Personal Articles · Small town America · The Unwinding of America

Small town America, then and now

Part 3 of the series, Small Town America

After thinking a little more about my early days in the small town of Hancock, Michigan, it seems to me that there are some pretty significant differences between what small town life was like in the 1940s and what it is like now.

The main point I’m trying to make in this article is that when I was a boy in Hancock Michigan in the 1940’s, it was possible to live a decent life in a small town on a very small salary, a salary that might even be called a minimum wage salary.  And that this is now no longer possible in 2017 American, and in fact has not been possible for quite a long time.

To begin with let me try to figure out about how much my father earned in his first teaching job at Houghton Tech in 1940’s Michigan.  My answer will be a guess, but I think it will be reasonably close.

According to the 1940 census, the median income for men was $960.00 a year.   I suspect this is probably close to what my father earned.  In fact, his salary was probably a little less. He did have a Masters degree but this was his very first job, and teachers in their first jobs in America were never paid well.

According to Measuringworth.com, which looks like a pretty good calculator, wages of $960.00 in 1945 would be worth about 22,400 in 2016.  I’m guessing this is pretty close to the 2017 equivalent of what my family of four had to live on in 1945.  If anything, I think this is probably a bit more than what my parents lived on.  I would guess my father’s salary was below the median income at the time.

And this is pretty much in line with the low salary my father made all of his life.  It is also in line with my own experience as a beginning college teacher.    I know that in the late 1960’s my Dad earned $5500.00 a year at Casper College after working there for 20 years. And I know that in my first year of college teaching in 1967 I made $5000.00 a year.  So I think it is safe to assume that my Dad made very little as a teacher in 1940’s Michigan.  I think $960 at year or 22,000 in 2017 dollars is probably in the ball park, or maybe a bit generous.

So, he probably made, in 2017 adjusted dollars,  a little more than a minimum wage worker makes now-a-days.  A minimum wage worker today makes about 16,000 a year.

Here is a little more info to substantiate this guess.  My mother and father always talked about how little money they had in both Michigan and in Casper, Wyoming where we moved in 1947.   They always talked about having to count every penny.  I know that in Hancock my mother made most of her own clothes and all of the kids clothes.  My father had a suit for work and a bunch of old army surplus clothes he wore around the house.  We never went out to dinner (such a thing was unthinkable), and my Dad often worked as a carpenter in the summers.  My mother didn’t work at this time, so they survived on one income.

It seems to me that the main difference between life then and now,  is that in the 1940’s a family of four, living in a small American town,  could survive fairly well on what one, poorly paid, wage earner could earn.  And I think that this has been becoming less and less true not only in small town America but in any size town in America.   And I think its even worse in many (not all, but many) small American towns where there are few jobs to begin with and where a minimum wage worker, even working two jobs,  often cannot begin to make enough for a family of four to live on.

The interesting thing is that, with a struggle, in the 1940’s my family survived.  They scrimped furiously, never ate out, never bought anything extra but they made it.  And as I think you can see by the preceding essay on my early days in Hancock, it felt like a good life to me.  We didn’t own our own house but we rented a decent house.  There were always three meals a day, I can never remember feeling hungry, I do remember a movie or two, and it seems I was a bit on the anxious side, but nevertheless  happy.

Compare how well a family of four would live on that income today, an income of 22,400.00.  Basically, not at all.

Elizabeth Warren, in her new book, “This Fight is Our Fight,”  has an interesting story that sheds some light on my contention.  When she was a young girl, back in the mid 1960’s, her father had a heart attack and had to quit working for quite a long time.  With no income, things were were going from bad to worse.  However, finally her fifty year old mother found a minimum-wage job answering phones at Sears.  Here’s how Warren tells the story.  I  think it sounds a whole like my families life in Michigan when I was in kid.  Things were tough, but they made it.

“My mother’s minimum-wage job not only saved our house—it saved our family. No, it didn’t make our lives perfect. It took years to work off the medical bills from my father’s heart attack. My mother worked and reworked her grocery list to squeeze out every last nickel. The carpet in the living room got worn through to the bare floor. And there were times when my mother’s anxieties took over and she lashed out, and times when my daddy got scary quiet. But we hung together. We made it—shaken, but still standing.

What if Mother hadn’t earned enough money to keep us going after Daddy got sick? We’d already lost the family station wagon. What if we’d lost the house? What would the shame have done to my daddy? And if he had left us forever? What would the loss have done to Mother and me? Would I have ever made it to college? Or would she and I have clung to each other, both so fatally wounded that neither of us could ever have recovered?

I don’t know what would have happened if Mother hadn’t been able to break our fall with a minimum-wage job at Sears. But I do know that policy decisions about important issues like the minimum wage matter. Those decisions—made in far-off Washington, reached in elegant rooms by confident, well-fed men and women—really matter.”

Warren, Elizabeth. This Fight Is Our Fight (Kindle Locations 211-213). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

Warren’s point is that, even as late as the 1960’s, it was possible to survive in America on one minimum-wage salary .  But in 2017, this is not even close to possible.

Elizabeth Warren describes what life is like in American for the middle class now.  Warren met a woman she calls Gina, who is the typical middle class person in America.  In the late 2000’s Gina and her husband Darren were doing well.  Both of their boys were in school, she had a good education and worked as a sales rep for a large national company and Darren was doing well as a roofer.  They were making about $70,000 a year.  This income was the median income in America at the time, half of American families earned more and half earned less.  Here is the way Warren describes their situation at the time:

“But even with a good, solid income, Gina and Darren were mostly stay-at-home people. They shopped at discount stores. An occasional meal out usually meant Denny’s or Chili’s. Most of all, Gina and Darren were careful people. They contributed to their 401(k), bought a few stocks, made extra payments on their mortgage, and put away some cash savings. They were a perfect picture of what it meant to be a member of a huge tribe: solid, middle-class America.

But since then, things have changed radically for Gina and Darren.  Warren goes on with their story.

“Today, Gina is still married to Darren, still living in the same house, still gluing buttons and bits of lace into her scrapbooks. Is she still middle-class? Her answer is short and bitter: “I don’t think there is a middle class anymore. If there was a middle class, we wouldn’t need to go to a food pantry.”

“Darren’s work as a roofer has been spotty, and he’s had trouble with his back and knees. Gina works at Walmart now, and that’s what keeps them going.

“Their stocks and their savings are gone, used to fill in during the stretches when one or both of them were out of work. The small 401(k) has nearly disappeared. There was no money to help either of the boys pay for college, and now their sons are nearly grown men. Both work odd hours and live at home because neither one can afford a place of his own.

“Gina’s car is now seventeen years old. She and Darren have talked about selling their home, but she says their mortgage is less than they’d pay in rent, and a mobile home like theirs—even though it’s on a big lot—doesn’t appreciate much. They have a stack of bills that, in her quietest moments, Gina admits to herself they will never pay off. Why? Because today Gina and Darren’s combined income is less than $36,000.

“What happened? What’s the tale of shocking personal tragedy and extraordinary misfortune that landed a solidly middle-class woman like Gina at the doorstep of the food pantry?

“Nothing.

‘No crisis. No accident. No tale of woe. Just the grinding wear and tear of an economy that doesn’t work anymore for families like Gina’s.

“And that’s the part of this story that makes me want to pound the table in frustration. What happened to Gina and Darren is the modern economy—the one that produces all those bubbly stock market records and corporate profits and private concerts with Katy Perry [for the super rich]. What happened is an economic boa constrictor that is squeezing working families so hard they can’t breathe.

“Gina’s basic story could be repeated in millions of households across America with only small variations. Could be? Shoot, it is repeated, again and again and again.

“Warren, Elizabeth. This Fight Is Our Fight. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.

There are several good reasons why life for the middle class have changed so radically in the twenty years or so.  For one thing, the median wage in America hasn’t gone up in a long time if you discount inflation.  Warren says that “for more than forty years, workers’ pay hadn’t kept pace with inflation. Productivity had gone up. Profits had gone up. Executives had gotten raises. Couldn’t we come together to make sure that the people who did some of the hardest, dirtiest work in the nation got at least a chance to build a little security?”  Warren goes on to say that

“Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage today is lower than it was in 1965—about 24 percent lower. That job at Sears allowed my mother to eke out a living for a family of three; today, a mother working full-time and getting paid the minimum wage cannot afford the rent on the average two-bedroom apartment anywhere in America. In Oklahoma, where I grew up, that mother wouldn’t even come close to providing a poverty-level income for her family. Paying rent, keeping groceries on the table, having a little money left over for school shoes or lunch money—those are all out of reach. Today a mother who tries to break her family’s fall simply can’t grab the same branch that was there for my family.”

Warren, Elizabeth. This Fight Is Our Fight (Kindle Locations 221-226). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

And living in small town America usually makes this situation even worse.  Most of the well paying jobs in America today are in the larger cities.  That is where big business is, that is where what little industry that is left is and that is where most of the money in America is.  Small town America used to have agriculture, but agriculture no longer means small farmers living in or near small farm towns, agriculture is now big agri-business which is mostly done with huge machinery.    Small American towns used to have factories like the long ago abandoned fabric mills of Sanford Maine where my son lives, but these factories were moved to the south in the 1960’s and then to Asia not long after.  Some small towns like Casper, Wyoming where I did most of my growing up, had industries like oil, but these industries are also long gone.

And now in 2017 America we have what is usually called inequality where the .1% or the 1% or the 10% have cornered almost all of the money and all of these rich, richer and richest  folks live in big cities while the small towns are left with a few fast food outlets and dying retail stores.  This, of course, isn’t true of all small towns. And big cities have their share of desperately poor people with no work.  But this is the story in general.

All of this became more obvious when Donald Trump won the presidential election.  He was put into office mostly by people living in rural and small town America where the economy had pretty much dried up and where people were desperate for any kind of hope, no matter how unlikely it looked.  Trump won 2600 rural and small town counties which generated only 36% percent of Americas GDP in 2015.  Clinton won 500 urban counties which generated 64% of Americas GDP in 2015.   In other words Trump won because he appealed to the very large, poor, rural, small town sector of America.  Unfortunately, they elected the last man who was likely to help them though.

In a recent article in Vox by David Roberts called “Donald Trump and the the Rise of Tribal Epistemology, Roberts says that recently America has been dividing between a rich urban country and a poor rural country.  He says that “globalization has effectively split the US into two countries: an economically booming urban country (albeit with plenty of poor people inside it) and a stagnant or declining rural and exurban one.”

So, my point is that small town America is not the same as it was during the time I was growing up.  When I was growing up, small town Americans, even when they made pitifully small salaries managed to survive.  Not only did they survive but they lived productive and meaningful lives.  Times were hard and life was a struggle for my Mom Dad but life was essentially good.  And this was not just true in the forties but pretty much true for me all thru the fifties and sixties and seventies and even the eighties.

If you are interested in more good reading on the split between the 1% and the 99% a great place to begin is Robert Reich.  He is a terrific writer who manages to make this complex subject easy to grasp.  Here is his website and here is a list of his books.  His latest books Saving Capitalism and Beyond Outrage and Afershock are his best.

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Sunset in Glacier National Park.  Logan Pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

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