In The Midst of Plenty
I'll admit, when it comes to the high price of gasoline, I have not been at my sympathetic best.
I don't own a car, and I rarely drive.
Oh, woe is me if and when I have to pay a higher plane fare.
Yes, I have friends and family who are impacted, not in a lifestyle-altering way, but in a "this bites" kind of way. Who wants to shell out for Shell?
Plus my green side has been saying, this is what we get for our gas-guzzling, suburban-sprawling, public-transportation-neglecting way of life. Changes must be made.
So I was pulled up a bit short by an article by James Patterson in last week's NY Times on how gasoline prices are impacting the poor in rural areas across the South, Southwest, and Great Plains.
The story focused in part on Josephine Cage, of Tchula, Mississippi, whose long commute to the processing plant where she works filleting fish is now costing her about $200 a month, which represents nearly 20 percent of her pay.
It's hard to pick which aspect of this is the most grim: the $1K a month pay; the 20% that goes to gas; the job filleting fish.
Puts it all in perspective, doesn't it?
There are places in this country where:
People are giving up meat so they can buy fuel. Gasoline theft is rising. And drivers are running out of gas more often, leaving their cars by the side of the road until they can scrape together gas money.
While Ms. Cage's expenditures on gas are on the high side, proportionately, in her area spending on gas has gone above 13 percent, and is now "rivaling what families spend on food and housing." The national average is about 4% - which sounds whopping enough to me. In the one Northeast county - Nassau on Long Island - cited in the article, only 2% of income gets spent at the pump.
Other than in rural Maine, the Northeast is hurt the least by higher gasoline prices. People in these parts make more money to begin with; commutes are shorter; and there's widespread access to public transportation. And complain as we do about public transportation - the Red Line delay when you're trying to get to a meeting in Cambridge; the inconvenient train back to Boston from Salem (why can't there be a 10:13 on weekends?) - at least many of us have recourse to it. In fact, ridership on our local Boston public transportation - a combo of bus, subway, train, and boat - is well up because of rising gas prices.
Of course, in rural Mississippi, there's little by way of public transportation between Tchula and Isola, where the fish plant is. And, of course, it's probably not all that economically feasible to have much public transit where people live so widely dispersed.
Naturally, jobs across Mississippi are hard to come by. People take what they can get - which often comes with a long commute in a car that's a lot older and less fuel efficient that a brand new Prius.
Which all translates into no little luxuries, like meat or video rentals. It means old beater cars that aren't getting fixed, or are getting repossessed. (Last summer, knowing absolutely nothing about the used car industry, I did a market analysis report for a company that provides software to that industry. So I learned about BHPH car lots - that's Buy Here/Pay Here - where the lot does the financing for folks who can't get credit, and those folks have show up every week and hand the used car dealer part of their paycheck. There's a big business is supplying secretly hidden LoJack-style systems to the used car lots so they can trace the cars of deadbeats. Who knew?)
It also translates into local and county governments that are cutting back on what meager services they do deliver.
Forty years ago, I read The Other America by Michael Harrington, and In the Midst of Plenty by Ben Bagdikian, two classic works on the poor among us.
Yes, I know that poor folk are, for the most part, materially better off than they were 40 years ago. People who didn't have electricity are now doing without video rentals.
Yet there remain - for whatever complex reasons - people who live in fairly straitened circumstances. Living as we do in the midst of plenty, it's sometimes hard to keep in mind that The Other America still exists.
A tip of the cap to my brother-in-law Rick for pointing out this story to me. Make that a tip of the gasoline attendant's cap, from one Baby Boomer to another who remembers when gasoline cost $.25/gallon and when the guys who worked in gas stations wore uniforms. My family's Texaco man wore a uniform that resembled what Ike wore: khaki brown, with the eponymous Eisenhower jacket, and a visored hat.