19 December 2008

Pick Ups and Palm Fronds

I spent three years living in Georgia (hence the name) and I must say, it changed me. Going in, I was young, naïve, fresh out of high school, and convinced that better emissions standards and universal recycling were the solution to the world’s environmental problems.

Boy was I wrong.

Savannah, where I lived, is occasionally called the “Little Easy”, the smaller, quainter version of New Orleans. Take everything you know about New Orleans and distill it (and take away most of the jazz and the Girls Gone Wild and insert Paula Dean) and you’ll end up with Savannah. There are still arguable differences (not much French spoken in Savannah) but the underlying concept remains. Centralized, historic downtown, built on a filled in swamp that doesn’t like to stay down. Sprawling, more or less modern suburbs that back up against an often disturbing industrial presence- in this case, dominated by the paper mills. And widespread, in your face poverty, typically divided on racial lines.

If you drive into Savannah the back way- not on 95- you will witness a startling introduction to what is otherwise a charming, slow, beautifully restored historic town. Row after row of government built housing, most of it in shambles, crumbling schools, abandoned vehicles, empty storefronts and lots everywhere you look- it still maintains a certain beauty, as does all of Georgia, but there’s no denying something is deeply wrong.

A few facts: “In the 2000 census, the rate [of poverty] was 22 percent for the city overall and significantly higher in five census tracts… Nearly 35 percent of the city’s households earn less than $20,000 per year.” (http://www.stepupsavannah.org/) The current federal poverty line, in other words the amount the federal government deems sufficient for a family to survive, “out of poverty,” is $21,200 per year for a family of four.

Imagine, for a moment, a place where over a third of the population lives in poverty. Possibly you have had this experience in your life, and possibly it changed you the way it changed me. It took a little while to sink in, and my constant volunteering exposed me to it more directly than the majority of the students who lived ensconced in the historic district.

There was one moment, early on, that set the wheels turning. I was with some friends, and was complaining that Georgia does not have emissions testing. In Maryland, where I am from, you must have your car tested every few years to determine if your emissions exceed the quantity set by the state government. If you fail to comply, you must have your car repaired to meet the standards, or you can’t drive. None of this exists in Georgia. After watching a particularly run down pick up drive down the road, spewing fumes, I asked how this could be- especially with so many trucks on the road clearly in need of repair. One of my friends, herself from Georgia, replied: “They can’t afford it.”

This didn’t make immediate sense. But then I thought about it- of course, if you fail an emissions test in Maryland, you are required to take your vehicle to be repaired. But the majority of people in Georgia who were likely to fail an emissions test wouldn’t be able to afford repairs. The poverty level is astronomical. The state, obviously, wasn’t willing to mandate a law that would take at least a quarter of their drivers off the road.

It was then I realized there are more immediate issues in the world than better emissions standards.

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