Dead End America

Downsizing and No Social Net: Lives Lost to Povery and Military Recruiters

News | Brian Johnson | April 2007

Main Street, Naylor, Missouri, just down the road from the author‘s home (Photo: Naylor Township)

When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I’m from a highway, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Like a lot of people where I’m from, my family doesn’t live in the city or even in the suburbs.

We live on a highway. I’m not kidding. The closest big town in the area, Poplar Bluff, has a population of around 15,000 people; it’s hardly metropolitan. It’s a place where people like my mom drive 40 kilometers to the grocery store and 40 kilometers back, where people get excited when a new fast food restaurant comes to town, where gravel roads stretch for miles, and people give directions based on landmarks rather than street names.

This is small town America, this is my home, and from my personal experience, the situation here looks grim.

A lot of people, including many economists, will tell you that factories moving overseas in search of cheap labor are good for America as consumers enjoy lower prices, and they may be right. But try telling that to my uncle and his son, or my aunt for that matter. They all worked in factories in this area, and all of them lost their jobs when their factories shut down.

Although the old jobs were replaced, the new ones were almost all in low paying service work – jobs like working at McDonald’s or Wal-mart, jobs that typically pay minimum wage or slightly more. Not only do they pay less, but they’re also generally unskilled labor, which means you can be replaced by anybody. The factory jobs, protected by union contracts, were much more secure and paid twice as much.  My aunt now has to hold down two jobs, because she can only find part-time work. They don’t want to hire her full-time because they’d have to pay for benefits like healthcare. One of her jobs is at Wal-mart, and even with both, she still can’t afford a place of her own. It’s a common story there.

Protecting workers from job loss isn’t a priority in my home state or many other states in the U.S. One measure of this is the "at-will" employment legislation. These laws, pushed through by corporate bullying, give any employer the right to fire any employee for any reason (or none at all) with little to no work compensation. This is how my father and my cousin lost their jobs. People can defend themselves in some cases if discrimination is involved, whether it’s based on race, sex, religion, handicap, or other criteria. But often, as in my dad’s case, even that isn’t effective.

My father worked for a telephone company for 27 years. He climbed telephone poles all day long. He earned a decent wage, but when he had to have his hip replaced, due at least in part to the physical stress of his job, he was fired. Because of his handicap, he could no longer perform the tasks necessary to do his job. They didn’t even offer him a desk job when one became available. Although he wanted to sue for discrimination due to his handicap, lawyers advised him not to bother, as he would very likely have lost.

Now my dad has been jobless for over a year. He’s 50 years old, and no one will hire him. Except McDonald’s of course. My family now relies primarily on my mother’s income.

Until now, both of my parents had worked my whole life, and our lifestyle was based on both of my parents working fulltime. Now my parents are trying to maintain that lifestyle with less than half the money. They’re also trying to pay for my sister’s college education, as well as mine, costs they didn’t have when we were young. With the cost of secondary education in the US, this is nearly impossible.

Then there’s the problem of transportation. Their vehicles, now roughly 10 years old, are continually breaking down, and will have to be replaced, as without a car my mom can’t get to work, since there’s no public transportation in the area. Or in most of the country for that matter. The saddest part of all is that we’re actually relatively well off compared to most families around where they live. We have a house, where many of my relatives live in trailers.

The three biggest towns in this area are Poplar Bluff, Naylor, and Doniphan. Together they have a population of around 20,000 people. The median household income in these three cities is between $20,000 and $22,000 per year. This is less than half the national average. The US, as a whole, has a median household income of nearly $50,000. In comparison, Austria had roughly $41,000 per household in 2004.

However, the big difference is the life that that money can buy. An Austrian with $41,000 still has health care, can still got to university, and can still get to work.

When I read the national statistics I wondered if they’d even looked at our area and the working poor who live here. The poverty threshold is defined as the minimum level of income required to have a decent standard of living, not great, just decent. In 2004 Austria had a poverty rate of around 13%. In my three towns, 25% of the population is below this threshold, nearly two thirds of which are families raising children. Compared to the national average of around 12%, this area is considered impoverished, a fancy word for poor.

Poverty is also spread unevenly throughout the country, a much bigger problem in the South than in the North-East. The 2005 Census showed that 42.9% of poor Americans live in the South, although they are only one third of the population. In the poorest states, like Mississippi and Louisiana, the rates are even higher.

Being poor doesn’t just mean missing out on the luxuries, it means not being able to pay for the basics, like education and healthcare. In communities like mine the schools suffer and only a handful of kids will go on to college. At my own high school, between 5% and 10% of each class went on to secondary education.

Healthcare is a real problem in poor areas as well. With the rising cost of healthcare in the US, fewer and fewer people can afford it. Even though we spend more on healthcare than any other country in the world, we have lower life-expectancies than most Western nations. According to economist Paul Krugman, in the New York Times, a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that even the richest Americans are still in worse health than the poor in England. Krugman sees several possible explanations, highlighting the differences in the approach to healthcare. Where England focuses more on preventative care, US insurance companies rarely cover this kind of treatment. Instead, they pay only for those already dangerously ill. Not only is this bad for the patients, but it’s also more expensive.

Those of us without it, those of us who work 46 hours a week and have little or no vacation, are too busy working two jobs to be sick. And when I turn 25, I’ll probably join them, because that’s when I’ll no longer be covered under my mother’s insurance.

A lot of young men and women from our area choose a different option, one which provides healthcare, room and board, requires only a high school education, and even pays decently. This is the US military.

The United States has over 1,000,000 men and women active in the armed forces, and many of them come from areas like mine. According to a 2004 article in the Washington Post, over two thirds of US Army recruits came from areas with incomes below the national average, and 40% from the South and many from rural areas, where they can’t find work. They leave their homes and families and head off to the front lines.

My cousin and my two best friends from high school all serve in the US armed forces. My cousin’s in Iraq right now, and his wife and kids are waiting for him, hoping he’ll make it back all right. He’s 21 years old, has a high school education, and this is his first time outside of the country.

My family’s better off than most. I don’t know if things will get better there before they get worse. Places like this are slow to change. My grandpa’s family were poor farmers; so accustomed to poverty they hardly noticed the Great Depression.

Many people around there still don’t realize how poor they are. They don’t know it’s different anywhere else. As the limits on their lives close in on them, they just keep adjusting, slowly but surely shrinking back into a smaller and smaller space.

But there is hope. Some people here are ready for change. My family is conservative, very patriotic and very Republican; but in the recent congressional elections my dad voted Democrat for the first time in his life. I guess desperate times call for desperate measures.

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