Economic Inequality – How Fall River, Massachusetts Got Left Behind

Fall River is a city located 50 miles south of Boston. It was an old mill town but its fabric-making industry disappeared years ago. The median household income is about $33,000, one of the lowest in the state. Unemployment is around 15 percent, one of the highest. The poverty rate is 23 percent. It also has a high incidence of drug problems, particularly heroin addiction, as well as shootings, drink-driving, and not enough affordable housing. It’s basically a town on the downhill slide to nowhere. These figures are taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s State and County Quickfacts and an article “Fall River Unemployment Rate Is The Worst In MA” by Samantha Lavien which was part of an ABC News story (references taken from Thomas Frank’s book “Listen, Liberal (2016, p.184). Many of the empty factories in the town are boarded up. Some are now even occupied by organizations that help with drug addiction. I mention these details about Fall Creek, as Frank does to draw a stark contrast with innovative, entrepreneurial, and successful Boston.

Fall River is the result of what could be termed deindustrialization and the decisions politicians make. And there are many Fall River’s in America. According to Frank, towns such as these never return to their former glory. And this is again because of the decisions of politicians. This may sound like the blame game. Here is a quote out of Frank’s book by way of explanation: “Our country’s leaders have blandly accepted a social order that constantly bids down the wages of people like these while bidding up the rewards for innovators, creatives,and professionals.” (p.184). So it goes back to the way the system is biased towards certain choices, while other choices are abandoned and left to rot. The problem is that real live human beings who happen to be the less fortunate in this game rigging decision making are the ones that suffer.

And as often happens in other American towns that have been abandoned, a corporate savior comes in to take advantage of the setting, low rents, low wages they will have to pay, and probably low regulatory enforcement. In the case of Fall River, that corporate savior is Amazon. When the company finally settles in people will be forced to take the only job in town to break out of the unemployment and the poverty. But we are not talking about any “reasonable” job with “reasonable” pay or conditions. Amazon has a reputation for “exhausting work with few benefits while being electronically monitored for efficiency, in order to save the affluent customers of nearby Boston a few pennies when they buy books or electronics” (2016, p.185 referring to a 2015 article in the Boston Globe by Jessica Geller “Amazon Inks Deal on Fulfillment Center in Fall River”).

There is a resentment towards the outside world in Fall River. There is already an antagonistic vent towards public workers in the town, which is not unlike that which occurs in other places. Sadly, this pits individuals against individuals, rather than people working together as a community. This type of dog eat dog is known in Fall River as the “competition for crumbs.”

Fall River represents the declining opportunities of modern American life. Frank calls it a “working-class apocalypse”. In the past you didn’t need a lot of anything to get by – including education or money and there was a sense of community. Things are different today.

Fall River is typical of so many American towns where political choices end up creating which towns/cities are promoted and which are left to rot. The Democratic Party was at one point the Party of the worker. There was a dramatic shift in the 90’s to the point where it is now the Party of high finance, economic growth, creative industries and entrepreneurship.

But there is a problem when it is only helping those at the top end of the financial scale. To quote Frank: “The problem arises when we enshrine innovation as public philosophy – when we look to it as the solution to our economic ills and understand it as the guide for how economies ought to parcel out rewards. To put it bluntly, it is not clear that cheering for innovation in the bombastic way we see in the blue states actually improves the economic well-being of average citizens. For example, the last fifteen years have been a golden age of financial and software innovation, but they have been feeble in terms of GDP growth. In ideological terms, however, innovation definitely works: as a way of excusing soaring inequality and explaining the exalted status of the rich, it is the best we’ve got.” (2016, p.190).

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