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FT.com, July 29 2017
New Hampshire: a tale of two Americas
‘Our community is segregated — there are large and gracious properties, rentals and trailer parks’

by Rana Foroohar

In Russell Banks’s powerful 1989 novel Affliction, which chronicles the downward spiral of a blue-collar everyman from New Hampshire, one of the characters speaks of an “invisible line” that divides the violently beautiful mountains of the hardscrabble north from the rolling and prosperous hills of the south. The same line runs through the population today. New Hampshire is a tiny state but it boasts the seventh-highest number of millionaires in the US. In the dog days of July and August, affluent Bostonians and New Yorkers retreat to summer homes by its picturesque lakes. But New Hampshire is also filled with people like Affliction’s protagonist, Wade Whitehouse, the police officer cum snowplough operator cum handyman struggling with three jobs, trailer-park housing, single parenting and addiction.

My own recent summers by Lake Chocorua have become a window on to this type of economic and social bifurcation, which has become more and more common in America. My husband, a writer who inherited our lake home, employs cleaners, plumbers and tradesmen, some of whose parents worked in the same jobs for his mother. It’s hard not to think of this as a kind of neo-serfdom, given the lack of other options for those without a college degree. Decades ago, the state had a flourishing manufacturing industry but much of that work has since decamped to southern American states, where wages are lower.

New Hampshire ranks higher than average in terms of “knowledge workers” when compared with the US as a whole. But many of these people are actually employed outside the state, at least some of the time. Our neighbours include financiers, film producers, successful artists and entrepreneurs on the one hand, and retail clerks, handymen and house painters on the other. Several underemployed and debt-ridden graduates serve $6 lattes at the one nice coffee place in the area, where you can also buy $100 handmade leather bags, artisanal chocolate and not much else. Other nearby retail outlets include a dollar store and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Exquisite produce and small-batch cheese can be purchased for handsome sums at the Sunday farmers’ market but the only real grocery store is a half-hour’s drive away.

This sort of economic divergence has been well reported over the past year, given that the long-term decline of rust belt and New England states such as New Hampshire was one of the factors in Donald Trump’s victory. But it’s worth noting that the loss of old line-manufacturing jobs isn’t the only reason behind the state’s problems. Policy choices — such as having no income tax and subsequently underinvesting in both healthcare and education — have exacerbated things. New Hampshire funds its limited social services with business and property taxes. The latter are, of course, high and, along with strict zoning laws, drive up the cost of getting on the housing ladder. The community where we live is thus segregated — there are large and gracious properties, rentals and trailer parks.


A few years back, when I drove one of my daughter’s summer-camp friends home, I was greeted by her mother, who had the blackened teeth of a (hopefully former) meth addict. That’s not unusual either. New Hampshire is number two in the nation for opioid-related deaths and number one for fentanyl-related fatalities (a cheaper substance people often use alongside heroin or meth). These deaths of despair aren’t just about the economic hopelessness chronicled by researchers such as Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, or the cultural meltdown covered in JD Vance’s 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. It’s also about the state not investing in its own human capital. New Hampshire has the second-lowest rate of spending on substance-abuse prevention, which is a key reason for drug fatalities. It also fails to invest enough in the only proven way up and out of poverty — education. College students who manage to graduate do so with the highest average levels of debt in the country, since state funding has been so dramatically cut over the past several years. Meanwhile, roughly half of the population has only a high-school degree, which guarantees them a $15-an-hour future.

As Peter Temin, an MIT academic who connects these dots eloquently in his new book The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, puts it: “None of this bodes well for democracy.” Temin and a growing number of other economists see America not as a single country but as two — an upper 20 per cent who live, metaphorically anyway, by the lake, and a lower 80 per cent who, hamstrung by a lack of education and unable to build an asset base, are increasingly despondent. Given this, it’s perhaps no wonder that the county where my husband and I will spend the next two weeks voted Trump. Sadly, if the president has his way, the policies that have helped create New Hampshire’s bifurcated economy will be rolled out to the rest of the nation. That’s an affliction we will all have to deal with.
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