For as long as I can remember, there has been increasing political and academic rhetoric about income inequality. There is no point in arguing the existence of such a gap — it’s there — but to focus solely on income is to misunderstand the great divide that exists in today’s America.
While thru-hiking 2,200 miles along the Appalachian Trail last year I saw parts of America I had never seen before. Having spent the previous five years living in a small town in upstate New York, I thought I knew what a small town was. I was wrong.
Not every town along the Appalachian Trail is very small, but thankfully most of them are. This is part of the appeal. Once I got used to the fact that people were friendly, looked you in the eye, said hello, and sometimes even offered up their guest room for the night, I noticed other differences.
For one, VHS is not dead folks, it’s just been redistributed. I saw more VHS tapes during my thru-hike than I did in my entire childhood, before there was such a thing as DVDs. Why are they still there? That’s simple: they haven’t broken. Neither have the VCRs that the tapes are played on. This is not to say that people living in small towns do not buy DVDs or DVD players. The point is that they have not chucked VHS simply because something better came along. In short, an entirely different consumer culture exists and I had to ask myself why.
Since most of my time on the trail was dedicated to the research of modern culture, this was more than an idle curiosity. I didn’t have to look far to see the other major difference between these rural towns and the cities and suburbs I have known most of my life: the technology gap.
Many of the towns did not have access to wired high-speed internet, making satellite internet the only option. Satellite internet makes data usage an expensive commodity. When I first moved to upstate New York I briefly lived in an area like this and quickly learned that every 400MB over the limit would cost me $4-5. That’s barely an episode of Seinfeld. Many of the towns I came across along the Appalachian Trail also did not have cell phone coverage. While staying in one hostel in New Hampshire the owner took me along for his daily drive to the nearest signal to check messages and make phone calls.
At first I saw this as a social justice issue because entire communities did not have access to what has become standard methods of communication, but most of the residents I spoke to did not seem to care. The ones that did were usually worried about issues of tourism — would people drawn to the gorgeous scenery keep coming if commodities like high-speed internet and cell phone service were unavailable?
Once I saw that there was no apparent uproar over the lack of newer technology services, I began to look at other issues, and it finally hit me: these small towns are perhaps one of the greatest unintended psychological and economic experiments in American history. The towns were not only void of certain technologies, they were void of the constant, relentless advertising most of us are subjected to all day, every day. The grocery stores don’t blast out specials through overhead speakers, the gas stations don’t play advertisements while you fill up your tank, and blank spaces like park benches or public gazebos are simply left as blank spaces, not marketing opportunities.
Here was this world, right in front of me the whole time, where people didn’t run out and replace cars that ran perfectly fine, or replace perfectly good clothing because it is last year’s fashion, or buy the newest gadget because the manufacturer slipped it into their favorite tv show.
The only explanation I have been able to come up with is that all of the influences that compel us to make most of our purchases simply do not exist in this world — a constant barrage of advertising, an endless pressure to keep up with our peers, and a culture which disregards and even ridicules the idea of making things last.
Could it be a coincidence that America has increasingly become more divided at the same time that the population of people living in cities began to match and possibly overtake the population of those living in rural areas? Not by the slightest stretch of the imagination.
Politicians and academics use numbers for everything because it’s what they have available to them. In the case of income inequality, however, these numbers are misleading when we forget one pertinent fact: money is a figment of our collective imaginations. It is a placeholder to expedite the exchange of goods.
In the last year I have paid $2.49 for a gallon of milk in Tennessee, and $7.89 for a half gallon of milk in Connecticut — in both cases the cheapest price in towns with only one grocery store. This is an illustration — albeit a simplistic one — that all money is not equal. I see a greater difference between people living in a small rural town and a large suburb than I do between people making $32k and $98k. I see a larger distinction between residents in small villages and major metropolises than I do between Republicans and Democrats.
I am forever changed for having discovered these two Americas, but such divide is cause for serious concern. Imagine a woman living in a small, rural town of 500. She lives in a home three times as large as the average city dweller with a mortgage of $350 a month. She drives a car that is 14 years old because it runs just fine. She lives comfortably on a salary well below the national average, has savings to boot, and a quality of life that includes knowing pretty much every person she passes on the street. Within her community, life is good, but no community exists in a vacuum.
It was inevitable that one day she would find that her health insurance premiums were going to go up to $400 a month (more than the mortgage on her three bedroom home), it is going to cost $80k to send her son to college even with in-state tuition, and her part-time business will be shut down because of an obscure government regulation she has never heard of and did not realize was even on the table. Now, folks, we have a divided country, and it’s about much more than Republicans and Democrats.
The cost of goods will almost always rise to what the market will bear (if not higher). As the market is increasingly moving to large urban areas where even those with low incomes often own big-screen televisions and late model cars, we make false assumptions about what the entire market will bear.
Throughout my entire thru-hike last year, I refused to read or watch any political news. I lived in the DC metro for ten years — I’ve had my fill for a lifetime. I also knew it would take me about an hour to catch up on what has become an increasingly less intelligent debate by both sides. Finally, I don’t like to “choose sides” when writing about culture, because that corrupts the integrity and objectivity of my research.
Therefore, all I can say about how this increasing divide in America plays out in a political sense involves the apparent shock many experienced at the results of the recent Presidential election. This shock is increasingly rare in a world where polling usually has things pretty well nailed down before the first vote is cast. I believe that there are two lessons here. First, in a world where we are continually earning less but spending more, perhaps there is something to be learned from small-town America. Second, I believe many politicians, pollsters, reporters and academics would have been far less shocked last November if they hadn’t forgotten something.
They forgot where half of Americans live.