x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Little stimulus for the rural US

Rural Americans get a grim laugh over the recent half-million-dollar salary cap on New York bank executives.

Wheelchair-bound Sarah Olson pulls a wagonload of donated food home from an aid distribution site in Hugo, Colorado.
Wheelchair-bound Sarah Olson pulls a wagonload of donated food home from an aid distribution site in Hugo, Colorado.

HUGO, COLORADO // Folks in this windswept, hardscrabble town get a grim laugh over the fact that the president recently set a half-million-dollar salary cap on New York bank executives widely blamed for sending the economy tumbling. Out here in Lincoln County, in Colorado's remote south-eastern flatlands, you consider yourself lucky to bring home US$20,000 (Dh73,000) a year. Many households scrape by on about half that. "When the state figured out what wage you needed to earn to qualify to collect free food," said Karen Korvar, who runs the local food bank, "it turned out virtually everybody in this county qualified." As the United States trudges through the worst financial turmoil since the Great Depression, and new labour department statistics put nationwide unemployment at 8.1 per cent, times are particularly tough in Hugo and other tiny, rural towns. "Rural communities face a whole different set of challenges than cities and large towns right now," said Lori Capu, the chief programmes officer for the Care and Share Food Bank, which has seen demand for food handouts rise 40 per cent since the economic downturn began. Hugo had been in trouble for years before Wall Street crashed, a steady decline that sent its population drifting away like the tumbleweed that blows across the featureless plains. Most of Hugo's young people took off years ago in search of jobs, leaving a community top heavy with elderly households, and a high school graduating fewer than a dozen students each year. Many more residents want to leave, but say they cannot sell their homes. A decade-long drought has all but wiped out the farms and cattle ranches. And then the meat-processing plant shut down, dashing hopes the ranches would ever recover. "Nowadays, most people with jobs here work over at the 'pen'," said Sarah Olson, a 64-year-old with muscular dystrophy, referring to the state prison in nearby Limon. And they are the lucky ones. All but one of the shops on Hugo's dilapidated main street have been boarded up. The local hardware store, owned by the mayor, serves as the de facto town centre, posting funeral notices on its front window. With sales down sharply, it is struggling, too. The economic downturn put the final boot in for many, and may herald the final chapter for the area's few remaining cowboys. "It ain't easy to be a rancher these days," said Adrian Mousel, after collecting a box of food handouts from the Care and Share station in nearby Cheyenne Wells. That town's population has dwindled to just 950 in the past year, and the food bank now feeds almost one-third of them. "Our unemployment rate hovers at two per cent," said Burry Bessee, the pastor at United Methodist Church in town, "but that is only because so many people just leave when they lose work." That left Cheyenne Wells with a predominantly elderly population, just as in Hugo. Many elderly residents in this town saw their retirement savings slashed when the US stock market crashed. "I lost about half my retirement during the Bush years," said Carl Spencer, a former electrician. "The first week Obama took office, it lost another 25 per cent of its value." Because such rural towns as Hugo and Cheyenne Wells have ageing populations, there is a proportionally greater need for medical care and other social services, but the lack of younger generations means there is no balance of tax revenue to support the elderly. And the jobs that have disappeared in these communities are not ever likely to return. "There's a domino effect," Mrs Capu said. "Once the ranches and farms go, then the shops and restaurants fail. Eventually, there is not enough revenue to keep the schools and health clinics open." Mrs Olson, in Hugo, pulled her food container home in her granddaughter's red wagon, dragging it behind the electric wheelchair the state gave her. Living in a shared trailer home, where she and two relatives eke by on $2,100 a month, she wondered aloud if Washington knew how bad the situation had become. "I saw [US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton in Afghanistan promising to increase American aid," she said. "And I said, 'Why don't you put it over here instead?' " But dwindling towns such as Hugo and Cheyenne Wells are expected to receive proportionally less relief from Barack Obama's $787-billion stimulus package than more prosperous cities, precisely because many perceive such communities are already well on their way to becoming ghost towns. Some worry what will become of these isolated and ageing communities, as more and more services and businesses around them close. Ninavera Glass, an 85-year-old, lives in nearby Genoa, a place she describes as a one-horse town that no longer even has a horse. "The cafe closed. Then the grocery and the mechanic shut down," she said. "Today, all we got left is the post office." Mrs Glass is no stranger to hard times. She grew up during the Depression, when her mother used to hang a quilt over the door to keep the dust out. In 1941, she married "a Texas cowboy", as she described him, and moved to Genoa, where he worked on a cattle ranch. Widowed almost a decade ago, Mrs Glass recently gave up trying to make ends meet on her meagre Social Security payment. "You realise one day you just don't have enough to go around," she said. "It's scary, and a person don't know what's coming next." What people in these areas say they fear most is a return to the $4-a-gallon gas prices of a year ago. "I drive 20 miles just to buy milk," Mrs Glass said. Many others here commute twice that distance for work and to do routine shopping. Some said they had to cut down their food purchases when fuel prices soared. Although unemployment figures in Lincoln County are officially below the national average, people such as Karen Korvar at the Hugo food bank said there is widespread under-employment, an equally critical concern. "I am seeing people in here who are working two, three jobs and they still earn so little they can qualify for food aid," she said. Nicole Kunze, who runs the cash register two days a week at the Hugo hardware store and also works as a nanny, said she is desperate for more hours. "I have been keeping my eye out for new employment, but there's just nothing out there," she said. Cassandra Arnold, a 29-year-old mother of three in Cheyenne Wells, is equally anxious. She has called fast-food chains, nursing homes, petrol stations and convenience stores but no one is hiring. Her husband, a former truck driver, is also out of work. "I feel we are at the bottom," she said. "It can't get much worse so I just smile and keep going." gpeters@thenational.ae