The hidden face of America’s poor
A trip through the Northwest reveals that rich states have more than their fair share of destitute.
At first you don’t notice them. They’re so skinny that in a crowd of three or more at a street corner or in a mall, they disappear. When you finally see them, they look like caricatures of hillbillies or washed-up Country and Western singers – prematurely old white men, often with Santa Claus beards, a little stooped, missing some teeth, dressed in grimy white t-shirts, jeans torn at the knees and dirty sneakers, pushing old supermarket carts or carrying plastic shopping bags or holding up cardboard signs at intersections.
The way they move is stiff and tentative, but not without dignity: undernourished, probably alcoholic, they seem boyishly shy about showing their fragility. And they’re nearly always men, alone. For some reason destitute men look more vulnerable than destitute women, whose bodies can take on a defiant pugnacity: these guys don’t look like they’ll survive the night.
When the American poor are seen at all – as after the New Orleans disaster – they’re thought of as overweight and black; all other groups fall beneath the radar. Yet if you travel through the American Northwest – Oregon, Washington State, Idaho – and farther east along the northern rim, you start picking out men like these on the streets or near freeway entrances.
Logging and fishing, two of the main industries in the Northwest, are depressed today, and many of these men can’t make a living doing the only thing that they know how to do. But this is also a wheat-growing region, and when you drive across the treeless prairies of eastern Washington, you come across a lot of German and Scandinavian names on beat-up mailboxes, descendants of nineteenth-century Northern European subsistence farmers like those in Jan Troell’s 1970s film, The Emigrants. The old trailers and dilapidated wooden houses that pop up every kilometer or so along the narrow, bullet-straight highways have the same dejected air as the thin men with shopping bags: nobody seems to have enough energy to shave, or to slap a coat of paint on a house. The lushness of the wheat fields – one thinks of a line in ‘America the Beautiful’, the most poetic of our national songs, praising the ‘amber waves of grain’ – makes the shabby farmhouses look doubly pitiful.
The sources of the problem aren’t really so obscure. Everything from the development of agribusiness – multinational conglomerates buying up small farms – to the reduction of federal and state farm subsidies to the vagaries of the international produce markets, contributes to the problem. But whatever the root causes, the anecdotal evidence is startling: even on a brief trip through the Northwest, one quickly learns that there are many rural poor people in American states not usually thought of as poor.
Driving into the wide but deserted streets of a town called Shelton, Washington, only 30 miles from prosperous Seattle, we avoided the franchise-chain motels – the Quality Inns and Motel 6’s thrown up on the outskirts of towns that seem to drain off towns’ energy and leave their centers decimated – and stayed at an older motel, the Shelton Inn. The proprietor, a South Asian, told us that the Shelton used to be the center of a thriving logging industry that now was pretty much defunct. How did the town as a whole make a living? Sheepishly he asked if there had been a death in our family: without the logging industry, the town survived by catering to the visiting relatives of retired people, who lived and died in the trailers and small cottages around town. Shelton’s main industry is servicing the dying and the dead.
The skinny men with their beards and diffident, self-conscious bearing have partial antecedents in the Okies of the 1930s, the Great Depression, the last time that the rural poor were noticed by the rest of the country. Their faces are still familiar to the world through the photographs of Walker Evans, and their stories through John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Though the present situation isn’t as desperate as in the 1930s, the contemporary rural poor lack something that kept the Okies going – the dream of California. Today that California has been absorbed into the reality of twenty-first century America, with its ethnic conflicts and wide disparity between rich and poor: by and large, California farms have either been conglomerised or turned into vineyards for expensive wines.
A lead article in one of the local newspapers in a coastal area of western Washington described a recent confrontation between environmentalists and developers, in which an overwhelming majority of the locals stood behind the developers. In a way it made a lot of sense: land has become one of the only real currencies in America, and whether or not one owns much of it, one doesn’t want to see its value diminished by environmental restrictions. Still, it’s distressing that the rural poor see property ownership and low taxes as more attractive than government intervention. What they need is retraining and jobs, but the casualties of the current administration’s cutbacks include just the kind of programmes that would help.
Down the block from the Shelton Inn, we ate at the unlikely named ‘Sassy Restaurant’. It was a cheerful place, a family-run independent restaurant started only six months ago. The waiter who took our order could have been a younger brother of the homeless men we saw throughout the Northwest, but his beard was trimmed, his bald head gleamed, and he had a crisply professional demeanor and obvious pleasure in his job. The small farmers of the Northwest get no subsidies comparable to those that their Old World relatives receive from the European Union (EU); their only hope is to rediscover the energy and self-reliance that brought their ancestors across the Atlantic in the first place.
George Blecher is based in New York, and reports for a number of European publications about American politics and culture.
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