything helps!”, so many dilapidated campers and cars packed full of belongings. And at a rest stop between Portland and Eugene I pulled into a spot to find a woman attempting to find some privacy to shoot up whatever it was to ease her pain. (Yes, I fond another spot to park.)
Before the internet bubble was the wealth bubble, and that is where these people who say “The economy is great!” are living.
January 26, 2020 at 12:03 pm
Another article shared with me this morning. Right in our legislature’s back yard. Tensions Rise In Olympia As People With Few Options Park RVs Outside Washington Capitol
January 26, 2020 at 11:39 am
Recall the Okies of the 1930s. All the Okies had to stop their pain was alcohol. Seems there were two main items that moved all those thousands to do what you report seeing: economic, getting booted off land they used to share crop along with collapses in price of crops, and environmental, as in Dust Bowl.
Some quick reads, offering parallels:
I wonder if among the members of this new diaspora there is the same sense of decency captured in the Hobo Ethical Code, https://cyberhobo.com/hobo-ethical-code/, and whether there is any organizing of the afflicted along the same lines — the hobos of yesteryear created a legally constituted union to avoid vagrancy laws.
January 26, 2020 at 11:54 am
I remember doing an all-night drive from Seattle through Oregon down to Jacksonville (near Medford) for a gig several years ago, and the signs of meth use were quite obvious whenever we stopped for gas or a break. So this doesn’t surprise me a whole lot — rural America is in crisis in many places, and it seems to be getting worse every year.
January 26, 2020 at 5:56 pm
I-5 between Eugene and Portland (rarely OIympia) is very familiar stomping grounds, and I’ve stopped at all the rest stops – but Krystyn’s post makes me see it with fresh eyes. I didn’t realize it looked so bad, though there are always people begging at the rest areas.
The homelessness problem here is severe, partly because conditions are relatively favorable (though I’m glad Krystyn is heading south). It reflects a continuing Westward migration, high rents, and Fiery Hunt is probably right about “Trim-a-grants”, migratory ag labor.
“Hobos” in their various modern forms mean the Great Recession never really ended. I’m wondering when that will catch up with us. I suppose Trump’s election and the resulting TDS are among the signs.
Fiery Hunt claimed that the desperation that Krystyn saw wasn’t due to the overall economic conditions but the legalization of marijuana, which allegedly produced “Trim-a-grants” chasing harvests for unstable cash wages, with many becoming addicts. No one disputed or confirmed his thesis. But either way, would you see anyone doing this on anything other than a seasonal basis (like high school or college kids between terms) unless they were desperate?
Admittedly, Oregon and Washington, even the better off part west of the Cascades, is more agricultural than many might think. But Krystyn (confirmed by Oregoncharles) saw wretched conditions near Portland and Eugene, a university town. Not the image most Americans have of the West Coast states.