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Late in the 1950s I traveled to Holyoke, Massachusetts with my mother and a friend of hers to visit the friend’s sister. In the 1950s, coming from central Rhode Island, this was quite a trip. I recall a pleasant neighborhood, not unlike the neighborhood in which my family lived. I remember nicely spaced homes among tree-lined streets.
Some forty years later Holyoke would once again impinge upon my consciousness. I had been hiking in the Green Mountains of Vermont for many years and turned the FM dial to a talk show originating from Springfield, Massachusetts, only a few miles south of where I had turned onto Interstate 91 North headed for the Vermont border. It took a bit of a reality check as the talk show host related the dire situation that had overcome Holyoke where unemployment and drug use intersected. Was this the place I remembered and had visited so long ago?
On September 10, Senator Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for vice president visited Holyoke for a fundraiser. According to an article by Gary Lapon in The Socialist Worker (September 16), Biden raised $300,000 in a combined reception and dinner held at the Log Cabin. The reception cost $500 per person, while the dinner was a bit pricier at $2,300.
Biden’s fundraiser was held in a city where The Boston Globe reports 1 in 5 children is homeless. That fact alone is remarkable in a state known for its liberalism and high per capita income. Figures from the Census Bureau show that from 2000 to 2005 the percent of children living in poverty rose from 33 percent to almost 40 percent in Holyoke! The number of families living in poverty rises astronomically for families in Holyoke headed by a woman, and even further for families headed by a woman living with a child under 5-years-old. In 2000 the per capita income for people of Latino background living in Holyoke was $7,757, or about 40 percent of the income of white households in that city.
Holyoke is a city of immigrants who came to western Massachusetts to work in the textile and paper mills, industries that began a long decline in the first half of the twentieth century. By the time a surge of Latino immigrants from Puerto Rico arrived in the city in the 1960s, industries and opportunities had nearly vanished.
Holyoke, however, does have well-to-do neighborhoods which border the city’s central section where apartment buildings give way to middle-class homes like the one I visited as a child. Nearby, just a few miles away is the Ingleside Mall, a consumer “paradise” where the presence of large numbers of security guards allows the shopper to read between the lines about the vast difference in socio-economic status of people from surrounding communities such as Holyoke, Springfield, and Northampton.
In an undated and unsigned article written for the group Girls Incorporated, the author describes the lives of two girls, Raquel and Sandy (fictitious names), as they move between the sports events the group sponsors and the girls’ lives and homes. One of the girl’s coaches describes the apartment complex where she brings Raquel after a softball practice.
“I followed them through the dark stairwell reeking with the pungent smell of urine and lined with men who leered at us past their bottles of alcohol. None of this seemed to phase [sic] the two (girls) as they marched right past the filth and dirt. As the door to the apartment opened I (the coach) became privy to a world that, though it existed in my backyard, I had never seen before. There were three adults and three children in a small three room apartment.”
Much of the work that is available in Western Massachusetts is in the service sector, and much of that work is only on a part-time basis. The median wage for part-time service workers in the area is $8 per hour according to the group Western Massachusetts Labor Action (WMLA). The group reports that in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Massachusetts, a full-time service worker would have to make $16.43 an hour. Just west of Hampton County, where Holyoke is located, lies Berkshire County. In the latter, where median income is higher than in Hampton County, about “half of the county’s tenants can’t afford their rent,” according to WMLA. In the last three years Massachusetts has lost 87,000 manufacturing jobs according to the group, once the bedrock of the economy and the hope of residents arriving to the area.
Following the meal and fundraiser in Holyoke, Joe Biden left to continue the presidential campaign. Since his fundraiser the federal government has spent over $800 billion to bailout banks with failing mortgage-related “assets”; $85 billion to insurance giant American International Group; $200 billion from the Treasury to the Federal Reserve to shore up the latter; an additional $180 billion to failing banks; and is on track to spend between three and four trillion dollars, ultimately the cost for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These figures represent the collusion of the Bush administration and its enablers in Congress. The national debt has risen from $10.6 trillion to more than $16.3 trillion, with no end in sight as the bailout seems to be a bust!
Meanwhile, the number the number of children like Raquel and Sandy continues to grow in places like Holyoke. There was a time in this nation’s history when such hypocrisy would have been called shameful!
HOWARD LISNOFF tutors writing at a community college and is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.