Poverty and Wealth in America
Examining the contrasts in Taos, New Mexico
Email Article  Print Article Darin Foster (dfoster)    
▲ Taos, nestled between sky and mountains.
ⓒ2007 Darin Foster

The small town of Taos sits at the northern edge of a long river valley that stretches north from Albuquerque, cutting through the high mountains of northern New Mexico. The town is dominated by Taos Mountain and the even more majestic Wheeler Peak, the highest point in the state. The Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains circle the horizon. To the south and west of town, the Rio Grande Gorge slices down 800 feet (244 meters) into the rocky desert scrub. These waters, which have cut through the highlands for millennia, continue south through the length of the state, before turning abruptly east to form the border between the United States and Mexico.

Something in the geography of the place, or if you believe the words of the local mystics, the call of the Mountain herself, seems to encourage contrasts in Taos. These contrasts exist both in the natural world, and in the human communities that have placed themselves in this isolated place. Perhaps nowhere else in the United States do extreme affluence and abject poverty exist in such close proximity, nor are the lessons of culture, race and wealth so easy to read.

The true extend of poverty in the United States is one of the country's many unacknowledged truths. Moving from state to state, the examples are almost endless. The homeless fill the parks and public spaces of the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. The Hispanic population on the east side of Austin, Texas, home to Dell Computers and numerous other high tech companies, often dwell in homes with dirt floors and plywood walls. Beggars with hand-made cardboard signs reading "Please Help" stand at busy intersections or sit along downtown sidewalks in almost every urban area. Across the deep south, in the states that once formed the heart of the Confederacy and are now the core of the "conservative" Republican Party, communities of poor blacks continue to survive in dilapidated housing, working where and how they can in order to just get by. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the world had the opportunity to see the poverty and neglect that typify these communities.

One Side of Taos

New Mexico, though, and particularly northern New Mexico, shows poverty on an entirely different level. Per capita, the state itself is consistently one of the three poorest in the United States, and Taos, with only 32,000 residents, is one of the poorest counties within the state. Estimates of per capita income in Taos County range from $16,000 to $18,000. Almost 21 percent of the population, and almost 25 percent of those under 18, lives below the already low federal poverty level. These rates are nearly double the U.S. average, and sadly they are not the highest poverty rates in the state. Federal census data shows other New Mexico counties with poverty rates above 50 percent. Official unemployment stands at 5.8 percent, well above the national average of 4.5 percent. Even this number appears low to the locals, because federal statistics do not count those who have simply dropped out of the traditional economy.

The tell-tale signs that so often accompany poverty can be seen in the health profile of the county. Alcohol-related deaths account for 0.07 percent of all deaths in the county, as compared to a national average of 0.02 percent. Deaths from cirrhosis of the liver (often associated with alcoholism) and diabetes were twice the national average. Births to single mothers account for over 54 percent of all births in the county, while 20 percent of all babies are delivered by women, often girls, under the age of 19. The abuse of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana are all too common. Rio Arriba county, which sits immediately to the south of Taos, has the highest rate of death by heroin overdose in the country.

The effects of poverty can also be seen in the field of education. While the state appears to spend more than the U.S. average on its students, these same students consistently rank at or near the very bottom of all measures of educational performance. For example, only 20 percent of the state's fourth graders can read at a "proficient" level, placing the state in a tie for 48th place among the 50 U.S. states. In 2004-05, New Mexico placed dead last in a survey of "smartest" states. In 2006, the state had moved up slightly to number 43, but a recent report by Education Week placed New Mexico 50th on a "Chance for Success" scale. This means that the state is the worst in the nation at preparing its students for a meaningful career, or in fact, any career at all.

The combined effects of poverty and a lingering rural village lifestyle can be seen on every street in the town. Abandoned cars and refrigerators fill yards and side-streets. Trash flutters in the high desert winds, to be caught by tree branches and fenceposts. Outside the core of town, roads are rarely paved, and trailers, mobile homes or even tents serve as housing. Feral dogs roam the wilder neighborhoods. Entire sections of the county appear to be broken, crumbling, or simply rusting away.

The Other Taos

Sitting side by side, and indeed often woven into the Taos of poverty and decay is a Taos of art, culture, education and affluence. Depending on who you ask, the old Taos began in either 1350 (the date of the founding of Taos Pueblo, the oldest continually inhabited site in the United States) or 1598 (the year the first Spanish priests came into the area). In contrast, the new "other" Taos began in 1898, when a wagon containing two artists heading south to the thriving art community in Santa Fe broke a wheel outside Taos. Captivated by the light, landscape and ethnic heritage of the region, these two decided to stay on. They became the founders of the Taos Society of Artists. In the early 20th century Taos attracted a steady stream of artists, intellectuals, and other radicals. Russians fleeing the 1917 Revolution somehow found their way to Taos, as did the famous British writer D.H. Lawrence.

The stream of newcomers continued through the decades, as artists, photographers, beatniks, hippies, and almost anyone else dissatisfied with the outside world made their way to the protected isolation of Taos. In the late 1950s a ski resort was established in the high mountains to the north of the town. Tourism, skiing and art became the lifelines of the community. The 1960s saw the creation of a thriving hippie commune just outside the town and brought the likes of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda to the region. With the explosion of "Santa Fe style" in art and architecture in the 1980s, outsiders descended on Northern New Mexico in flocks. Inevitably, some of them stayed. Even those who did not stay permanently often purchased a second "vacation home" in the area. Among those attracted to Taos were the actress Julia Roberts, and the now former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

These newcomers brought with them a kind of fragile prosperity and high culture. Local museums are filled with stunning work by local artists from all the region's ethnic communities, including Russian modernists, American realists, Southwest landscape painters, Hispanic folk artists, and Native American sculptors. The Taos Center for the Arts brings traveling theater groups to the area and presents an ongoing series of foreign and independent movies. At last count, the town hosted almost a dozen independent coffee shops, always a sign of alternative culture.

The town's numerous galleries are full of paintings and sculptures that would cost the average Taos resident several years salary. Gourmet restaurants dot the county, commanding the same prices for martinis, champagne and Kobe beef as those found in New York City. The El Monte Sagrado Resort, where nightly rates start at $350, dominates the quiet wooded area east of the downtown plaza. El Monte prides itself on being the most exclusive resort in the state, and of one of the top ranked luxury hotels in the country. The town's small pedestrian shopping area hosts an independent book store, two gourmet kitchen supply stores, a custom tailored menswear shop, numerous women's boutiques, and a high-end custom furniture retailer, where the centerpiece of the showroom is often a $12,000 Spanish heritage dining table (chairs not included).

Away from the shops and restaurants, the most visible impact the newcomers have had is in housing prices. In 1999, the median price for a home in Taos County was $155,000, which already bordered on being completely unaffordable for most of the county's residents. By 2002, the average price had edged above $200,000. Conversations with local realtors in 2006 made it clear that "nothing" could be found on the market for under $300,000. In Angel Fire, another ski resort town 30 miles northeast of Taos, half-million dollar custom homes are sprouting like mushrooms in the isolated mountain forests. Closer to town, ambitious developers have created a gated luxury community where recent selling prices topped $1.2 million.

The Consequences of Two Towns in One

The consequences of having these levels of wealth and poverty crammed together are sometimes amusing. The locals laugh at the Texas ladies in high heels and fur coats tip-toeing delicately through the rocks and mud. And there is something satisfying in seeing one of the local mongrel horses tied outside the grocery store next to a $50,000 Hummer.

Most of the time, though, there is nothing funny in the situation. The disparities of wealth seen in Taos create serious problem in terms of relations between the different ethnic communities and in terms of economic development in the region.

Hispanics are the majority population in Taos, as they are throughout much of the American Southwest. While some older Hispanic families still possess great wealth in land, the community as a whole is typified by poverty and low education levels.

In Taos County, the Native American population is also significant. The county contains two native pueblos, sovereign areas under the control and authority of their respective tribes. On average, the residents of the pueblos are among the poorest residents of the state. Schools on the pueblos, which are administered by the U.S. federal government, are notoriously under-performing. Drugs and alcohol have long been problems for tribes throughout the region. Both the Hispanic and the Native American communities are heavily Catholic in religion, although a heavy does of local tradition and folk religion are mixed into the catechism.

The newcomers, though, are almost exclusively white, or Anglos, a term which appears to include everyone descended from non-Hispanic Europeans, as well as Jews. The newcomer population also tends to be educated, older and highly mobile. A surprising percentage come directly from New York City. Others are scientists and engineers who have spent their careers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the United States' premier nuclear research facility, which is located atop an isolated mountain 70 miles south of town. The majority of the newcomers are either Protestant or followers of various "alternative" religions.

The result of these differences is an almost colonial situation, where (outside the galleries and fine restaurants) everyone working is dark-skinned, and everyone being served is light-skinned. At times the hostility between the races, particularly the Hispanics and Anglos, is almost palpable. The Anglo population never speaks of it, while the Hispanics appear often to use it as a pretext for every real or perceived injustice. The statement "Well, he just hates Mexicans" can end any argument and stands as an formidable obstacle in the path of building understanding between the two groups.

That the wealthier members of the community tend to be older and mobile has numerous consequences. First, they do not bring children, especially young children, to the region. For that reason alone, they are not overly concerned with the quality of schools and education. Second, many of them have developed deep ties to a "home" outside of Taos, and the professional class that supports them, including accountants, lawyers, and even doctors, is generally located in that "home." This fact makes it difficult to develop these professions inside the community, where they could benefit both the old and the new Taos.

A mobile population is also largely uninterested in local politics. Whether the issue is crime, or new roads, or illegal land condemnation, or the election of a new county judge, the mobile wealthy remain unconcerned. Mobility also translates into fragility for the local economy. If the winter snows do not come, as they did not in the winter of 2005-06, then the skiers and vacationers do not come. At the same time, local hostility grows with every $300,000 condo that stands empty 11 months of the year, while entire families cram themselves into trailer homes.

The Paralysis of Inequality

Thomas Jefferson once commented that the institution of slavery in America was like having a wolf caught by the ears. Continuing to hold the wolf seems impossible, but the consequences of letting go are unimaginable. Situations of vast inequality in wealth and power inevitably create this condition of paralysis. As a community, Taos and much of northern New Mexico, is trapped in this situation. One simple example will suffice.

After skiing for a few years in the beauty of the New Mexico high country, a skilled and talented Texas doctor considers moving her family to Taos. Should she make the move? First, she would face a serious reduction in salary. While her skills would be in demand, the poor population of the county cannot afford to pay for their care, and except for emergency care, the wealthy find their healthcare elsewhere. Second, assuming a typical two-income professional family, she would most likely lose the income from her spouse, because finding two professional jobs in such a small community would be extremely difficult, even at reduced salaries. Third, comparable housing, if it can be found at all, will be two or three times more expensive than what she is used to in Texas (or most other states). Fourth, if the family includes children, a range of bad choices face her: endure abysmal schools filled with gangs and drugs, pay for private school, teach the children at home, or break-up the family by having the children educated outside the state.

The list could continue, but the outcome is clear. Under the conditions that exist in Taos, a professional middle-class is unlikely to develop on its own, and one is unlikely to move into the region, even when the need is so abundantly clear. And without this class of people to tie the community together, the long-term prospects for Taos, and thousands of other towns across the country are bleak.

Along one path into the future, the mobile wealthy could easily abandon the region, particularly if the snows continue to fail and prices continue to sky-rocket. High prices could effect the moderately wealthy, specifically the retired or semi-retired teachers, lawyers, and businessmen who find the majestic beautify of Taos so comforting and who contribute so much to the atmosphere of the town. If the wealthy flee, the ski resorts will suffer, land prices will collapse, the restaurants and galleries will close-up, and the entire economy of the region will fall into ruin.

Alternatively, if the wealthy continue to move to Taos, prices can be expected to steadily rise, and money will reshape the face of the region. Already high prices have begun to push members of the older community out of Taos and into the smaller surrounding communities. This is the process that reshaped the small Colorado towns of Aspen, Vail, and Beaver Creek over the past 20 years. These towns have developed into ultra-exclusive enclaves of affluence, almost totally detached from the communities that surround them.

The situation in Taos clearly shows that wealth and development are not the same thing. In the end, the absolute wealth of a country, or a town, may be almost irrelevant. It is the distribution of that wealth, the spread between the top and the bottom, and the existence of a functional, integrated middle class, that reflects true development. The problem with Taos is not that the poor are poor or that the rich are rich. The problem is that no force, either governmental or private, exists to moderate the excesses of the affluent or alleviate the worst depths of poverty.

The type of disparities in wealth seen in tiny Taos inhibit economic growth, decrease democratic participation in government, exacerbate racial and ethnic conflicts, and decrease the overall level of security for all members of the community. In an ever shrinking global community, the lesson of Taos is one that the United States, and the developed world in general, need to learn before it is too late.

2007/01/05 오후 3:21
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