I’m writing this on an Amtrak service from Washington, DC to New York City. What’s striking for anyone on this journey is the contrast between the buzz and opulence of those major cities and the rundown, even dilapidated, state of the towns in between.
It is a vivid illustration of wealth inequality and an out-of-kilter economy. As one friend told me, “It’s Washington and New York with Beirut in between”. An exaggeration, of course, but there’s more than some truth in it.
As the train rolls past towns like Wilmington, Delaware or Baltimore, Maryland, the failure of the US economy to extend opportunity beyond pockets of prosperity like New York and Silicon Valley is on graphic display. Shuttered shopfronts, foreclosed homes, ragged streets. People in towns like these, most often of people of colour, are trapped by cratering property prices that preclude selling up and moving; and substandard education that constrains their employment prospects, even if jobs existed, and brings about a pervasive sense of hopelessness.
‘Talk about a dream’, Bruce Springsteen urged strivers in places like these, ‘and try to make it real’. Not to pick a fight with the Boss, but dreams don’t have much of a shelf life up against entrenched, grinding poverty and prolonged, bipartisan political neglect.
These communities of colour are removed from Donald Trump’s narrative. What he casts as economic hardship brought about by the policies of his predecessors is really a call to white grievance. In his telling, the struggles of the white working class in the era of globalisation are not so much shared by non-whites as somehow caused by them. The President’s is not a subtle pitch: less dog whistle than vuvuzela.
It brings to mind – in a more restrained Kiwi way – some of the cynical commentary prompted by efforts to boost parts of New Zealand that have long been ignored.
As successive governments have pursued an Auckland-first economic strategy, it’s undeniable that country towns and far flung communities have suffered as a result. And yet when ministers like Shane Jones spearhead efforts to reverse the slide, all of a sudden it’s pork-barreling; vote-buying; waste.
Structural inequality creates two-track economies. For the lucky and privileged, prosperity and social mobility enable congenial lives of richness and purpose. For the rest, insecure employment, substandard wages and depleted social services make every day a struggle.
Already in New Zealand, inter-generational poverty and welfare dependency deprive far too many kids of the futures they deserve. And, while we have a robust safety net compared to the US, we fall well short when it comes to tackling this. Incremental cash payments in the form of benefits, while essential, are no long-term solution.
Towns without critical economic infrastructure, with underfunded schools, and hopelessly ill-equipped workforces have no hope of attracting the job-producing businesses those communities desperately need.
That’s what Shane Jones and his colleagues understand. Investments in provincial New Zealand are about avoiding the fate of the ghost towns flying past my window as I write.
Such policies are grounded in the moral conviction that all New Zealanders deserve a shot; but they are also good economic sense. The Kiwi economy is unusually vulnerable to external shocks and commodity fluctuations. We can’t afford passengers. We can’t condemn struggling communities to more of the same.