Making do in this economy | Opinion

How much does it actually cost to keep one’s head above water in this economy? Studies show the cost of living in Marysville to be significantly higher than in Spokane or Walla Walla and planners who determine Washington’s poverty level fail to properly take this into account. This economy can be cruel if you’re not equipped to cope with it.

In western movies, penniless cowboys dickered with stable-owners for beds in haylofts in turn for feeding animals and cleaning stalls. More recently, my wife’s family farm had four milkers’ houses. A milker’s modest pay-package included housing, utilities, dairy products, meat and garden plot. It was enough for the times.

The frontier-town’s stable is long gone as are modest milkers’ houses and the simple needs of yesteryear. Manual labor jobs were decimated when backhoes replaced picks and shovels. Today, hundreds of carpenters with nailers and circular saws do the work thousands once did with hammers and hand-saws.  A balance between work and reward that served society until the end the 1960s gave way to a technology-driven system that upped productivity while cutting at the labor force at every turn.

The past era was characterized by a can-do economy rooted in rugged individualism. Loggers who founded Marysville couldn’t qualify for building loans because of the hazards of their work built homes a few boards at a time following each payday. No building permits, no inspection fees, no architects, no escrow. And no debt.

More broadly, they had no storm-water-abatement tax, environmental impact statements, curb and gutter assessments or garbage collection bills. Marysville properties are perforated with old wells from the time when free water was taken from holes in the ground. Car insurance was optional, no smart phones requiring data-packs, no deluxe TV packages, no casinos. It was a simpler and less costly time in so many ways.

Take a look at today’s breadwinners in a family of four. Call them the Martins. Assume that, like many, the Martins had no education beyond high school. If mom and dad Martin work a total of 80 hours per week at $10 per hour they gross a combined $800. That yields an after-deductions residue of about $600 which gives them something like $2,400 per month to work with.

Before the Martins can think of buying one discretionary cup of coffee at McDonald’s they have to cover monthly expenses. Rent for their average two-bedroom Marysville apartment costs $1,000 per month. Keeping a 20 year-old clunker fueled, repaired and running costs $300 per month. They spend another $100 per week at Winco for food and $75 for non-food items. Utilities, gas, TV and telephone (no land-line) sets them back $200. We’re up to $2,200 per month now.

Renter’s insurance, car liability insurance, prescriptions, clothing, household supplies, school fees, birthday presents, bicycles, personal care and incidentals easily take care of the rest. Notice that there’s nothing left to cover medical costs and that if Mr. and Mrs. Martin work at different sites, they have but one car.

We haven’t included $9.99 a month for Netflix which is the cheapest entertainment available. Nor is there a spending-money allowance for the kids. Movies are out. Even casual entertaining fare like chips and salsa might not fit into the $400 per month food budget.

What to do? The Martins have three choices if there’s too much month left at the end of the money: Work second jobs, use a credit card or take a payday loan. Of course exercising two of those puts them on a slippery slope. While rich folks enjoy protection from usurious loan rates, Washington’s tax code sticks it to the poor. To be fair, much of the seeming unfairness is because of real risks involved in lending to people without assets.

You may have noticed an explosion of new payday loan offices lining State Avenue. Banks are into it, too. Aside from banks, borrowers have eight store-front check-cashers to choose from. Add the on-line loan outfits and the number serving Marysville rises to forty-two. Watch out, though. Under the law it can cost $10 to $35 up-front to get an advance of $100.

Retail installment credit is another example of how financial practices prey on the poor: Interest on retail installment debts (Kohl’s or Target cards, etc.) isn’t limited by Washington’s usury laws. Credit card issuers complying with RCW 63.14.167 are exempted from interest limits which is why they can charge outrageous rates. Second, any licensed check-casher with a small-loan endorsement is allowed to exceed the maximum rate allowable under usury law for loans of $700 or less. (RCW 31.45.030).

The deck is stacked against Marysville’s unemployed and under-employed and it seems that the nation’s power brokers like it that way. What they fail to see is that by undercutting hope and opportunity they weaken the very fabric of the nation.

So long as leaders of the financial sector dictate lending-laws, the poor will be victimized and society will have to pick up the pieces. The result is another example of, “Privatize profit and socialize loss.”

Comments may be sent to rgraef@frontier.com.


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