Sunday, March 17, 2013

Another Aspect of Industrial Decay

Until nine months ago I lived in central Connecticut, southern New England, in cities that were very, very rich a hundred years ago (when America was still the world's manufacturing powerhouse) but have been in steady decline since before I was born. I spent a dozen years and more living surrounded by a patina of industrial decay I hardly noticed until I moved to a place notable by the exact opposite: a shiny new suburb in northern Virginia, the outermost suburbs of the federal city of Washington, DC (though my household is employed entirely by the private sector, not the feds).

No surprise: even the poorest suburbs of the imperial city are much, much richer than are the decayed remnants of America's industrial cities. But as poor as my old Connecticut stomping grounds are (especially compared to my new and less-affordable neighborhood), the Nutmeg State's economy is downright booming compared to the utter poverty to be found next door in Rhode Island.

Today's Washington Post has an excellent story about one particular town, Woonsocket, with more or less the same history as hundreds of other New England cities: used to be prosperous, then the factories closed. Now, as the Post reports, the town's economy is based not on the old factory jobs (or any jobs at all, really), but on a monthly infusion of federal food-stamp benefits.

As with most such cases, the family in the story has made its share of poor financial decisions--owing $75 to a tattoo parlor, for example. And yet, as with most such cases, those poor financial decisions don't really matter all that much--if the family had the extra $75 for the tattoo, how much difference would it really make?

It's not a lazy family; both parents work, they just aren't paid enough to live on. They can't move to where the decent-paying jobs are, because moving costs money and if you can't afford a one-time bill of $75 (even for an unnecessary frill like a tattoo), you sure as hell can't afford to move to a different part of the country, pay the deposits on a new place to live and support yourself and your family until you get your first paycheck. So they can't afford to leave but things will never improve if they stay; one of the cruel ironies of post-industrial wasteland economies is, the more desperately a city needs new industries, the less attractive it is for any industry to settle there. The parents would be better off if they weren't parents (at least not at such a young age), but now that the kids are here, what if anything can be done to raise their parents even into the lowest ranks of the lower middle class?



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