• The other America
    April 24,2014

    A picture is emerging of poverty in America that sheds light on some of the challenges facing Vermont.

    New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel recently visited McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest regions of America. The population of McDowell County has fallen from about 100,000 in the 1950s to about 20,000 today. The exodus of people has followed the disappearance of coal mining from the county. Educated people tend to look for opportunities elsewhere, and those left behind are subject to a ruinous pattern of drug addiction and crime. The incarceration rate in West Virginia is one of the highest in the nation.

    As Vermont confronts the problem of drug abuse — including the abuse of prescription drugs, which have also wreaked havoc in West Virginia — it’s useful to see that poverty and lack of opportunity create similar problems throughout rural America.

    The worst rural poverty exists in the Deep South, Appalachia and on some of the Indian reservations of the West. Vermont is far from the rural shambles of McDowell County or the Mississippi Delta, but poverty exists, as do the constraints that poverty imposes on people’s lives.

    Drugs are not only a function of poverty. Plenty of middle class people with loving, intact families have had to grapple with the dangerous allurements of drugs. But poverty can foster the growth of a drug culture that then draws in people not necessarily troubled by poverty.

    Another New York Times story underscores the economic trends that are afflicting not just the hills and hollows of West Virginia, but also the picturesque villages of rural Vermont. It is the decline of the middle class.

    Reporters David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy have found that the American middle class is no longer the wealthiest in the world, as we are accustomed to believing it to be. The reporters’ analysis found that while economic growth in the United States is relatively strong, growth in middle class income has stalled. Instead, a narrow slice of the richest Americans has reaped most of the gains.

    Further, a look at the incomes of the poor in the United States shows that the bottom fifth of the income distribution makes far less money than the bottom fifth in many countries, including Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands.

    Leonhardt and Quealy found three factors are inhibiting economic growth for the middle class in America. First, a decline in educational quality has left younger workers with inadequate skills. The level of educational attainment of Americans between 16 and 24 is among the lowest of the rich countries. Second, companies are distributing their income toward the top, with meager growth in pay and benefits for ordinary workers. Third, the United States lags behind Canada and European nations in redressing these economic imbalances through redistribution of wealth through taxes and benefits.

    McDowell County, W.Va., offers a stark picture of a place where resources and wealth are lacking. It was poor before, but after the coal companies shut down the mines, it became a ghost of its previous self. Its poverty rate was 50 percent in 1960 and fell to 23.5 percent by 1980. By 1990 the rate had risen again to 38 percent, and now for families with children it is near 41 percent.

    Vermont, too, has suffered a decline in the kinds of industries that previously buoyed the working class. The state has not been decimated as West Virginia was because it has other resources, namely tourism and agriculture. But with working class and middle class wages stagnant and manufacturing jobs shrinking, opportunities have narrowed. Pockets of poverty persist. About half of the public schoolchildren in Rutland, for example, are eligible for subsidized lunches.

    These realities suggest that, while the struggle against drugs in Vermont must be taken on directly, it also must be taken on by addressing the larger problem of economic stagnation that has hobbled the nation as a whole. That will have to be a continuing, long-term and far-reaching project.

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