During the last presidential campaign, Mitt Romney’s offhand remark about the 47 percent of us — the takers rather than the makers — still resonates. It serves to sum up a continuing conflict.
There are the 47 percent who receive some form of federal compensation through a government programs: Social Security, Medicare, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, Aid to Dependent Children, Medicaid and veterans’ disability, to name a few who, according to some conservatives’ dicta, are slackers.
These are to be seen as quite separate from those whose business success relies upon federal no-bid contracts and lobbying efforts through which special grants are attached to congressional bills; those receiving federal subsidies, such as airlines and agribusiness; and those who depend on good roads with which to send their product to market — all of this enterprise relying on a stable environment in which to do business, without fear of bandits, hijackers and general chaos. And all of the above secured by our federal and state laws and regulations and their enforcement.
This contrast resonates with me. Living as I do in a rural community with about an equal percentage of the quite affluent and the not very, I see this dichotomy every day. Rensselaerville was once, quite a long time ago, a thriving village of 3,000. It’s been reduced now to about 300 — in winter even less, as many of the second homes lie empty.
When the Huyck Woolen Mills, nourishing that economy of 3,000, was moved in the 19th century to Rensselaer, a great many of the local employees followed suit and the population of the village dwindled — with the exception of the summer holidays, for mill owner E.N. Huyck encouraged his family and friends to summer in Rensselaerville.
There were many fine, airy houses, a lake in which to swim, hills to hike, and a local population available for housecleaning, laundry, groundskeeping, gardening, and general maintenance.
For city children it was ideal. To this day, for the summer residents who return each year to open the family house, the fond memories linger: swimming at the lake, boating, tennis, hikes in the hills, and reasonable prices. During the Great Depression, the children would be sent out early with a milk pail. A quart of wild strawberries could be had for a quarter.
The Huycks, who did much to foster this social climate, are today a semi-familiar name to most current newcomers. However, that division between those with comfortable means, usually acquired from employment in more prosperous places, and those without that opportunity still exists.
Case in point
A case illustrating the division could be the $350,000 contributed for the replacement of the rotting steeple and church spire in the graceful 200-year-old Presbyterian church at the center of the village vs. the local food pantry’s need to cut back its services from five or four days’ worth of food for a family for a month.
It could be a large private nature preserve that limits development. It could be the lake it surrounds, which at one time was free to all comers vs. its present organization: restricted to those able to afford a $50 membership in the Huyck Preserve and a further $75 to compensate the lifeguards.
Or the division might be most clearly seen in the group of mainly second-home owners in the village dedicated to restricting new homes to 20-acre lots vs. a long tradition of young marrieds establishing their mobile home upon the family land (20-acre portion or not) — land too rocky for crops, no longer profitable for dairy farming.
The influence of the affluent among us in our village tends to restrict rather than encourage growth and development; for in their retirement, either permanent or for the weeks spent here in the summer, they would like matters to stand as they are, preserve the peace, the quiet, the general lack of hustle and bustle. But hustle and bustle, commercial activity, is needed to make one’s living.
This conflict between those who have already secured their living in other more prosperous places now desiring the calm of stasis, and those deprived of that opportunity by rural distances and lack of connections, brings me around to this 47 percent of “slackers.”
Some of them are the very retirees and second-home owners, themselves receiving Social Security and Medicare. Most of the rest of the 47 percent are receiving several forms of assistance — county, state, federal — without which they would be cold and hungry. I shudder to think of how much colder and hungrier they would be if the Republicans had won this last election.
According to the Republican platform, Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, Social Security would be under sharp scrutiny, as would Planned Parenthood, which provides women affordable health care. Labor unions would no doubt be under even further unfavorable pressure, as they haven been in Wisconsin. Environmental regulation most likely would be eased, as it has under previous conservative administrations; the terrain in our hills can help create devastating floods. The devastation from one recent hurricane in Schoharie was severe.
Generally, under conservative governments a dark pall tends to inhibit most ideas that contribute to social progress. In our village it would encourage the already-strong entrenchment of a conservative bent rarely enthusiastic about any social program calling for expenditure, thus higher taxes.
At the moment, the 47 percent in Rensselaerville are alive, though not doing very well. Still they are soldiering on: They will continue to commute, paying exorbitant prices for gas, to jobs in the city, if they have them. They will continue to clean the large houses, work part time in the library, the local restaurant, the diner. They will repair and reconstruct those airy houses owned by the 53 percent, if they are asked. They will repair to the food pantry if they must. They will gather at the diner for coffee and talk — sometimes the topic will be those 53 percent and their odd ways.
They may or may not appreciate what they have not lost by benefit of a Democratic victory in the last election. But they will encourage their children to study hard and go looking elsewhere for more prosperous pastures.
Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.