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Two Grand Canyons

Essay by Mary Sojourner

Rural economy – April 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR ├ćONS, Arizona had only one Grand Canyon, our high desert ocean of rock and light, our beloved Big Ditch. No more. A second abyss is opening, ugly as the original is beautiful.

Mid-January, Pulling Apart, a study prepared by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Economic Policy Institute, announced the gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans is growing rapidly — and, Arizona is second for that grim distinction.

The Arizona Republic’s headline read: Rich, poor chasm widens. Imagine canyon rims, one lavish with landscaping, another stripped of everything.

Imagine a retired couple living in 8,000 square feet of “Rustic Park Style” native wood and stone on one rim; a family jammed into a motel room on the other.

This is 21st Century Arizona — Scottsdale, Prescott, Tucson and Flagstaff; forests leveled, deserts scraped raw, intact neighborhoods bulldozed; rents so high working people have to hold two and three jobs to make ends meet; a state where some mothers ask an advice columnist what they should do with the surplus food they stored for Y2K, and others flock to shelters for their kids’ meals. A state where aging men and women buy new faces and bodies; and roughly a million Arizonans, one-fifth of the population, cannot afford health insurance — 300,000 of them children.

Experts tell us there are reasons for the gap: Wall Street’s bull market; rich retirees flocking to our golf courses and gated developments; low-wage service jobs replacing manufacturing work; indigenous people, students and immigrants from Mexico and Central America working for minimum wage, or less.

The study understates the incomes of the richest, not intentionally, but because capital gains, the profits made from the sale of stocks, real estate and other assets, are not included (in 1997, the top 5 percent of American families received 75 percent of all capital gains).

So, the abyss widens — and opens everywhere. New Mexico weighs in third, the poorest earning $8,720, and the wealthiest, $111,295. And, while Montana ($10,762-$99,904) and Wyoming ($13,238-$108,450) fare better, the incomes of the middle fifth dropped 15.7 percent in Wyoming and 9.9 percent in Montana, while the top fifth’s incomes continued to grow. In Colorado, the mid-fifth’s earnings grew 9.2 percent, while the top fifth’s zoomed 30.5 percent. Similarly, Idaho’s mid-fifth grew a modest 1.9 percent while the top fifth jumped 25 percent

Beyond these figures are considerations perhaps more essential, because what lies between the dwellings of the richest and poorest is not the bright mineral air of our Big Ditch. It is the emptiness left after insatiable hungers have fed.

How much is enough? How many Range Rovers and Lexi? How many homes?

Clearly not one. Sometimes, two, not rarely three or four. Huge, silent houses whose owners occupy them a month, a week, a weekend a year.

Flagstaff’s temporary neighbors drive up from the heat of Phoenix and Tucson, play a few rounds of pricey golf, dine out, spend a couple of nights in “the cabin,” and leave. They will tell you they have worked hard for their money — in a country in which over 65% of the wealth of the top 5% of the population is inherited. What they won’t tell you is that many of them have made their millions from “developing” the deserts and forests in which their vacation mansions squat. “We have the right,” they say, “It’s private property. If you want to protect land, buy it!”

THEIR WORDS echo across Arizona’s economic chasm. “Buy it!” How? Pulling Apart tells us the most wealthy Arizonans earned an average $141,190 annually while the state’s poorest made $10,801. How do you buy food for your family, shelter, clothing, medical care, school supplies on $10,000 a year? — much less land that goes for $60,000 to $500,000 a lot.

A few days after Pulling Apart was released, our local daily carried an editorial response in which we were told: “rather than bashing the rich — be looking at ways to raise family incomes for newly arrived immigrants, Native Americans on reservations and other groups such as minimum-wage service workers.” The following morning I learned northern Arizona’s only educational/job training program geared specifically for “displaced homemakers” was gone. The same state politicos that gleefully announced budget surpluses last spring had slashed the program’s funds.

These days, it costs $20 per car to enter Grand Canyon National Park, to stand on the edge of timeless beauty, to be reminded of how fleeting human fortunes are. For those living on the wealthy side of Arizona’s new chasm, the fee is a bargain. For their poorest neighbors across the shameful gap, it is 10 percent of their weekly wage.

Mary Sojourner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News She writes from Flagstaff, Arizona.