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Life & Style
A Search for Solutions in Our Towns
The West Invest program in Charleston, West Virginia enlists inmate labor to build new, affordable housing. Here a police officer is shown with his new home. (Photo by Steven Ascher/HBO)
Shown here is an inmate with the West Invest program in Charleston, West Virginia, which enlists inmate labor to build new, affordable housing. (Photo by Steven Ascher/HBO)
Project Fighting Chance is an innovative program in San Bernardino that trains young people in boxing, chess, music, math, and other skills. (Photo by Steven Ascher/HBO)
Homelessness is as problem all over the country and often a proxy for income inequality. This photo is from the annual “point in time” census of homeless people in San Bernardino, California. When asked his name, this person said “just call me Homeless Guy.” (Photo by Steven Ascher/HBO)
Artist Charly Hamilton of Charleston, West Virgina painted a mural in a struggling-but-recovering part of town. While being interviewed for the HBO program based on the book Our Towns, he began reading a famous speech by Brutus, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The passage goes: “There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries./On such a full sea are we now afloat...” Hamilton says, “I always felt this way. This is a place where the tide is in. If you put your boats out, put your ventures out, right now, we can make something of ourselves.” (Photo by Steven Ascher/HBO)
Deb Fallows says community colleges play a vital role in regenerating struggling towns. “Community colleges, wherever they were, they were offering a second chance for people displaced in jobs or who had aged out of the job market...We saw it made such a difference in the spirit of a town, in the energy of a town, if there was a way that people could look to the future, instead of being crushed by not having any opportunity.” (Photo by Bryan Harvey/HBO)
Jim Fallows says local newspapers and local libraries are essential to the health of small towns. “There’s objective evidence that towns do worse when their local newspapers struggle... Local life itself is threatened when local newspapers are threatened.” And local libraries provide people with education and opportunities that they otherwise might not be able to afford. “It’s a public institution that operates in the most democratic way.” (Photo by Bryan Harvey/HBO)
When Deborah Smith, the executive director of the Essex Library Association, started her new job in 2019, she took some time to get to know the community. And, of course, she found much to love and admire. In so many ways, Essex is the perfect little New England town.
But she also found something alarming.
And that was a report issued by the United Way about people who fell in the category of ALICE—asset limited, income constrained, employed. In other words, these were the working poor, barely getting by and only one emergency away from financial disaster.
In 2018, United Way reported that 25 percent of households in Essex were living at the ALICE threshold or below the poverty level. By the 2020 report, that percentage rose to 33 percent in Essex, which also has pockets of staggering wealth.
That meant that about 1,900 households in her small town were struggling every day to provide the most basic needs for their family.
“I was astonished,” Smith says of the numbers. “And now with the coronavirus having even more of an impact, it’s probably worse. I started to think, ‘What can the library do?’”
The first step, she thought, would be to have a conversation with people in the community.
But how to approach that conversation?
It’s a complicated subject, intersecting with notions about wealth and poverty, social class and caste, race and ethnicity, taxation and the role of government, issues that all too easily can become mired in polarization and ill will.
But Smith also knew the library was a safe place to have such conversations, try out new ideas, and hammer out differences. So she successfully applied for a grant and came up with a book discussion program that will culminate on Tuesday, May 18 at 5 p.m. with a discussion of Our Towns: a 100,000-mile Journey into the Heart of America, a book that recently was turned into an HBO special. The book includes stories about the struggles of small towns all over America and how some of those towns came up with solutions. The program is free and open to everyone in any town.
And that is a good thing, because Essex is not alone when it comes to its ALICE problem and income inequality. While it’s often overlooked because of the wealth on the Connecticut shoreline and in the Connecticut River valley, the number of people barely getting by is fairly substantial in many communities. According to the 2020 United Way report, the numbers range from about 63 percent in New Haven and 43 percent in East Haven to about 23 percent in towns like Madison and Guilford.
Jim and Deb Fallows, the authors of Our Towns, say income inequality and its attendant problems are common in small towns across the United States. Starting in 2013, they visited towns all across the country, writing stories about them in The Atlantic magazine.
They found that, in the wake of the 2008 recession, people were struggling. Opioids and addiction in general were rampant, along with homelessness, particularly on the west coast but also all across the country. In some places, real estate prices were skyrocketing beyond the ability of the average working person to afford housing.
In other towns, local economies were collapsing along with real estate prices and people were moving out. The found that real estate prices were often a barometer and proxy for inequality and polarization in general.
But they also found some good news, and that’s where they focused their attention.
“Even though people were recovering from the previous recession, we saw an enormous capacity for resilience and invention in places that had been through all sorts of hard times,” says Jim Fallows. “And it does seem like right now, because of the pandemic, because of the economic crisis related to the pandemic and other issues around racial justice, that people might be receptive to the idea of a nationwide reinvention.”
The articles in The Atlantic, the book, and the HBO series are full of specific particular stories that can serve as examples and templates for other small towns. And the Fallows say those solutions were often centered around, championed by, and facilitated by three important institutions vital to the health of local economies, and those were community colleges, local newspapers, and libraries.
“Community colleges, wherever they were, they were offering a second chance for people displaced in jobs or who had aged out of the job market. Or maybe a town lost its entire industry, such as in some coal towns,” says Deb Fallows. “Community colleges were stepping in and training people for what is available now. We saw it made such a difference in the spirit of a town, in the energy of a town, if there was a way that people could look to the future, instead of being crushed by not having any opportunity. Community colleges are a critical piece of higher education in America.”
An Important Sense of Community
Jim Fallows says that, likewise, local newspapers play a vital role in the health of local economies.
“There’s objective evidence that towns do worse when their local newspapers struggle,” he says. “Bond ratings get worse, local governments are not always accountable. They also can provide an important sense of community, and report on who is doing things that are positive, and how to avoid the things that are negative.”
He notes, of course, that most local newspapers are fighting for their lives.
He says finding a solution to that is part of finding a solution to the larger problems faced by communities.
“One of our arguments is that local journalism is a fundamental part of the civic infrastructure,” he says. “It’s worth it for universities, and philanthropists, and NGO and public programs to work together to come up with solutions to the challenges of how to keep a local newspaper viable. Local life itself is threatened when local newspapers are threatened.”
Local libraries are part of the solution as well.
“And it’s just the way libraries are now,” says Fallows. “It’s no longer just books. Now you go into a library and it’s about education and technology and Internet access and wifi and computers available to large numbers of people in small towns who might not otherwise be able to afford that. And they offer the kind of programs that people need in their social life and personal life. Some libraries even have medical services and nurses, and financial advisors. Things that some people cannot afford. It’s a public institution that operates in the most democratic way.”
Ground Rules, Respect, Neighbors
The Fallowses say they are thrilled to be part of the Essex Library program and in such august company, too. The discussion of their book is the final one in a series that included The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Other America by Michael Harrington, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, and Heartland by Sarah Smarsh.
Smith, at the Essex Library, says it’s not necessary to have read all those books to participate in the final discussion about Our Towns. But she does recommend that reading list to anyone trying to understand the issues and complexities of people in the ALICE category. She says the discussions around the books so far have been thoughtful and productive.
As part of a grant she received that allowed the library to host the series, she received training and a network of peer support to help her navigate the complexities of such discussions.
“One thing I learned to do is to set ground rules,” she says. “We want to hear from everyone. Everyone’s opinion is equally valid. People can disagree, but they must do so politely.”
She says those ground rules were invaluable when it came to the discussions of some of the more sensitive books, such as Caste, which presents some hard truths that are difficult to read, even as they are essential to our understanding of how race and ethnicity have become a tangled, toxic, deadly mess in this country.
“I thought I knew my history and it really opened my eyes,” says Smith. “And we were able to navigate it during our discussion.”
She says it helps that the discussions are among people who see the others as neighbors.
“There is a cordiality and respect for others. The people who have attended are very thoughtful,” she says. “They haven’t always agreed, but I think people have learned from one another.”
She says she would recommend those books and those guidelines for any other group hoping to tackle these difficult subjects—“Absolutely,” she says.
She says she’s ending with Our Towns in part because it is a book about hope.
“And the beauty of the book is that hope is validated in so many different locations, all across America,” she says.
She hopes the discussions will help people in the community tackle problems like the large numbers of working poor.
“It’s not just a problem for the ALICE,” she says. “It’s a problem for the whole society. It affects everything. It affects small businesses. If one third of your customer base does not have discretionary income, it does not help you as a business owner.”
Smith says private-public partnerships might be part of the solution. And the library itself has become part of the solution through its Library of Things, she says, allowing people to borrow and use everyday essential items that otherwise might not be affordable for that family.
“We have two Internet hot spots. We have purses and briefcases for people in the job market. We have basic household tools. We even have a lamp for seasonal affective disorder,” she says. “We want to help people navigate these disparities and do it in a way that’s respectful of everyone.”