Poverty in the Umpqua

By Robert Leo Heilman of Myrtle Creek, Oregon. Robert is a former logger and sawmill worker, who is now a critically-acclaimed essayist and author. He is the author of Overstory Zero: Real Life in Timber Country.

We Umpquans like to feel that we are lucky people, blessed with a small population living in a large county. In a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans live stress-filled lives in teeming hurried cities we move serenely through our green and lovely landscape every day, smug in the belief that we, the lucky few, live here in our own little paradise. For some of us, this is pretty-much how it actually goes.

When you stop considering mountains, streams, trees and wildlife and look instead to the local human landscape, the picture is considerably less flattering. We are poorer than most Americans--considerably more poor. “Nice people, beautiful place--but they can’t seem to make a decent living,” is the whole story here.

We are still largely a rural and blue-collar county, two things which most of America, nowadays, is not. This is what makes this place so attractive to urban refugees and retirees and so very difficult for our local residents. We find ourselves living in a place where our young must leave for the cities in order to live and where old people from the cities choose to die.

It seems inevitable somehow, that it should be so. Oregonians have traditionally earned about 90% of the U.S. per capita income average and residents of Douglas County about 90% of the statewide average. Isolation, low wages, and a lack of educational and job opportunities have all been major aspects of country living for centuries. Oddly, it doesn’t matter what sort of political or social or economic system a nation lives under. Whether capitalist, socialist or communist, democracy, monarchy or dictatorship, in every time and every nation, country folk all suffer the same indignities and losses.

The problems of the nation’s wage earners are the same here as in the cities, except that the effect of lower blue-collar wages is more strongly felt here, where “grunt work” of various sorts makes up a higher percentage of the available jobs. Again, this can seem unavoidable, that the so called “low-skilled” or “semi-skilled” jobs should pay less than other work and that there should be fewer good-paying jobs in a rural, and therefore small, community.

Actually, I can’t think of any good reason why manual labor should be paid less than other kinds of work, or at least, that a laborer shouldn’t be able to earn what is known as a “family wage,”--enough to support a family. But the average working-class job in this county only pays about half of that. During the past thirty years a new standard seems to have come into place in which it is assumed that a normal household has two wage-earners working full-time in order to survive. Meanwhile, the local working-class wages and local per-capita income levels have decreased dramatically since reaching an all-time high in 1979.

Although, since 1976, there have been local efforts to create more jobs through economic development, they have largely failed, succeeding only in smoothing-out our traditional “boom and bust” cycle somewhat but replacing it with a more-or-less permanent bust, at least for the working people, who are now never far from poverty, and also making it harder for our poorest to become self-supporting.

The reasons for our failure to create a sustainable and humane economy here in the One Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua are many and are related in complex ways. Mere finger-pointing won’t help to change that. Still, a bit of soul-searching wouldn’t hurt, especially if it resulted in a few pay raises or increased health-insurance coverage for at least some of our hard-working neighbors.

Comments

  • Zarathustra (unverified)
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    This is a great post. It's helped me pull together some things I've been thinking about on other threads. Sorry about the length, but it all kinda hangs together. Consider it a symptom of how few times the issue has ever come up, directly.

    I was always been baffled what the relationship between the work and the wage was; it never made sense to me. From my first minimum wage job to all the weird and wonderful things I've done, I could never, ever understand why a given job pays the wage it does, apart from simple social comparison. Anymore, I think it has not one thing to do with the concrete value of the work, but that wages are a piece of a bigger picture about class, behavior, reinforcement contingencies and identity.

    The fudge factor is that "lifestyle" bit, imho. Cities are modern and cushy, and rural areas are backward and hard. An awful lot of the glitz and glamour you see downtown is based on deliberately not doing things in a cost-effective way. Wastefulness is a form of living large. It's not that rural=poor. It's that anything that is real, like the contingencies of rural life, is less removed from the contingencies of the wild struggle. How many times have you heard big pharma concerns trivialized with, "would you like to go back to 1900 when people died of common infections?" Society sees progress as conquering the wild, banishing the wild man, domesticating humans. The fact of your being real identifies you as being a member of a lesser class by virtue of being closer to the wild, and lesser classes get paid a lesser wage. Women have always been perceived as closer to nature, and it is the basis for their being traditionally regarded as lower class than males. Ditto Blacks, Indians, Jews...all have some suspiciously wild tendencies.

    Wages are where the rubber hits the road and, nearly 100 years after suffrage, this basic mythology is still being validated by paying women, as a group, less. There seems to be some universal myth that if power weren't lavishly rewarded that no one would want power. Huh? It's a primate drive. The power hungry only need the material bit to validate their power. It's not an incentive. Seriously, it has been said, in these virtual pages, by eminent personages, that poor wages in government jobs is why banana republics end up with corrupt officials. This was in response to a proposal that government work be seen as service, not a career. Yet another way to state your question would be, "why don't our elected officials get less than anybody"? Again, the assumption that good people wouldn't want to do it without lucre incentives. You get this from the far right, and xtians. You can't be moral by choice. You're a wild, corrupt thing. You have to give your life over to Jesus and reject all your natural desires. What if my natural desires happen to coincide with your moral imperatives? The popular narrative makes no provision for the case.

    But that's their point. xtianity has functioned in Western Civilization as a unifying principle, focusing all cultures and traditions into viewing primitivism and primitive religions as evil. It's not that they doubt the virtuous agnostic is leading a virtuous life, it's that he/she may have traces of the wild, which is antithetical to virtue. xtianity exists more to stamp out primitivism than to promote civilization. Those who point to its barbarities, when they could not have it both ways, do not understand what the goal was.

    This functions outside religion, which is why it's a cultural myth. News fads like "wilding" and "sexual predators" and female high school teachers with student lovers, are usually critiqued by those that don't accept yellow journalism as being anti-black, anti-sex, anti-woman, etc. The denigrating the wild is a minor point, actually. The major function of those stories is to reaffirm domesticated individuals' sense of disconnectedness from those instances of the wild in contemporary society. "If it bleeds it leads" is about the fact we like violence? Why the hypocrisy of "turn away if you're sensitive", when they're putting it on for precisely that effect? It's not hypocrisy. You are supposed to be horrified, and in that horror understand that you are not wild. Kurtz, when he exclaims, "The horror, the horror", is saying, "God help us we are wild". It took me years to understand that as it impossible for me to see that as any kind of horror.

    Turn on the local Spanish TV channel and watch a variety show. The grotesque parodies of stupid, bucktoothed Indians are only a tactless pantomime of what most consider "the advantages of a contemporary society" and it's dominant mythology. It is a mark of declining empires to regard matters as these as "cultural differences", while a moment's glimpse of a breast is "obscene and highly objectionable". (Please, please make Jesse Jackson FCC chair. I need some humor in gov. Please, please...).

    Wages are about validating the class structure, not about what you actually did for the organization. Well, not what you did for the organization's bottom line. It is about those primate social varibles that we value, as demonstrated to your co-workers. I think Marx, in talking about commodites, did not spend nearly enough time thinking how the creation of commodities are so important towards conquering the wild man. It is no surprise that our missions of conquest were usually cast as trade.

    I was particularly amazed that during a five year stint in upper-middle management, at a major brokerage house, that once past the glass ceiling, those factors are openly asserted, and there is no room for non-conformance. You're asking the question why you can't do manual labor, live a rural life, and have great take-home pay. My point, amazingly, is that it is just as hard to be in a position which would normally get paid a great take-home wage, yet receive a manual labor wage. I have tried for many years to do this and have utterly failed. I have a lot of reasons for doing this, among which is the fact that I don't need it. Money is not a nice to have if you don't need it. It is very attention consuming. If I take a job, it's because I'm zealous to make the company succeed on the bottom line. There is not one thing in this world that can kill my motivation faster than being told by a service organization that I have to take 10x per hour what a field worker does, while field workers are being laid off. I am tired of being told, "you can't do that, you're the AVP", where "that" was something menial. I always knew that people had to be reminded that "leadership is service", but I honestly never thought the day would come when that point of view was ridiculed or even regarded as dangerously naive and incompetent. That day came about a decade ago.

    Jackson Brown said it best, that people don't treat you like who you are, but who you look like. If you look and act "blue collar" you get a "blue collar wage". If you look and act "upper management", you get an "upper management wage". Neither is free to vary. If you try, either way, you're a rebel, insane, or hopelessly misguided- at any rate, not a desirable employee. This is the way business, and not just American business, works. If you've got two managers, and one does a project with 5 people, the other does it with 15, and the projects are randomly equal, who is the better manager? It's obvious. The one that used 15 people. He wouldn't have 3x the headcount if he weren't the better manager. If he walks into his boss' office and says, "I could do this with 5 people", his boss would be very, very concerned. In no sense would that be seen as a positive.

    It's just another example of how primitive, primate assumptions guide what we like to think is civilized, rational, social policy. At the end of the day, almost no job pays what it is worth in terms of labor. Anymore many, many people view a job as what comes after day care, school, and college. I would estimate that for at least 1/2 of the people that I interview that are under 25, the first two words out of their mouth is "I require". If they can do something for you in return for that wage, that is a sweet situation. If not, well, I still have to hire someone for a job and they still need one, so do we have a deal?

    I've said in other posts that maybe the situation will change when technology, cosmogonic irregularities and/or social chaos force the issue, resulting in an exodus of urbanites to the rural areas. In the meantime, my conclusion is that rural America is just another of the wild places around the world that suffers from the dominant material culture's having to enact its mythology every day, using them as a disposable prop in their morality play. Until then, I fear it's pretend we're civilized, pretend they're wild, pretend the whole thing isn't a species morality play, pretend there's a good reason for executive compensation. This blog explored the connection between growing your own food and politics recently. The point for what kind of politics you choose, would be that you don't get a lot of chance to play pretend when you're growing your own food.And what would be nice? It would be nice if the era beginning in December, 2012, in the Maya scheme of things, would be characterized by our consciously taking up wildness and civilization as conscious strategies, always aware of our role as architect, that the resulting engineered creation is our ownmost possibility.

  • anon (unverified)
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    I hesitate to comment, but feel that I must. I'm sure I will regret it...

    I spent much of my youth there, Mr. Heilman. South Umpqua HS in the early 80s had one of the highest drop out rates in Oregon. It had the lowest per capita spending per student in the state.

    I remember the frequent strikes among timber workers, riding on a school bus past those picket lines. Yet after the Reagan Admin started sending raw lumber overseas to be milled, they started their counter-information campaign and made it sound like the environmentalist crowd was responsible. After all those years of battling Rosie, LP, and the other big timber employers, suddenly the working class of Douglas County (and S. Oregon in general) jumped on the Reagan bullshit train and started accusing the environmentalists of stealing their jobs. How god damn stupid could you all be?!

    Sustainable forest advocates (basically your environmentalists) were suddenly the enemy, though they were basically endorsing policies that would have sustained the timber industry long-term. Conversely, Reagan Republicans suddenly became heroes of the working man.

    Extensive propaganda went into this facade. I remember in jr. high, being told by several teachers that the Soviets had a nuclear missile aimed at Myrtle Creek. Myrtle fucking Creek! Right! Be afraid of the red menace nuking your town, even if you live in Myrtle Creek. Support Reagan. Put that bumper sticker on your truck that says: "I like spotted owl, fried!"

    The ultimate failure of the proletariat in the 100 Valleys of the Umpqua was its own stupidity. Though I was young and seduced by Reaganism (not knowing anything about October Surprise at that age) I could never understand why there was so much support for Republicans in Douglas County. Throughout the Carter Admin, the Republicans fought against timber unions. Once Reagan became president, raw timber got loaded on to ships 27/7 in Coos Bay headed for China, Korea, and Japan to be milled. There went your jobs. Yet the Southern Oregon proletariat became fervently pro-Republican.

    Douglas County was a microcosm and barometer for the Bush era. We'll embrace globalism and deindustrialize America, but if we waive the flag enough and do enough photo shoots on aircraft carriers, the stupid proletariat will support us. And you wonder why any young person with the intelligence to escape the beautiful yet ignorant and economically hopeless hell hole of S. Douglas County would choose to do so.

    What a wonderful place that was, that the sharp bend in I5 that is an exit to Myrle Creek is where one of the finest teachers to ever come to that desolate yet beautiful town would choose to throw herself in front of a semitruck and kill herself. God rest her soul.

  • (Show?)

    anon, since you don't identify yourself, you have little to regret. only you know who you are. and that's too bad, because you make a tremendous point about a major reason for the troubles in much of Oregon: a refusal to see reality changing. the loss of timber jobs was so pathetically predictable; what we now also understand is that those timber practices were helping destroy the fishing industry at the same time. a two-fer. no, make that a trifecta, because i sure don't recall Southern Oregonians fighting like hell for increased education spending.

    otoh, it was the Pdx metro area what passed M5, so Robert is right about the pointlessness of pointing fingers. but there's a lot of reaping what got sowed going on in Oregon. time for a new planting.

  • (Show?)

    and this post deserves more than 3 comments. but i've written those before; there are still plenty of people, however silent, who appreciate these pieces. like me. thanks, Robert. it's good to get reminded of what's going on around Oregon.

  • (Show?)

    Some of the best stuff gets few comments. That's always been true around here.

    Call Gordon Smith an ass, and you'll get dozens of comments arguing both sides. Write a thoughtful, meaningful, well-written post, and very few folks will throw punches.

    That's a good thing.

  • Bruce (unverified)
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    I grew up in rural/semi-rural Oregon, and having worked a number of manual labor jobs in my life, I can tell you why they pay less than other jobs.

    1) Manual laborers are replacable. I spent one summer in high school as a scab in a Woodburn berry cannery. Within a few days of the union going on strike that cannery was full of non-union workers and running near capacity. At 17 I was put to work doing some of the same jobs as a union worker (who would have been paid significantly more than me). I screwed up every now and then, but I was 17 and new to the job. Had I been given a month to learn the ropes I'd wager that I could have done that job as well or better than the guy before me. Had I decided to quit, the manager would have had to travel less than a 1/2 mile in almost any direction to find a replacement for me.

    2)When it becomes too expensive to pay a manual laborer some enterprising engineer will invent a machine to do the same work, only faster and for less money. The machine doesn't require health insurance, doesn't call in sick (well, I suppose I could breakdown), can't got on strike, and can do the job of several manual laborers. 75 years ago, picking fruit could only be done by hand. Today they have machines (not for every crop, but they're quickly getting there). One person can run a berry picker and do the work of 20 people for a fraction of the cost. While many farmers would rather use human berry pickers (mechanical ones are a little rough and end up wasting more fruit), pound for pound a machine is less expensive over time than paying a crew of 20 people $8.40 an hour. So there it is - as manual labor becomes more expensive the incentive to mechanize increases. The same is true of logging - when chainsaws came along two man saws didn't need two men.

    I don't deny that the work is hard and I certainly respect those who do it. However, the fact remains that manual laborers are easily replaced - either by another body or a machine.

    So why do "other jobs" pay more. Well, I'm happy to say that I have gone from "cannery scab" to the other end of the employment spectrum. I am now employed as (you might want to sit down for this) an investment banker. Now, before you start sending me hate mail, know this: I don't work on Wall St. and the only TARP I've got is the blue one in the bed of my pickup. The reason that I'm paid more in this job than I was at the cannery is simple: brain over brawn. I use a much broader skill set in my current job than I did at the cannery, and it's a skill set that fewer people pocess. Also, you can't teach a machine to think analytically (not yet, at least).

    The reason (or rather, ONE of the reasons)that I don't like the idea of each and every job being paid a "family wage" is that it discourages innovation. If you can make $50,000 a year picking berries, why spend all that time and effort to become a doctor and cure cancer? If Walmart will pay you $40,000 to scan items at a cash register (another job going the way of the dodo), why work hard to become an engineer and perfect the electric car? You can't fight the invisible hand, folks - remember the Luddites?

    Also - where do you draw the line between "family wage" jobs and non-"family wage" jobs. Plenty of nice people with nice families work as gas station attendants. Unfortunately, that is a job that shouldn't exist (and probably won't in 5-10 years). By paying someone a "family wage" to take a credit card and pull a handle, you are in essence discouraging that person from working to take a job that adds more value to society. By paying "family wages" for unskilled jobs, we are in effect enouraging people to take the path of least resistance, and in the end that doesn't benefit them, you or me.

  • Bruce (unverified)
    (Show?)

    I grew up in rural/semi-rural Oregon, and having worked a number of manual labor jobs in my life, I can tell you why they pay less than other jobs.

    1) Manual laborers are replacable. I spent one summer in high school as a scab in a Woodburn berry cannery. Within a few days of the union going on strike that cannery was full of non-union workers and running near capacity. At 17 I was put to work doing some of the same jobs as a union worker (who would have been paid significantly more than me). I screwed up every now and then, but I was 17 and new to the job. Had I been given a month to learn the ropes I'd wager that I could have done that job as well or better than the guy before me. Had I decided to quit, the manager would have had to travel less than a 1/2 mile in almost any direction to find a replacement for me.

    2)When it becomes too expensive to pay a manual laborer some enterprising engineer will invent a machine to do the same work, only faster and for less money. The machine doesn't require health insurance, doesn't call in sick (well, I suppose I could breakdown), can't got on strike, and can do the job of several manual laborers. 75 years ago, picking fruit could only be done by hand. Today they have machines (not for every crop, but they're quickly getting there). One person can run a berry picker and do the work of 20 people for a fraction of the cost. While many farmers would rather use human berry pickers (mechanical ones are a little rough and end up wasting more fruit), pound for pound a machine is less expensive over time than paying a crew of 20 people $8.40 an hour. So there it is - as manual labor becomes more expensive the incentive to mechanize increases. The same is true of logging - when chainsaws came along two man saws didn't need two men.

    I don't deny that the work is hard and I certainly respect those who do it. However, the fact remains that manual laborers are easily replaced - either by another body or a machine.

    So why do "other jobs" pay more. Well, I'm happy to say that I have gone from "cannery scab" to the other end of the employment spectrum. I am now employed as (you might want to sit down for this) an investment banker. Now, before you start sending me hate mail, know this: I don't work on Wall St. and the only TARP I've got is the blue one in the bed of my pickup. The reason that I'm paid more in this job than I was at the cannery is simple: brain over brawn. I use a much broader skill set in my current job than I did at the cannery, and it's a skill set that fewer people pocess. Also, you can't teach a machine to think analytically (not yet, at least).

    The reason (or rather, ONE of the reasons)that I don't like the idea of each and every job being paid a "family wage" is that it discourages innovation. If you can make $50,000 a year picking berries, why spend all that time and effort to become a doctor and cure cancer? If Walmart will pay you $40,000 to scan items at a cash register (another job going the way of the dodo), why work hard to become an engineer and perfect the electric car? You can't fight the invisible hand, folks - remember the Luddites?

    Also - where do you draw the line between "family wage" jobs and non-"family wage" jobs. Plenty of nice people with nice families work as gas station attendants. Unfortunately, that is a job that shouldn't exist (and probably won't in 5-10 years). By paying someone a "family wage" to take a credit card and pull a handle, you are in essence discouraging that person from working to take a job that adds more value to society. By paying "family wages" for unskilled jobs, we are in effect enouraging people to take the path of least resistance, and in the end that doesn't benefit them, you or me.

  • Bruce (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Oops - sorry about the double post. I also should add that I work in M&A and have never had any thing to do with a CDOs, MBOs or derivatives.

  • rural resident (unverified)
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    Anon .... I agree with your bewilderment over the political leanings of many of the working-class folks in rural Oregon. Other parts of the country, too, for that matter. I've always been frustrated by union members (and those in blue-collar and lower-paid white collar jobs who should want to join a union) buying the conservative line. Though the Dems contributed by becoming a party of special interest groups who didn't seem to want to be associated with these folks, it still didn't make much sense to me for so many people whose lives were trashed by the "free market" philosophy of the R's over the last 30 years to back them so fervently.

    However, the environmentalists weren't on the side of the timber workers, either. (A strange convergence of interests between Reagan and the enviros, who were only too happy to shut down the forests and kill the industry in that area.)

    Bruce .... Your comment about not paying high wages to people doing manual and lower-skilled jobs could also be extended to the earnings of those in jobs such as your own. If the strategy is to pay low wages to those not doing things we need done at the moment in order to force them to redirect their labors into more "valuable" activities, we could make a good case for paying lawyers and those in the financial service industry a lot less than we do now. A strong and sustainable economy depends upon creating new manufacturing goods and developing new (non-financial or legal) products. Our economy now is overly dependent upon moving money back and forth, selling things to one another, and using the law to transfer money from one individual or group to another. Not a healthy trend. Creating new and innovative financial products, like CDOs and credit default swaps, doesn't seem to be serving us well. Paying a 25-year-old hot shot graduate from an Ivy League business school a half million dollars a year to trade junk bonds wouldn't seem to be moving us in the right direction. Those pay levels attract bright minds -- whose efforts might be better spent developing new tangible goods that we could both consume at home and export to help our balance of trade. If we follow your logic, would a huge drop in the compensation levels for those on Wall Street and in other financial/legal jobs be justified?

  • Jiang (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Women have always been perceived as closer to nature, and it is the basis for their being traditionally regarded as lower class than males. Ditto Blacks, Indians, Jews...all have some suspiciously wild tendencies.

    It is a complex interplay. The dominant society also is compelled to attribute "special powers" to those vestigial wild humans. How many times have you heard an interview with a very rational man, someone technically brilliant, that, at some point says of his wife, "she has a different way of figuring things out; I don't understand it, but she often just seems to know things that I can't see". Sounds kind of like animals acting crazy before an earthquake. Remember the "Magic Negro" furore? That's what the "magic negro" is about. In attributing "special powers" from his vestigial wild nature, they are also saying that he is a threat to civilization.

  • Bruce (unverified)
    (Show?)

    You say that "Our economy now is overly dependent upon moving money back and forth, selling things to one another, and using the law to transfer money from one individual or group to another." I think we only agree on the third element, because last I checked, moving money back and forth and selling eachother stuff WAS what an economy was built on.

    I don't disagree on your second point. I think that a few too many of our best and brightest have been lured to Wall St. to create and sell "Kevin Bacon" securities (investments having approximately 6 degrees of seperation from any actual asset). The same goes for lawyers. Frankly, I think Obama's plan about capping exec pay at $500K in cash and everything else in company stock is great. It forces these people to put their money where their mouths are.

    I'm not sure a HUGE drop in pay follows though - afterall, what those guys do (even the stuff that's on the up and up) requires a lot of talent and an incredible work ethic. Not a many people are willing to regularly work 100+ hour weeks for McDonald's wages. Still, I'm sure that we will see some reduction in overall compensation for these professions in the coming years (especially considering that the market is currently flooded with i-bankers).

    We shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater though. Beleive it or not, investment bankers do provide a valuable service to society (aside from whipping boy). Innovation is expensive and it is very rare that you can find someone who has both a great idea and the cash to put it into motion. That's what investment bankers do - connect capital with ideas. Ok, so maybe I'm laying it on a little think there - but that really is the idea. IPO's, debt placements, M&A - it's all about finding money to finance new ideas and grow companies (companies that create jobs!).

    <h2>I'm sure lawyers do something worthwhile too, but for the life of me I can't think of what it is.</h2>
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