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lunes, junio 09, 2008

Gasoline: Widening The Gap Between Rich And Poor

Is lack of any US energy policy designed to drive the poorest Americans even deeper into poverty? To drive them to the cities? To drive them off their land? To drive their wages lower? It sure looks like it, and that rising gas prices are the means to those ends.

This morning's NY Times, focusing on the Mississippi Delta, finally reveals the problem all of us suspected as soon as gas prices started to spike. The bleak news:
Here in the Mississippi Delta, some farm workers are borrowing money from their bosses so they can fill their tanks and get to work. Some are switching jobs for shorter commutes.

People are giving up meat so they can buy fuel. Gasoline theft is rising. And drivers are running out of gas more often, leaving their cars by the side of the road until they can scrape together gas money.

The disparity between rural America and the rest of the country is a matter of simple home economics. Nationwide, Americans are now spending about 4 percent of their take-home income on gasoline. By contrast, in some counties in the Mississippi Delta, that figure has surpassed 13 percent.

As a result, gasoline expenses are rivaling what families spend on food and housing.

“This crisis really impacts those who are at the economic margins of society, mostly in the rural areas and particularly parts of the Southeast,” said Fred Rozell, retail pricing director at the Oil Price Information Service, a fuel analysis firm. “These are people who have to decide between food and transportation.”
Put simply, gas at $4 a gallon and more means that the poor, who go without on a good day, are forced to go without even more. It's not a pretty picture. It means that paying for gas competes with the utilities, food, health care, clothing, school supplies, and every other household item.

What, you might want to know, are the practical alternatives to commuting long distances to work, something endemic to living in rural America? There is no real public transportation system. Car pooling might be an option, assuming you have somebody near you who is on the same shift at the same plant. Working longer shifts on four days to save the fifth day's commute money might be a small help, if your employer can do that. But beyond that, there's no apparent, short term solution, not with prices zooming toward $5/gallon and beyond. And wages being low and fixed. And second jobs in great demand and even harder to find. And miles from where the rural poor live to where they can find work.

How do rural people with low incomes cope? Answer: they struggle mightily. They cut corners. They take from Peter to pay Paul. They borrow. They max out their credit. They work multiple jobs. And now, despite all those struggles to keep the wolf from the door, the pre-cursors have arrived for a Tom Joad moment. There is an economic disaster looming in rural America.
The extra dollars spent at the pump mean electric bills are going unpaid and macaroni is replacing meat at supper. Donations to church are being put off, and video rentals are now unaffordable.

Cleveland Whiteside, / snip [who] used to commute 30 miles a day, said his Jeep Cherokee was repossessed last month, because “I paid so much for gas to get to work I couldn’t pay my payments anymore.” His employer, Larry Clanton, has lent him a pickup truck so he can get to work.

Signs of pain and adaptation because of the cost of gas are everywhere. Local fried chicken restaurants are closing because people are eating out less. At the hardware store here, sales have plummeted to $30 a day from $250 a day a month ago.

“Money goes to gasoline — I know mine does,” said the hardware store’s manager, Pam Williams, who tries to attract customers by putting out choice crickets for fishing bait beside the front door.
The bottom line? The situation as it now stands with rising gasoline prices is just not sustainable. Workers and their families cannot afford to go on in this way.
Sociologists and economists who study rural poverty say the gasoline crisis in the rural South, if it persists, could accelerate population loss and decrease the tax base in some areas as more people move closer to urban manufacturing jobs. They warn that the high cost of driving makes low-wage labor even less attractive to workers, especially those who also have to pay for child care and can live off welfare and food stamps.

“As gas prices rise, working less could be the economically rational choice,” said Tim Slack, a sociologist at Louisiana State University who studies rural poverty. “That would mean lower incomes for the poor and greater distance from the mainstream.”
Put in less academic terms, poor, rural workers are absolutely screwed. They cannot afford gas. The result is that they cannot afford to commute, so they cannot afford to go to work. That means that they will have to move somewhere else to find work closer to where they can live. Or take a worse paying job that is closer. And as prices rise, more and more workers, including some of those who are now barely eeking by, too, will not be able to afford to commute. And then not be able to afford to work.

Is there a short term solution to this? Crickets.

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