TERRE HAUTE —
Scout Finch didn’t know her family’s economic status. Maybe it’s better that way.
In the book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout wonders why a client of her father — small-town lawyer Atticus Finch — repays his bill for Atticus’ legal services with firewood, turnip greens and hickory nuts. In the midst of the Great Depression, the man, Mr. Cunningham, has no money, Atticus tells his young daughter, so he offers goods instead.
“Are we poor, Atticus?” Scout asks.
“We are indeed,” her father answers.
“Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?” Scout said.
“Not exactly,” Atticus answers. “The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash [of 1929] hit them hardest.”
Economic status has been a point of debate this week as Congress decides whether to extend tax cuts originally imposed by former President George W. Bush. Some Democrats oppose a deal between President Obama and congressional Republicans that would keep the cuts for all Americans. In the midst of a slow recession recovery, those Democrats say the tax cuts should be dropped for “the wealthiest Americans” — couples earning $250,000 a year or more, and individuals earning more than $200,000.
In some parts of the United States, Scout Finch’s question is getting turned upside down …
“Are we rich?”
Millions of people around the globe would say, in relation to their own lives, that most Americans — not just the top 2 percent of income earners — are rich. At the beginning of this decade, an estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide were living on less than $1.25 a day, according to The World Bank’s definition of “extreme poverty,” and 2.7 billion lived on less than $2 a day (defined as “moderate poverty.”)
Our own standards are different, of course. Access to safe drinking water, for example, isn’t a concern for most of Americans. Instead, we measure our status by our ability to pay for housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care and entertainment. The cost of a ranch-style house, a gallon of milk, gas heat, a new pickup truck and knee-replacement surgery varies from Tennessee to California, and from Peoria, Ill., to New York City.
Thus, couples pulling down $250,000 in the Big Apple are hearing Congress classify them as some of “the wealthiest Americans,” and they’re wondering aloud, “Are we really rich?”
Maybe not as rich as a Hautean couple at the $250,000 plateau, if those New Yorkers look strictly at bills and pay stubs.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau released updated statistics on cities and counties across the nation in its 2005-2009 American Community Survey 5-year estimates for education, income, family relationships, housing, employment and myriad categories. The word “rich” isn’t used, but it’s not impossible to figure out.
In Vigo County, out of 41,932 households, only 545 brought in a combined income of $200,000 or more last year. The median household income stood at $37,509. (“Median” means exactly in the middle — half of Vigo County households earned more than $37,509, and half earned less.) The median household income was $51,425 nationally, and $47,465 for Indiana. Just 1.3 percent of Vigo County households earn $250,000 or more; in New York City, 6.2 percent top that mark.
A $250,000 income in Terre Haute equates to $572,802 in New York, according to the cost of living comparison calculator on Sperling’s Best Places to Live website. A $250,000 salary here is like $554,945 in Boston, or $706,731 in San Francisco.
Then again, Terre Haute doesn’t have the Knicks, Yankees, Mets, Jets, Giants or Rangers. There’s no Metropolitan Opera here, or Rockefeller Center or Statue of Liberty. By contrast, for folks interested in a more peaceful, slower-paced life with the amenities of a Midwestern college town, Terre Haute beats NYC.
Wealth is in the eye of the beholder.
Do you like driving to work in solitude? Eighty-two percent of Vigo County workers drive their own vehicle to their jobs daily, on an average one-way commute of 19.8 minutes. Only 23 percent of New Yorkers drive to work; 55 percent use public transportation, 10 percent walk, and their average travel time is 39 minutes.
Are those Hauteans richer or poorer than the higher-paid New Yorkers?
If your household earns $15,000 to $24,999 yearly in Terre Haute, you still outearn more than 20 percent of your Vigo County neighbors.
Earlier this year, a friend of mine spent three months working in Haiti, cleaning up rubble from homes and buildings demolished by the deadly, massive earthquake there. He’d made similar relief trips to New Orleans and the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina. “After I came back from my first trip, I realized I had no problems; I had inconveniences, at best,” he said.
In the United States, most of us have access to a warm, dry place to sleep, adequate food and water, public schools and job possibilities, and the freedom to speak, worship and gather.
The debate over taxes in America will go on and on and on and on, through president after president, and Congress after Congress. In the meantime, especially during this Christmas season, let’s remember that those questions — “Are we rich?” and “Are we poor?” — could always be answered differently by someone else. For each of us, there’s a neighbor like the Cunninghams.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.
TERRE HAUTE —
Scout Finch didn’t know her family’s economic status. Maybe it’s better that way.
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
MARK BENNETT: Words, and what they mean, is what we remember
I remember scanning the granite wall at the grave of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, looking for those words.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John getting another shot at Baseball Hall of Fame
Go ahead, circle Dec. 9 on your calendar.
Filling our void: Terre Haute artist Bill Wolfe poured his heart and soul into the project of a lifetime
Bill Wolfe thumbed through a series of photographs documenting his sculpture of basketball legend Larry Bird.
MARK BENNETT: Keeping Terre Haute a vibrant city ‘worth doing’
The past, present and future had just converged at the Crossroads of America.
The moment was made possible by the gutsy spirit of 1920s Terre Haute. Without it, the city would look starkly different.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John’s Field of Dreams
A kid pedals a bicycle, a ball glove looped over the handlebar, headed to a sandlot game.
It didn’t get much better than that for a 10-year-old in summertime.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s Donnelly part of ‘The Middle’ that got deal done
Hanging out in the middle isn’t cool.
Its occupants don’t attract a captivated circle of listeners at parties, their comments don’t inspire hell-yeahs on Facebook, and they don’t pretend to always be right.
MARK BENNETT: ISU professor’s book on Churchill to be TV period drama
Somewhere, Winston Churchill is lighting a celebratory cigar in Michael Shelden’s honor.
MARK BENNETT: Restoration improves courthouse top’s standing in skyline
Terre Haute has a skyline.
From some angles, it consists of billboards, restaurant marquees and convenience-store signs. From other spots, the outlines of historic buildings, church steeples, college dorms and old industries jut into the horizon.
MARK BENNETT: Inspiring project connects Blues Festival, B&G Club members with music
Think a decade into the future. You’re relaxing amid a sea of fellow lawn-chair sitters at Seventh and Wabash, watching the 23rd annual Blues at the Crossroads Festival. Suddenly, the guy on stage starts playing your old Fender guitar. He sounds like the next B.B. King. Then, the guitarist dedicates a song to the person who donated that worn Telecaster to the youth music program in which he learned to play it.
MARK BENNETT: Even Marty McFly wouldn’t want to go back to those paydays
Reliving the 1980s may sound tempting.
Ah, simpler times. Then again … hair styles as big as mushroom clouds, “Miami Vice” jackets, the trickle-down theory, New Coke, Yugos.
OK, “Back to the Future”-style nostalgia obviously has its limits.
MARK BENNETT: Hoops film focuses on life of ‘Slick’ Leonard
Many Americans connect basketball with Indiana.
MARK BENNETT: Rose-Hulman bridge design would let people walk, run, ride across Wabash River
Four months, 500 miles and 18 towns.
In the course of compiling the “500 Miles of Wabash” series, which concludes this Sunday, Tribune-Star photographer Jim Avelis and I heard valuable insights from dozens of people who live, work and recreate along Indiana’s state river. One comment seems particularly relevant to Terre Haute, especially as the ongoing 2013 Year of the River celebration stirs ideas. The quotation affirms the potential of a stellar proposal this community ought to consider.
MARK BENNETT: When did athleticism surpass skill in sports?
Baseball has gotten too athletic.
MARK BENNETT: Steve Martin keeps Terre Haute on burner
If insults are a form of flattery, Steve Martin still likes us.
Better yet, he hasn’t forgotten us.
MARK BENNETT: At 71, Paul McCartney still rocking it eight days a week
I’ll admit, I worried about Paul McCartney during the blistering intro to “Helter Skelter.”
MARK BENNETT: Forget the cellphone, enjoy the summer
The third rail post from the left on the second-floor patio. By holding a cellphone at eye level, with your left hand, while standing perfectly still, without blinking, a faint one-bar signal was possible. Possible. Otherwise, there was no connection to the outside world at this retreat spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where my wife and I stayed earlier this month
MARK BENNETT: Time for surf, sand and a good book
I can read a book on the beach. Until I start sweating. Then it feels like exercise, minus the fitness perks. My brain shifts into neutral as the waves roll in, blissfully washing away footprints in the sand and my inclination to think. Better put, I enjoy starting a book on the beach, and finishing it later, elsewhere.
Police: Mom, son conspire to kill witness
The Clay County Sheriff’s Department seems to have prevented what it believes was a mother-and-son conspiracy to commit murder.
Banks of the Wabash Festival is more than just yearly entertainment
Pioneers think counterintuitively. Where others see widespread apathy, they focus on the possibility for progress. In a way, the 2013 Year of the River celebration began in the 1970s.
MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
MARK BENNETT: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing concept
The dog ate my homework. That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment. Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies.
MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives
Remember that name.
MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant
The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable. When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day.
MARK BENNETT: New reality steers Nashville singer to Crossroads for Historical Society concert
People pass through the Crossroads of America for lots of reasons.
Business trips. College campus events. Federal prison sentences. Visits with relatives. Gas pitstops.
Or maybe a career change and a twist of fate.
Ty Brown makes his first stop in downtown Terre Haute as the headliner of a multi-band Sweet Sensations Country Jam concert May 4 in the Ohio Building — a fundraiser for the Vigo County Historical Society.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years
People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.
“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.
The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week.
MARK BENNETT: Memories, emotions rush back with announcement of new pope
I saw a pope once.Read quickly, that sentence sounds too casual, almost as if we’d crossed paths at Home Depot. Say it slowly, though, and the significance comes through.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections of grid success stir with Brent Anderson’s passing
A few hundred miles away, and nearly 40 years gone by, a special game ball still occupies a fond place in Rudy Bohinc’s memories.
Lent meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute
Initially, the concept might conjure images of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman jumping out of an airplane or sitting atop the Pyramids. Instead, think “Lent Meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute.”
MARK BENNETT: Never truer: Knowledge vital to narrowing ‘skills gap’
The pillar at the gates of Faber College in the movie “Animal House” bore a wise motto, despite its tongue-in-cheek intent …
MARK BENNETT: Great-niece to re-enact Paul Dresser’s musical legacy in Terre Haute show
People can be forgotten. Their lives end, time passes and memories fade.
Often, the only keepers of their legacies are family and friends, who tell and retell their stories, generation to generation.
For Paul Dresser, his fame burned strong enough as a turn-of-the-century, million-seller songwriter to preserve bits of his public notoriety.
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: Words, and what they mean, is what we remember