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The town which I come from is like many others in America: it lies just outside a big city, the streets are aligned in near perfect grids, and there is a small downtown area which features a bank and a grocery store. Churches of varying denominations are in abundance. The Stars and Stripes flutters over red brick public school buildings, a striking sight on a clear summer’s day.
Looking at the tidy lawns and the carefully painted exteriors of the homes in my town, it is relatively easy to think that this is a prosperous country. There is an air of quiet affluence that accompanies being house-proud. On a bright June afternoon, Obama’s America seems a good place to be, particularly in contrast to the depressing images of homelessness, dereliction and unemployment which scar much of Britain and Europe. Surely, then, Americans should be grateful for their relative good fortune and surely they wish to re-elect the President.
However, go to the next town and the picture changes: in less than a quarter mile along a main thoroughfare, I counted no less than 5 large stores and office buildings that had lost previous occupiers and now were either for sale or rent. Other stores promise big bargains or state they’re going into liquidation. The windows of the empty shops are dirty; inside, bills which will never be paid lay scattered along the dusty floors along with brightly coloured junk mail. This America is bankrupt, broken and clearly dissatisfied. If this is Obama’s America, then it surely won’t be his for long.
How can the two be reconciled? When one speaks of either economic despair or boom there is an assumption that its effects are broadly uniform, and exceptions, such as the continuing London property boom are just that, exceptional. What is striking about America’s economic recovery, however, is how patchy it is: indeed, it is its motif.
As statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show, states which are prospering sit side-by-side with those which are suffering. For example, Texas’ economy grew 3.3% in 2011 while next door in New Mexico, growth was just 0.2%. North Dakota’s economy grew a staggering 7.6%; this is largely due to its tapping into natural gas resources. Its neighbour, South Dakota, grew at a measly 0.8%. As my former home town and its neighbour illustrate further, this patchiness extends to a micro level: towns which thrive and suffer live in close proximity. While the overall economy may grow, this strange mosaic prevents an overall impression of well-being from taking root. Read more of this post