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It's not easy getting out of your one-horse town.
August 27, 2014 7:17 AM   Subscribe


 
It's inevitable since fewer people farm their own land or have the skills and market to start their own viable business. Factories by nature are denser, employment-wise, than residential population and benefit from being near other factories. The viability of decentralized living will continue to decline and that is an enormous loss for the people who used to do it well and for the states and the country in general.
posted by michaelh at 7:53 AM on August 27, 2014


There was a video store, but it closed soon after a Redbox showed up at one of the gas stations. A few weeks after that, Redbox pulled out too.

You know you're in bad shape when Redbox pulls out on you.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:03 AM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


I grew up in an even smaller version of a town eerily similar to the one in the story, and it was indeed a massive struggle to get out while being poor. And this was before the days of ubiquitous Internet, so we were even more cut off from any resources or even information. The county seat, where you had to go to apply ofr any kind of assistance, was an hour's drive away in a good, reliable car - which we and many like us didn't have. If I hadn't had extended family back in the area where I was born, I don't know if I'd be stuck there still.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:06 AM on August 27, 2014


Bent County Colorado :
The median income for a household in the county was $28,125, and the median income for a family was $34,096. Males had a median income of $22,755 versus $24,261 for females. The per capita income for the county was $13,567. About 16.60% of families and 19.50% of the population were below the poverty line, including 27.40% of those under age 18 and 13.00% of those age 65 or over.
However, in the opinion of our esteemed leaders :
"We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."
Bent County is not an outlier and "The racial makeup of the county was 79.53% White, 3.65% Black or African American, 2.23% Native American, 0.57% Asian, 10.25% from other races, and 3.77% from two or more races. 30.24% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race." (wikipedia, again).

The problem with conservatives is that they completely misidentify the causes and nature of poverty, and then having made that mistake, compound it by recommending cures which are of no aid at all.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:06 AM on August 27, 2014 [18 favorites]


By focusing on Frank Martinez, I think the WP article had the wrong structure. Let's face it, while poverty influenced some of his early-life decisions, other decisions he made resulted in his being unable to escape his small town. On the other hand, he has a story of redemption: he has a steady job, he has remarried, he has a house, he and his partner can adequately provide for their kids.

What the article should have focused on from the start were the kids themselves who have little chance of upward social mobility. That's the real story, and it got buried down the page.
posted by Nevin at 8:09 AM on August 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


"unable to escape" is, according to the people interviewed. It's more a matter of "unwilling to escape."

“You could ask ten people what they think of the area, and nine of them would say they can’t stand it, but they never leave,” says Schmeiser, sitting outside at the Dairy Queen on an overcast evening, as baseball teams disgorge from buses and run inside. “It seems like a lot of people are just beaten down, almost depressive. We could get jobs, and jobs that we wanted, pretty easily elsewhere. We stay here because we’re insane, I guess.”

And later, even more telling: "'I’m just as guilty as the next,' says Frazier, a big guy in a Green Bay t-shirt. 'I encouraged them — get out of here. There’s nothing here.'”

Notice that word "guilty". There's this pervasive sense that it's betraying the town to encourage kids to leave. But the town is dead! Not encouraging kids to leave, or leaving yourself, is to be handcuffed to a corpse. As the interviewees note, the town doesn't have resources that would encourage building a factory there, so unless you're okay with the town simply becoming a charity case, the only solution---and a solution that, according to the interviewee, could be done "pretty easily"---is for people to leave the town. But they won't---not can't, but won't---so the poverty and despair sink in.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:16 AM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


The country is becoming what the city was 100 years ago: scary, filled with low-lifes and criminals, a place where innocent youth may be seduced by drugs and sex and scammed by tricksters. Meanwhile the cities are becoming too expensive for normal people. It is an interesting reversal.

If we all leave the countryside for the city and its suburbs, what will happen with the land? Obviously, some of it is taken over by big agriculture, but it seems that is not really an option in the article, since the water-rights have been sold. So will it all become an empty desert?
posted by mumimor at 8:27 AM on August 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


I worked in a library in a rural community for a number of years, and this mirrored my own experience.

The town I was in was maybe slightly better off, since it was a cheap riverfront destination for some retirees. It also had a formal retirement community inside of it, which had an active community that would often hold events and bring at least some money into the town. There were also a few businesses (I'm not sure how successful) such as a farm goods shop, a chicken slaughterhouse, a garden supply store, and a pizza place. Definitely not enough employment to support the town itself (and, in fact, most residents I talked to commuted outside of town limits, or were on government assistance). My manager's husband worked as a salesperson for retail packaging, and I got the feeling they were living there because it provided country living at a reduced price point. His job meant a lot of traveling, and the extra 30 minutes it took to get to the interstate probably didn't make much of a difference if they were living in the rural community or the slightly less rural community up the road right on the interstate.

That brings up something that I noticed while working there, which isn't exactly touched on in this article: being able to afford a car was absolutely necessary to live in any sort of comfort in this place. The one store that could be closest to being called a market was a corner store with a bunch of processed food. To get actual groceries, you would have to drive 20 minutes up the road. A vast majority of the jobs were out of the town, and I talked to one guy who was excited to have gotten a job at Burgerking, and would walk an hour and a half to work because he didn't have reliable transportation, and that's just where the nearest fast food restaurant was. Any sort of entertainment (even walking around a shopping mall) was even further away.

Compounding this was the fact that Comcast and FiOS didn't have any incentive to run lines out to this town since the population was so diffuse, and demand so low. Some people got Satellite Internet (which I've heard is more expensive for lower quality service), others relied exclusively on their phones, and some people even continued to use the free dial-up service offered through the library (since discontinued, I think). Many people would use our small bank of four public computers for 2 hours of Internet access a day. This often caused tensions around the time when school would let out, when the local teenagers (not having anything else to do) would come in to use their 2 hours in one shot, disrupting all of the other patrons.

For the people who were in the community as an act of choice (because they could easily commute to their jobs), this wasn't an issue. For people who were born into the community and into poverty, it was much harder. Every aspect of finding employment, applying for college, doing homework, or exploring the outside world was much harder to access, and gated by expensive things like private car ownership (families typically had a single car that they shared) and Internet access. The end result was a largely graying population base, what youth remained being fairly restive and dissatisfied with life in the town, and a lack of any real services apart from what was provided by the (fairly conservative) town and county governments.
posted by codacorolla at 8:29 AM on August 27, 2014 [10 favorites]


Let's face it, while poverty influenced some of his early-life decisions, other decisions he made resulted in his being unable to escape his small town.

From what the Post describes, I don't see any choices he made that weren't influenced by poverty. The Post notes that he fathered his first child at 16, married another girl when he was 18, and...with not much honest work around to do, Martinez started stealing and dealing drugs.

I knew plenty of people growing up who made extremely similar choices, but having money, education, and access to social capital made the outcome of those choices entirely different: have sex, but with an understanding and ready access to birth control, and pregnancy is less likely. Live in a major metropolitan area and access to abortions are more widespread. Have a child when you're young, but with a wealthy, supporting family and an understanding school system, you can still go to college. Do drugs, deal drugs, but with money you don't need to steal them, and with with money to pay for good lawyers you're much less likely to go to jail.

As the Post puts it: Martinez doesn’t pretend that his own choices weren’t to blame for his tours through prison and rehab...[b]ut in a place with more opportunity, or at least more capital, his chances would have been a whole lot better.
posted by cjelli at 8:33 AM on August 27, 2014 [8 favorites]


The country is becoming what the city was 100 years ago: scary, filled with low-lifes and criminals, a place where innocent youth may be seduced by drugs and sex and scammed by tricksters. Meanwhile the cities are becoming too expensive for normal people. It is an interesting reversal.

It's even worse than that, though. The city at least had a major resource---people---that could eventually lead to an economic revival. But a town like this has nothing. There's simply no reason for anyone to live there, no reason for anyone to build there, no reason for anything to improve. Unless someone invents a car that runs on dust, it's just not good for anything.

If we all leave the countryside for the city and its suburbs, what will happen with the land? Obviously, some of it is taken over by big agriculture, but it seems that is not really an option in the article, since the water-rights have been sold. So will it all become an empty desert?

Might as well. Perhaps park land, or perhaps just empty desert---the country has plenty of it. And ultimately, so what? If a patch of land is abandoned, I can't see how that's a tragedy. Whereas people dooming their lives so that the patch of land will be occupied most certainly is.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:39 AM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


I did my senior thesis in undergrad on folks who left my tiny rural hometown in Indiana and then came back. It was structured around sense of place and identity. It was fascinating. I interviewed seven people, and all but one were miserable to different degrees and had only come back because they'd inherited property/a farm they felt responsible for, or because they had to care for elderly relatives. It seems that sometimes even if you escape, small towns pull you back in.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:50 AM on August 27, 2014 [9 favorites]


I think "getting out of Dodge" has been a thing for young strivers since Theodore Dreiser's time, if not before. Seems that you pay a higher price if you don't move these days - and with astronomical urban rents it's become harder to do. Muriel Spark's "women of slender means" could eke by in a rooming house, an arrangement that's become rare outside of a recovery context.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 8:54 AM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


There have been previous FPPs about the recent decrease in geographic mobility, along with decreased social mobility. It's not just small towns -- people are moving less everywhere in the US, probably because they correctly perceive that moving is risky and with opportunities decreasing that risk is much less likely to pay off than it would have twenty years ago.

Muriel Spark's "women of slender means" could eke by in a rooming house

Boarding houses and SROs are increasingly a thing of the past, in no small part because of NIMBY and zoning changes, plus gentrification. I guess the replacement is renting a shared room on Craigslist or a cheap weekly motel, but those aren't quite the same thing and don't fill the same housing need.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:59 AM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


And ultimately, so what? If a patch of land is abandoned, I can't see how that's a tragedy.

An existential question, isn't it? Why do any of us get up in the morning? What is the point of life? Is is for the betterment of the future of your metro area? Is it for the success of your children? Is it just to hedonistically enjoy life? To get to heaven? Spite?

Some people love the land. The landscape. The place and its history and their ancestors, who loved it too. Shrugging it all off and abandoning our rural counties to the dustbin will lead to actual, practical, undesirable effects which we all will have to pay for in the long run, and it would be a tragedy for other reasons, too.

I believe that the irrational love of place, nostalgia for one's roots, and a desire to live in the country are perfectly valid reasons to keep going to bed and getting out of bed. At least as valid as whatever high ideals are driving cityfolk to do the same.

Our civilization--if it had the right priorities--has all the resources to cultivate and utilize the rural landscape and its people. I wish we would.


“The concept of country, homeland, dwelling place becomes simplified as "the environment" -- that is, what surrounds us, we have already made a profound division between it an ourselves. We have given up the understanding -- dropped it out of our language and so out of our thought -- that we and our country create one another, depend on one another, are literally part of one another; that our land passes in and out of our bodies just as our bodies pass in and out of our land; that as we and our land are part of one another, so all who are living as neighbors here, human and plant and animal, are part of one another, and so cannot possibly flourish alone; that, therefore, our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other, and so neither can be better than the other.”
― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

posted by General Tonic at 9:07 AM on August 27, 2014 [11 favorites]


"unable to escape" is, according to the people interviewed. It's more a matter of "unwilling to escape."

Imagine you are trapped on an island which has high cliffs on every side. Some people have jumped off the cliff into the water and swam across the ocean to a new life. Others are stuck at the top of the cliff, looking down at the waves: would you describe those people as unwilling to jump? That's how the Post ultimately framed this story.

If you talk to Matt Yglesias "wonk" types, hell, even Paul Krugman, they will explain that ease of internal migration is the advantage the US has over the EU. So, basically, even Krugman thinks you should become an internal refugee. Sleeping on someone's couch while you look for a job or save for a security deposit doesn't make you any less a refugee from your own home.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:22 AM on August 27, 2014 [8 favorites]


Drawing on my own experience, people who grow up in small isolated towns also tend to have a combination of responsibilities and resources within that town. These cases aren't represented in the WaPo article, but you may be caring for an ailing parent, or a disabled child, or extended family may rely on your support. Similarly, the limited resources that a family has built up over the years (for example, a bought and paid family home, or connections to part-time work) are enough that striking out on a completely blank slate would seem unappealing.
posted by codacorolla at 9:56 AM on August 27, 2014 [11 favorites]


Having actually relocated from overseas back to Canada and starting from the ground up, I can say that the cost of migration, internal or otherwise, is considerable. Generally speaking, people who stay in one place have a better chance of building a life. For low-skilled folk without personal networks the only potential beneficiaries of migration are the next generation - their children.
posted by Nevin at 9:57 AM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I interviewed seven people, and all but one were miserable to different degrees and had only come back because they'd inherited property/a farm they felt responsible for, or because they had to care for elderly relatives.

That has generally been the experience of the people that I've known who have done the same thing.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:52 PM on August 27, 2014


@ pogo: if the subject is "culture of work" it seems we'd look at unemployment rates. Bent County is at 5.8%, which is lower than average and about half of the Bronx (an inner city area picked at random)
posted by jpe at 3:55 PM on August 27, 2014


There's this pervasive sense that it's betraying the town to encourage kids to leave. But the town is dead! Not encouraging kids to leave, or leaving yourself, is to be handcuffed to a corpse

It's really easy to say that as a middle class American who lives in a culture that is not tied to a specific place. Our culture values moving around: go to college, move for a job, move for a better school district. We almost look down on people who don't "get out" and move around. It's like a bad he of honor, how many places you've lived in.

This is not everyone's culture, at all. Most people stay near where they were born their whole lives. Less than a day in travel time, by car or plane.

For the sake of trying to understand why people don't leave imagne if this article were about a community of indigenous people or another group with strong ties to the land and a lot of interrelatedness that it's easy for us to see. Would you feel that they too should leave, cut ties and hit the open road? Should everyone in Northern Manitoba move to Ottawa or everyone in the Appalachians to Atlanta?
posted by fshgrl at 4:09 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


I interviewed seven people, and all but one were miserable to different degrees and had only come back because they'd inherited property/a farm they felt responsible for, or because they had to care for elderly relatives.

Even visiting my hometown gives me a panic attack, in part because of the terror I feel that somehow it will drag me back. My mother told me to move home the last time I lost my job and I told her I'd kill myself in a week. I lied, though. It probably wouldn't take that long.

Should everyone in Northern Manitoba move to Ottawa or everyone in the Appalachians to Atlanta?

I took the latter course and recommend it emphatically.
posted by winna at 5:55 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


Having actually relocated from overseas back to Canada and starting from the ground up, I can say that the cost of migration, internal or otherwise, is considerable.

We went through a move a while back and even though it came with generous employer support (reimbursement for movers, basically, which was quite a few thousands of dollars) and there was no interruption of salary at all, it was still really expensive. Selling a house, buying another, plus interim renting, and all kinds of other stuff, all adds up. It was the right decision for personal reasons, but by my math even for highly educated and very geographically mobile people like us the numbers are mostly in favor of not moving. It takes a big salary bump to compensate for the costs and the risk, and those salary jumps are hard to get. When the gains are marginal at best and the costs are high, moving may not be the smart choice.

It's really easy to say that as a middle class American who lives in a culture that is not tied to a specific place.

It's even tighter than that -- the mobile, despatialized people like me are a small minority of middle class Americans. Most of the people I work with have either never moved far, or made one single large move in their life (usually for the first or second job after college) and then stayed, while maintaining tight connections to home. It doesn't matter if salaries are higher in San Diego or Tampa, they will never consider moving unless compelled by larger forces.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:26 PM on August 27, 2014 [6 favorites]


Most people stay near where they were born their whole lives. Less than a day in travel time, by car or plane.

That's an incredible range. Last summer I traveled from rural southern Illinois to London in less than a day.
posted by aaronetc at 6:59 PM on August 27, 2014


You have money for plane tickets then. Poorer people will travel by car or train.
posted by fshgrl at 12:28 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what that has to do with the claim that most people live their whole lives within a day's car or plane travel from where they born. That's obviously true, because it allows a range of movement that covers probably a quarter of the globe in any direction. Even if you take planes out of the equation, a day's distance traveling by car is a long way and not at all restricted to places that are "close" to where you start.
posted by aaronetc at 8:36 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


The director of a new film "Rich Hill" was on Jon Stewart the other week. It is an interesting film following three teen boys in a rural US town. It touches on a lot of the comments here.
posted by bystander at 3:17 PM on August 28, 2014


It's a one a way street in a one horse town
One way people starting to brag around
You can laugh, put them down
These one way people gonna blow us down
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:48 PM on August 28, 2014


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