Inequality–a Rumination

Over at Political Animal, David Atkins has reported on another recent, depressing study of the economic status of American families; as he notes,

Economic inequality in the United States has been receiving a lot of attention. But it’s not merely an issue of the rich getting richer. The typical American household has been getting poorer, too.

Atkins discussed the dimensions and effects of the steady escalation of this division between rich and poor Americans, and his analysis is definitely worth a read. But I had just completed a 15-hour drive back from the beach when I read his post, and it made me think about a companion question, one I often ponder when–as on this drive through back roads, trying to avoid congestion–the landscape shows me a kind of American life that I can’t imagine living.

That certainly isn’t a moral judgment; it isn’t even an aesthetic one. It’s simply recognition that the lives of folks who inhabit the very small towns, or who live in the middle of broad fields miles from a grocery store or corner bar, live a life unfathomably different from my downtown urban neighborhood existence. I can’t help wondering how my opinions on matters of politics and policy would differ if I lived in a small house or converted double-wide on a lightly-traveled county road. Who would I talk to? Would we even discuss political issues beyond the most local concerns? Where would I get my civic information? Would I think of myself as a “have not,” or would I be satisfied with my situation? Would isolation bother me? What would I read, and why would I choose to read it?

Surely so incredibly different a life would have created an incredibly different me.

Us “city folks” who have trouble understanding why people don’t see things that seem so glaringly obvious to us need to take a drive across the back roads of rural America from time to time. Despite the country’s increasing urbanization, a lot of our fellow-citizens still live there.

I don’t really know where their “there” is. But then, I imagine they don’t relate very well to my life experience, either. There’s no right or wrong here–just difference.

The mutual incomprehension probably explains a lot, but it makes communication pretty tough.


  1. Communication requires open minds on both sides; money and educational advantages play a part but the individual mental capacity and learning instinct will result in learning something new on both sides. I grew up in a west side neighborhood which was basicaly middle-income but here were pockets of poverty. My mother didn’t want me crossing 21st Street because of the “trashy people” who lived there. I could see the famlies she referred to but she never opened her eyes or her mind to see the families who were my friends. She lumped them all together. The same ill-maintained, landlord owned houses and unkempt streets but some of those houses held families with low income and little chance to move forward but they held jobs and taught their children responsibility and manners. They kept their homes clean, the trash blown from other yards was picked up from their own. Their clothes were clean and mended; their grocery shopping included bread, meat, milk, what vegetables and fruit they could afford and they planned meals. My friends had daily chores and responsibilities, one responsibility was school and homework. They also paid their bills; not always on time but always paid. I recognized the ones who did nothing to improve themselves and their homes; their grociery shopping was beer, sodas, bread, balogna, chips and candy. I didn’t realize at the time that what I was seeing was the different classes of people within that poverty level area. I sometimes wonder what happened to those who improved themselves by hard work and determination and were able to move away. These are people you could have conversed with, Sheila, because their minds were open and questioning how to better themselves. You probably could have learned about the mental stamina and some of the whys that set them apart. Their priorities were to seek a better life by their own hard work and sweat, doing the best they could with what they had, not getting rich. Lots of money doesn’t mean lots of class, it simply means lots of money.

    One memory stands out in my mind; my friend Patty knocked on our door one Christmas Eve and handed me two Christmas presents. An orange and a used, scratched compact; things that meant something to her which she shared with her friend, Jo. My mother didn’t understand why Patty brought me that “trash”. Mom was vice-precinct committeewoman for the Republican party in our area, money earned her respect. I’m sure there are different classes of people among the rich; we just don’t see much evidence of class these days but are moving closer and closer to a caste system in this country. The “milk and honey” and the “streets paved with gold” belong to the 1% and they hang onto it with both hands.

  2. In 1929, a reporter interviewed farmers in the Midwest about the impact of the stock market crash on their lives. The farmers’ answers, that I read, were consistent. They had felt no impact. Rather, they had lived in economic depression since the end of World War I. During that war, for purposes of militarization and support of troops, crop prices were subsidized. Farmers mortgaged land to buy machinery, just coming on line, to replace their teams of horses and more efficiently produce the grains needed for the war effort. When the war ended, the farmers were hit with a massive change in their economic lives. Prices dropped, once crops no longer were subsidized. Their incomes dropped, and so they no longer could afford to pay the loans they had taken out. Their lands were far less valuable, because (1) prices for agricultural products had dropped and (2) far less land was available for grazing horses, since horses now were obsolete as draft animals. The lives of people in rural areas were far different from those in urban areas of the 1920s, although there were many poor people in those urban areas.

  3. One way to consider wealth inequity is not from the perspective of, do the ubber wealthy have what the rest ought to be jealous of? I, personally think not. I see no evidence of it in both personal and media exposure to their trials and tribulations.

    No, I think that most people believe that while a little more money would iron some of life’s wrinkles, a lot more is typically accompanied by a host of big new problems. Just the thought of having to associate with the entitled culture makes me grind my teeth.

    The danger of wealth inequity is found in the well known saying, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ubber wealth carries with it, in fact is really often the motivation for those who seek it, power and privilege, and getting ones way is addictive. It leads to the entitlement culture.

    So the stake here is freedom. The more wealth is greatly disparate, the more political power and influence is, and the more those who consider themselves entitled, want more than wealth. They feel entitled to power, a bigger share of decision rights.

    The shift in American culture that is pretty obvious to those who can still fog a mirror (thanks Sheila for that delightful bit of prose) is the shift in influence to the few, that accompanies the shift in wealth. Why they own an entire political party now.

    It’s not about wealth. It’s about freedom that only comes, ultimately, from democracy. And democracy only comes from the exercise of it. Vote, buy, invest in freedom, not in aristocracy. We can do this.

  4. For our joint edification: from Wikipedia, the biggest advance in egalitarianism in centuries.

    “John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902)—known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Bt from 1837 to 1869 and usually referred to simply as Lord Acton—was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer. He was the only son of Sir Ferdinand Dalberg-Acton, 7th Baronet[1] and a grandson of the Neapolitan admiral Sir John Acton, 6th Baronet.[2][3] He is famous for his remark, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.””

  5. I happen to be a person living in an extremely rural area in north east Indiana with a degree in Agriculture Economics from Purdue. I came back to the family farm after taking a job in downtown Chicago after graduation. At that young age I couldn’t get used to riding the train for two hours of my day and spending the rest of it in a high-rise office building. The plan was always for me to return and take over the family farm. I happened to come back earlier than planned. Life went on – I married and had children – and I always worked on the farm, but not for any monetary compensation in the early years. The finances of the farm had been extremely damaged by a government buyout of dairy cows. That is just one example of how the federal government “in their infinite wisdom” completely financially ruined thousands of farmers with cattle feedlots. It happened overnight. If you were a farmer with cattle ready for market at that time you were done. The prices hit rock bottom but you still had to sell the cattle at a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars because you cannot “store” live animals like you can grain.

    For many years, before and after my return to the farm, local factories were booming and people without even a high school degree were making more than twice as much money in a factory than I could make in a job that required a college degree. The factory jobs were almost all tied to the auto industry. For three decades I watched those jobs disappear and the factories all eventually closed. Six to eight years ago or more those people would just pack up and move to another state that was booming and could find plenty of good paying jobs. That is no longer an option for the people who have lost their jobs during this recession. They are all stuck. If they own a home they can’t sell it because there are no buyers. This area of the state has been on a downhill spiral that seems to have no end. People with graduate degrees are stocking the shelves at the local Walmart and are hanging on to those jobs with their life because there is nothing else here. I have always needed to work “in town” in addition to farming and have lost several jobs due to downsizing or mergers. I’ve been looking for work for the past 3 years and finally made the decision a year ago that it is time to move to the Indy area. I’ve struggled long enough and have felt isolated far too long. I’m in my mid-fifties and being interviewed by people the same age as my children or even younger seems to have made it impossible to find employment.

    Now, to address your paragraph that wonders what your life would be like if you lived in a rural location… I personally feel very isolated for several reasons. I came back to an area that is populated with a very blue collar mentality and people that not only didn’t further their education, but they have rarely been interested in learning what the rest of the country is really like. Most have been content to live in their small isolated world. Not me. I was raised by parents that were not like the typical farm family. My father stayed on top of what was happening in the world because he knew that many things going on far away from here would actually affect our lives. He was well-read and knew many influential people in Chicago and across the country that would actually contact him for information and advice. He did not fit in with the farm crowd that was happy to drink coffee at the local cafe and gossip about what the other farmers were doing. He saw that as a complete waste of time. Once I returned to the area, I found it nearly impossible to find people to have intellectual conversations with. That is still an issue for me. People do not want to make the effort to educate themselves or find out the real facts about what is actually going on in our economy and country, let alone the rest of the world. The local news or whatever propaganda comes their way is how their opinions are formed and that is good enough for them. It doesn’t even cross their minds to research what they have heard and attempt to verify if it is factual. So, to shed some light on your questions of how life might be for you in a rural area, I feel safe in telling you that you would be miserable beyond belief. I grew up here and have felt isolated from intelligent conversation ever since I returned. In addition, my location keeps falling further and further behind in access to communication with the outside world. We are ignored by the internet and cell phone companies that people in cities are used to having. The internet providers sell monthly plans to us that are much much slower and much more expensive than those provided in more populated areas. ATT is the only cell phone carrier in the area (yes, they bought the area and made competition a thing of the past) and they provide awful reception and do not provide us with the internet speed that is available in more populated areas. We pay the same price for less. The price of gas has had a truly terrible affect on us. We have to drive much further just to access groceries or doctors or even jobs. This creates a huge expense just to have access to the basic necessities of life. So, to shed some light on your questions of how life might be for you in a rural area, I feel safe in telling you that you would be miserable beyond belief.

  6. It is important to understand that vast disparities of wealth is the natural condition of human affairs. It is only during short periods of great wars, when blood need be spilled, that commoners are allowed even a glimpse of equality. The great king forsakes his castle and, followed by his many knights(highly paid mercenaries) and peasants, lays carnage across the land. When the upstart populace is contained, he turns his trained killers against the peasants and retreats to luxury until the litter of mankind again becomes restless. The blink of time that was 1950-80 was an anomaly and the rebound will sink us below the squalor of the ’30s. There is a difference: each time his resistance is more deadly and devastating. Each time he kills more and with less discrimination. No longer are there differences between the warrior and his child. Both are targeted. Today, your local Peoria sheriff has a surplus Abrams tank for use in evictions or against hookie players. You may recall the famous picture of the horribly burned girl running naked after the Vietnam napalm bombing? She lived to old age. In today’s wars, Blackwater would have shot her. Those people in remote double- wides have no reason for their ignorance and persistence in voting against their own interest. Too much information is out there and too easy to get. There is but one simple reason for the inevitable decline of the hoi pol.loi: the inexorable belief that, by color of skin, they are somehow connected to powerful people who will look after their interest against people of different color: The unshakable belief that what goes to them comes from me, even though I have nothing. They will wave their flags and guns and march to the same drum that split this nation asunder. I have my flag, my gun and my skin. I don’t need a country!

  7. If there is a civil war in America’s future it will be geographically impossible to plot. It will not be North against South, as it once was, but rural against urban. One simply need look at election maps to see where the reds and the blues reside.

  8. The fact that some of those most negatively impacted by the changing social conditions openly support the system that is making them poorer says a lot about the people in control and the tools they use to create the impression that the conditions they created don’t actually exist.

  9. Daleb seems to me to have hit the nail on the head. Democracy stands in the way of the wealthy having the influence that they feel entitled to. Solution? Hire voters to counter the middle class. How? Brand marketing. Brands like the NRA, Evangelical Christians, homophobes, science deniers, racists, Tea Partyers. Well within the capabilities of modern mass media.

  10. Nancy, you are spot on with that description of farmers out in the boonies. I have family that used to be in farming but they couldn’t survive on it, especially after the 80s. I am not a PhD but I can relate to your wanting an intelligent conversation. I will never stop learning new things. Just because one finished school, age 18 or for me bachelor degree at 45, there is so much more to learn. I look forward to more decades of learning. Thank you for taking the time to write all that.

  11. What is so tragic is that the window of 1950-80 would have lasted much longer but for Ronald Reagan. We should ever guard against putting an old man into the White House. ( Or a young one!)

  12. No. I didn’t forget about Clinton and Dodd- Frank. Another ‘scholar’. Maybe we need more laborers and craftsmen running things. (Wood choppers?)

  13. “I can’t help wondering how my opinions on matters of politics and policy would differ if I lived in a small house or converted double-wide on a lightly-traveled county road. Who would I talk to? Would we even discuss political issues beyond the most local concerns? Where would I get my civic information? Would I think of myself as a “have not,” or would I be satisfied with my situation? Would isolation bother me? What would I read, and why would I choose to read it?”

    Well, I live on a lightly-traveled county road. Who do I talk to? My family, my friends, my son’s girlfriend in Perth, Australia, an Eisenhower Fellow in Idaho who shares my passion for applications of technology to agriculture, the guy who works in the hardware store in my hometown who teared up today talking about my brother who’s been gone 8 years this week, should I go on?

    Would we discuss political issues beyond our local concerns? Well, the only political discussion I had today was about how differently our Muslim friends see the crisis in Gaza than we do.

    Think of myself of a have-not? My Dad used to tell a story. He had a really good year farming back in the 60’s, when no one was making money. He went to an accountant to figure out how to minimize his taxes. The accountant looked at his numbers and said, “What are you doing messing around on that farm? You could make a fortune in town.” Dad said, “What’s a person do when they make that fortune? They buy a place in the country and play at being a farmer. I already have what they want.”

    A have-not? Satisfied with my situation? Nope, we feel sorry for you urban dwellers.

    What do I read? Well, this week: Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Kurt Halsey, James Agee, Douglas Hofstadter, Ian Fleming, Janet Evanovich, and the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette . Why? Because they interest me.

    Just a report from the double-wide.

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