Athens, Ohio — I live in the Appalachian foothills. There are rocky ridges, roads with no ice control, homesteads nestled into valleys and trees that hide the tops of grassy rises.
On some of these rises, down some of these roads, are injection wells that store waste from out-of-state fracking. Some chemicals are stored in drums in the ground, others simply in open pits, like swimming pools of sludge.
I live in a place of poverty: a boot factory where the boots are now mostly manufactured elsewhere. All that remains of a once-legendary brick industry are a few crumbling kilns and piles of seconds dumped in the river. There are abandoned gas stations, abandoned schools, abandoned stores, abandoned mines and creeks that run red with the memory of coal.
My son’s elementary school tested high for lead in its water a few months before he was to start kindergarten. I went on social media and asked about bottled water: What were the safest brands? Should I stock up? Friends expressed horror that I would even consider using bottled water. When I explained the situation, one of my friends, a tenured professor at a university in a large city, said: “Just move!”
“Why don’t you just move?”
“You should just move.”
Many people believe the answer to the problems of poverty is: Get out. Move. Abandon that place and those people — they are lost — and go somewhere else. It is true economists have long argued that moving is one of the best ways to improve a family’s circumstances — but at what cost?
To the tens of millions of Americans who are struggling financially there is no “just” in “just move.”
Moving costs money. There is not only the usually prohibitive cost of renting a truck or hiring movers — in my experience, this typically costs more than the cumulative worth of my stuff — but also putting down a deposit on a new place and paying to set up utilities. We don’t always get our deposits back, especially if we have children, or can’t afford new paint or repairs on the old place.
And as those who have struggled to pay bills on time know: We have to pay extra to set up gas, water and electricity.
There is time lost looking for a new place, listing an old place for sale (or disappearing while a landlord shows it) and packing. Time is money, and when you’re poor you feel that keenly.
Recently, my son and I had to move because our old landlady’s relative was moving into our house. I lost weeks of work to packing. I’m a solo mother, and I make my living as a freelance writer. I didn’t have any time off to move. I just didn’t get paid those weeks.
I needed to get paid those weeks.
I needed money to pay a cleaner for the move-out. I needed money to hire a babysitter so I could work. I needed money for the maintenance I was charged for on the old place. I needed money for fabric because my new windows were bare and faced the street. I needed money for small things: a trash can, an extension cord, light bulbs. Small things add up horribly and fast, especially when you have to buy them all at once.
We moved only a few miles across town. But those few miles cost hundreds of dollars.
A few months before our cross-town move, I was feeling concerned about the water in my town. I was worried about lead that seems to be everywhere now, as long-neglected infrastructures fail and politicians make choices based on profit, and about the fracking wells that could leak chemicals into the water or ground. I asked a friend and long-time resident of my home: “Is it safe here?”
We were sitting on stools at the local hot dog restaurant, where they knew my order by heart. The place where a fry cook once slid over a free basket of fries to my son to comfort him when he was fussy. My friend took a long pause before answering: “Is anywhere safe?”
Though here is the poorest county in the state, here is also where I have family nearby to help. I have babysitters. I know the parks. I know the public library hours. I know an army of fellow solo moms who drop off boxes of hand-me-downs; who take my son to school when I have an emergency; or come over with dinner when we run out of time or boxes of rice. I do the same for them.
We live in a poor place, but it’s also a rural place with a rich farming history; interestingly, most of the studies done on poverty and moving seem to be about urban poverty, but being poor in a rural area is different.
Our crime rate is low, and fresh local food is plentiful, sometimes even at food pantries. We also live in a place with an awareness of need and a strong community spirit. People help. One year, a family donated 9,000 apples to the elementary school so all the children could have fresh fruit for breakfast.
While it is true that moving to a larger city might provide more opportunities to find work, I might lose those financial benefits to higher rents, higher groceries prices and higher child care costs. We also might pay a steep emotional price for moving: the loss of our support system, a network strengthened by living in the same small town for almost a decade.
Writer Alison Stine says neighbors in her area of the Appalachian portion of Ohio have a strong sense of community. She wants her son to experience that community strength and know that he is part of the oldest mountain range in North America. Photo by Alison Stine for Equal Voice News
Poverty is about instability and chaos. What is more chaotic than moving to a strange place where you know no one, where you have no family, no history, no established connections and no help?
When I was young, my family moved a lot. We moved from the country to a small city. We moved for a job for my dad. We moved to be closer to an ill family member. The place we ended up staying, a small town in Ohio, was not, by many accounts, a good place. In fact, when I was in high school, it was voted the worst town in the country, based on a high teen pregnancy rate and low jobs, among other factors.
But it was a good place. Though the town economy was not prosperous, I prospered as a child, as did my siblings. I learned to sing, dance and act at a community theater, which kept me occupied at night. I made friends in the third grade that I still have today. I spent long hours ‘boot skating’ with neighborhood children on the frozen creek in winter, playing capture the flag in the twilight fields in fall, summer and spring. Our small, poor town kept me busy, happy — and safe.
You can’t punish the poor for where they live, and you can’t blame them for staying. Moving is expensive and uncertain, costing not only dollars, but the potential loss of friends, family, support and safety.
In a strange new city, could my son walk to his (free, public) school, being greeted by every neighbor, bus driver and cat along the way?
Could he catch 15 green sunfish in a pond stocked just for kids?
Would he be able to identify bloodroot and goldenrod?
Would he have an awareness, not only of the help others give, but the need to help others in return and still insist we donate his outgrown bike and books?
My safety net is not a great, important job, or even steady, certain work. But it’s woven with the fabric of support from my small, poor and loving community. And that holds.