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The income gap is growing

Sept. 7, 2009

by Ivan Raconteur

Another visit to the north shore has left me energized and refreshed.

It also reminded me that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is shrinking faster than the polar ice caps.

There are a wide variety of accommodations available on the north shore, from rustic backwoods camping to luxury condos with all of the amenities.

It seems to me that there is a growing number of high-end properties that charge $200, $300, or even $400 per night during the high season.

I suspect that a lot of the people who work in these places, or the service businesses that support them, could never afford to stay at these luxurious properties (assuming they get any time off).

This is true the world over, of course, but the contrast seems to stand out on the north shore.

It is a concentrated strip of land bordered by Lake Superior on one side, and the Sawtooth Mountains and the Superior National Forest on the other.

A trip up the 150 or so miles of the scenic North Shore Drive provides views of the stark contrast between the “haves” and “have-nots.”

My journey this time took me from Duluth to Grand Marais, and back again.

I am always curious about how people live, and I try to get off the beaten path, as it were, to see how they do it.

Tourist areas are generally well-maintained, but once one gets away from the bright lights, the back streets can tell a very different story.

Beyond the posh opulence of the resorts and attractions is a much more modest reality.

In Two Harbors, for example, I explored some neighborhoods near the waterfront.

There was no need for speed limit signs, because prudence dictated the maximum rate of travel. I felt sure that any attempt to drive faster than five miles per hour would have reduced my car to scrap in the space of about three blocks.

The condition of the streets reminded me of news photos of the streets in a bad neighborhood in Baghdad after a particularly rough weekend.

I don’t remember reading about any recent bombing raids targeting the fair city of Two Harbors, but the streets suggest that bombs may have fallen.

In my hometown of Duluth, too, the residential streets left something to be desired.

In the downtown area, streets are congested due to the volume of tourist traffic. In the residential neighborhoods, the streets are congested because they are just that small.

I had forgotten this until driving through the area surrounding the schools I once attended. The streets are so narrow, it is practically impossible for two vehicles to meet when cars are parked along one side of the road.

It occurred to me that it is much worse in the winter, when the streets are even narrower due to the accumulation of snow.

The area that I found most disturbing was Skyline Parkway, which runs along the hillside, and provides panoramic views of the city from above.

It was once a destination for residents and tourists alike, but it appears that the city has given up the fight to maintain it.

In some of the cities I visited, it is as if the government has made a decision to put money into the tourist areas and let other areas slide.

Many north shore communities live and die by the tourist trade, so it is understandable why they would want to take care of tourist areas. It does seem, however, that some minimal maintenance could be done in other areas.

I don’t wish to be critical of what is one of the most beautiful regions in the world, and there is no doubt that the disparity observed here can be found across the country.

It does illustrate, though, the income and expenditure gap that plagues the nation.

This growing disparity has also fueled some of the anger that people have expressed at bailouts and other selective uses of tax dollars.

The same themes emerged time and again in coffee shops and restaurants along the shore.

There is a feeling that the people who have received aid are not necessarily the ones who needed it. At the same time, there are those in need who have not been eligible for a seat on the governmental gravy train.

I heard this from old men having coffee and the fish special at a café, from construction workers sharing a beer at a local watering hole, and from young people hanging out on the waterfront.

Those who dare to look at their 401k statements cannot understand how bailing out Wall Street is providing any benefit to them.

Many people who did not contribute to the economic problems are feeling the pain, but getting none of the benefits.

At the same time, people are outraged at the idea that some of the executives who steered their companies into disaster are collecting fat bonuses, while at the same time laying off workers and asking taxpayers for help.

Greed is rewarded and responsible behavior is punished.

The gap between the few who hold most of the wealth and the many who have watched their share of the American dream shrinking is getting wider.

On the north shore and across the country, those who are left holding the short end of the stick don’t like it much.