Where gas prices really hit home

Wilcox County in Alabama

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Oil prices have been sliding all week. That's brought fuel prices down a little for most of us, but don't expect people in Wilcox County, Alabama to celebrate much.

The county is one of the poorest communities in America, thanks to high unemployment and low wages. Gasoline prices are still painfully high for people in communities like this. Wilcox residents spend a greater percentage of their income on fuel than anywhere else in the country.

A growing number of communities are providing residents with alternatives, like public transport or cycling, but in Wilcox, there are no other options.

From WBHM, Tanya Ott reports.


Tanya Ott: In 1965, the Selma to Montgomery marches marked the political and emotional peak of the civil rights movement. Local and state police attacked hundreds of marchers in what's come to be known as America's Bloody Sunday. They marched for equal rights, good housing and jobs.

Forty-three years later, African Americans in this region have their rights, but good housing and jobs? That's still a struggle for those living just down the road in Wilcox County. Nearly 40 percent of residents there live below the poverty line and the high gas prices don't help.

Betty Woods leans over a slick, steel table at a restaurant the locals call Chickadee. She's cutting cabbage for slaw.

Betty Woods: I put $30 worth in my truck last Thursday and this morning, I put $25 worth in there this morning. Usually about a tank of gas lasts me about a week and a half, to every pay period.

Like many people, Woods is limiting her driving.

Woods: I used to go to Wal-Mart like two times out of a week. I probably go one time or I don't go at all.

She doesn't have much choice. In Wilcox County, there is no public transit. Lumber trucks barrel down the roads of this rural county day and night, so it's not even safe to ride a bike.

Betty Woods spends most of her days at work, where she makes $7 an hour at the Chickadee. She gets no benefits and no insurance, but she's got plenty of bills to pay.

Woods: You gotta pay light bill, trailer note, car insurance and stuff like that. You gotta budget your money.

Woods has to budget everything, including time with her four-year-old daughter. Her mother watches the child up to 14 hours a day while Woods works at the restaurant, part-time at a grocery store and as a house cleaner.

Woods: I don't be wanting to do it, but I just gotta do what I gotta do.

Frank Matthews: Jobs are very limited here. Jobs are very limited. If you get a job in Wilcox County, you keep it.

Frank Matthews is a Wilcox County Commissioner. He says with county unemployment numbers in the double digits, residents have to gas up their cars and hit the road to find work.

Matthews: People are driving to Montgomery, which is roughly an 80-mile drive, for $7 an hour. That's not even worth doing, but that just shows the commitment of people in this county. They'll work if given the opportunity.

One opportunity had Reginald Southhall driving 148 miles one way. He doesn't have to do that for every job, but the lack of work in Wilcox means Southhall spends a lot of time on the road. He also holds a general contractor's license, so he earns more than $7 or $8 an hour, but high fuel prices are driving up other costs.

Reginald Southhall: I was told at one of the local hardwares that building materials was gonna go up. It'll cause people to hold back on their projects. They just freeze them until they see this thing's gonna break, things gonna get better or they gonna get worse.

And things look like they're getting a lot worse in Wilcox County, Alabama. Oil prices may have come down over the summer, but unemployment rose by more than a third over the summer.

I'm Tanya Ott for Marketplace Money.

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