Tales of the Great Recession
For the fourth annual Nation Student Writing Contest, we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how the recession had affected them. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and eight finalists total. The winners are Jim Miller of Henderson State University in Arkansas and Deborah Ghim of Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. You can read the essays at TheNation.com/students. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $250 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. This contest was made possible by the BIL Charitable Trust to recognize and reward the best in student writing and thinking. —The Editors
The Natural Order of a Small Town
by Jim Miller
The strangest thing about the recession if you live in Arkansas is that things seem pretty much the same as they were before with the exception of a few subtle differences. It just seems like everyone else in the country is catching up.
The smallest library in the entire United States resides in a rural town in Arkansas, and it has no books in it. There is a blue tarp over the roof because it started leaking a few years ago. Small towns in the area are a lot like this tiny 15-by-24-foot library. These erstwhile communities are disappearing, leaving nothing but road signs, with lonely post offices, empty parks and closed gas stations. Public school districts have gotten so spread out that it's getting more and more difficult to afford diesel for the buses to pick children up for school. These are the kids living on dirt roads an hour away from the nearest city. Their parents are the ones losing the jobs.
The economic life of a small town in Arkansas has always been precarious, but the recession has greatly accelerated the decline. There are still the same number of empty houses on stretches of highway. It's just that now you see more used vehicles for sale. Older generations believe that this is the natural order of things, like when a well dries up and a new one springs up somewhere else to take its place. This is why they save their Folgers coffee cans and anything else that might help to make life easier.
Growing up in areas like this is becoming harder, and so the numbers of young are dwindling, and small, rural areas are drying up. A graduating class of forty students has become a class of twenty, and the only explanation is that there are no local jobs. There are no local jobs because the timber industry is no longer what it used to be. In high school, kids look forward to having an office view of the interstate while sitting behind the wheel of an eighteen-wheeler that they might be lucky enough to own one day. Or maybe they will nab a job at the Willie Nelson water-bottling factory in the next town over, where new mothers drive to renew their WIC vouchers so they can purchase baby formula and blocks of government cheese. Some women, like my mother, sew cuffs on firemen's gloves in a factory. They are happy to have a job with good insurance. It's not the type of insurance that will help you quit smoking a pack a day unless you're clinically depressed, but all the same it's good insurance. It numbs the realization that you are hardly getting paid anything.
I guess that one thing almost every employable person in this area can look forward to is applying for a job at Wal-Mart. The company was born in Arkansas, and it is always taking applications because it's capable of weathering the storm. This is more than can be said for Affiliated Southwest, an Arkansas food distributor that abruptly declared bankruptcy earlier this summer, leaving hundreds of small-town groceries sweating bullets and damning the economy. Most of these stores simply readjusted to the situation by going with other food distributors in neighboring states, but many small business owners lost their retirements in the process.
Students and others throughout the country are being encouraged to continue their education, and many of them do it by taking out school loans or maxing out their mother's credit cards so she has to take out loans herself, either from the credit union at the Social Security office where she works or at the bank where her husband used to deposit the proceeds from his air-conditioning business before it went belly up.
Here and there you might find an independent farmer who still remembers what it's like to be self-sufficient. And then there are people like my father, who purchased cattle as a life insurance policy, because insurance companies won't touch a man with a pre-existing condition. All throughout the country there are now people resolved to live their lives simply out of necessity and not want. In the end maybe this is a good thing. Maybe sooner or later a new spring will bloom.