The Methow Valley is a deeply divided community where wealthy urbanites “blind” to their privilege “hoard” their social capital while impoverished, excluded, resentful rural old-timers struggle to survive.
This is the disturbing thesis of a new book, “Dividing Paradise; Rural Inequality and the Diminishing American Dream,” authored by Washington State University associate professor of sociology Jennifer Sherman and published by University of California Press.
This is not the community many of us believe we’re living in — especially those “newcomers” who’ve put decades of effort into building an extraordinary community here. So it’s a book well worth reading by anyone who cares about everyone who lives in the Methow.
Sherman’s conclusions are provocative. The Methow many of us so smugly assume is a model of a caring community with widespread civic engagement in her telling reads instead much like a cautionary tale of a failed society.
She did field research here in 2014-15, documenting the effect of educated, well-off, urban “amenity migrants” on the lives of less-privileged old-timers. (She changed the place names and names of sources.)
Sherman picked the Methow for study, she said in an interview, because it’s unique in rural America for its successful transformation from extractive to tourist mecca economy.
Why, then, despite decades of community-building efforts by dedicated volunteers and generous donors, have we not managed to create a community, or an economy, that meets the basic needs of the poorest among us? Wrong priorities? Hello?
“That a place that’s trying so hard still has these problems speaks to me of the size of the problem” of economic and social inequality, Sherman said. Inequality is a national problem feeding the politics of grievance, she adds.
Lack of affordable housing, full-time employment and competent child care remain formidable barriers to success for old-timers, she writes.
In addition, the Methow Valley School District “plays an important role in the reproduction and maintenance of inequality within the valley,” acting as a social “sorting” mechanism, Sherman adds. She acknowledges recent improvements but adds the school district “has a long way to go in terms of addressing educational inequality.”
Yet these challenges for old-timers are largely invisible to newcomers, who she found are often dismissive of the valley’s poor and blame them for their plight.
The caring community we think we’ve built is one that too often cares for — and shares its social capital with — mostly privileged people just like ourselves, Sherman damningly observes. Judgement, social boundaries and exclusion of old-timers flourishes even among those who recognized social inequality and expressed a desire to change it, she found.
Old-timers often view newcomers with cynicism and disdain, she rightly notes.
The valley’s impressive, urban-structured, nonprofit charity networks allow middle-class residents “to care about people in the abstract versus in person, to be concerned with issues rather than individuals, and to give to those in need without actually bridging the social divide between the haves and the have-nots,” Sherman writes.
This is not how rural people understand community is done, she adds. Sincere help is given person to person, not at an institutional remove.
While newcomers express satisfaction with their networks and community connections here, old timers often lack those critical connections. They feel judged, excluded and unsupported, she writes. Moreover, newcomers have pushed aside old-timers and deprived them of their voice and power to set the agenda for their community.
The soul-sickening stress of financial insecurity and loss of hope to overcome it that’s felt by many valley residents is starkly documented by Sherman, who notes that she’s never seen people living in worse housing squalor than she saw here.
Rural values can be stubborn, self-sabotaging barriers to success that old-timers erect for themselves, she acknowledges. There’s the deep stigma of accepting help that humiliatingly brands you as a dependent, “less-than” person, she writes, and an ingrained, conservative ethic that it’s a moral failure to accept government help.
Could do better
Sherman also notes the unforgiving nature of small communities, where those who make a mistake often are stamped for a lifetime with a bad reputation that can hinder their efforts to find employment.
“I don’t think this is a failing community,” Sherman said. “In so many ways the valley has benefitted so much from the energy of newcomers. I hope that comes through.” But the community could do better, she added, if people were more aware of sharing the benefits of the valley’s economic growth with old-timers.
No one she interviewed “ever said we shouldn’t have tourism,” Sherman added. Rather, she said, “the take-home was, ‘I wish they’d think about me, too.’”
Some of this conflict strikes me as less about money and more about urban-versus rural values. Urbanites who have never lived in small communities too often do arrive here blind, tone deaf and clueless, disrespectful of rural people and bereft of the social skills and social intelligence they need to live here.
City dwellers survive in cities by tuning out people around them. But here, those people are our neighbors. “Neighboring,” the late Ken Westman’s term, means respecting other human beings enough to help them. In a rural community, that neighbor might one day be you, as early settlers well understood and old timers still do. Neighboring isn’t done by contributing to a charity, however worthy. It requires personal engagement.
And perhaps a little attitude adjustment by newcomers and old-timers alike.
Solveig Torvik, a “newcomer,” lives near Winthrop.