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When governments fail to address community issues, who steps in?

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A person in Detroit walks past the remains of the Packard Motor Car Co., which ceased production in the late 1950s.

A person in Detroit walks past the remains of the Packard Motor Car Co., which ceased production in the late 1950s. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Stockton, California; Josephine County, Oregon; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Detroit, Michigan. These four locations are the focus of Stanford University law professor and poverty expert Michelle Wilde Anderson’s new book, “The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America.” 

The book examines what happens when local governments in high-poverty neighborhoods are left out of federal or state investment. According to The Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, this year, “monthly poverty rates rose in April to 13.0% and May to 14.1%” with the monthly child poverty rate rising as well.

In this heavily researched and data-driven book, Wilde Anderson details the efforts of community leaders who organized to improve standards of living by addressing issues on housing, the wages, trauma from gun violence and public services.

To listen to Marketplace’s interview with Wilde Anderson, click the audio player above. The following is an excerpt from the book.

The least visible way to steal gas from a car is to puncture the gas line with a bucket underneath. The owner ends up with an expensive repair, not just an empty tank. In Cave Junction, a town on the valley floor of Josephine County in Oregon, no one has money to waste on problems like that. When it happened to his son-in-law, Jimmy Evans had tired of that kind of trouble.

Evans, a fifty-something father of three, works at a popular butcher and meatpacking shop called Taylor’s Sausage. He often covers the graveyard shift starting at three o’clock in the morning. He didn’t have formal training in law enforcement, but nighttime patrols before work seemed like a way he could help. Evans and some neighbors started a group called Cave Junction Patrol to deter and interrupt crime. Eight years later, his “CJ Patrol” baseball cap has faded to match his long gray beard. 

In church one Sunday in 2018, Evans heard a Harley roar past outside. “I’ve been doing patrol a long time,” Evans says, “and so you know the sound of the vehicles. He’s the guy who drops the drugs. When he comes through town, the whole place lights up with meth and heroin.” It seemed like the engine slowed down by the woods behind the church. Evans knew who slept there. Her name was Maya.* She had bipolar disorder and lived on an old couch surrounded by a pool of clothes. The man on the bike was a local predator, Evans explained, who had turned Maya into a prostitute after he got her hooked on drugs. 

Excusing himself from church, Evans tried to identify the rider or see his license plate, but the Harley was gone. Soon enough, Evans heard another car park near the woods. He rushed out, thinking he could not “let this one go.” He saw a pick-up truck near Maya’s camp, and Evans approached to ask the driver what he was doing. The man told Evans that Maya was the mother of the baby in his backseat. The man had a restraining order against Maya, but he wanted to check on her. “It was the most beautiful baby ever,” Evans told me later, going quiet.

Evans believed that he could get Maya a chance for recovery by catching the Harley rider. But if Evans had gotten the bike’s plate that day, it is unlikely that much would have come of it. He had been through this drill before. He would call the sheriff ’s office. He’d get turned away because there was no violent crime in progress. Then he’d call the Oregon State Police, which had been patching in investigations and emergency response for the county. But their limited staff could not always dispatch for calls from Josephine County. Trying to confront the dealer or calling in his license plate put Evans at the limits of what he was willing or legally allowed to do. Any other efforts to catch, judge, or punish the man would turn Evans from a volunteer into a vigilante.

Revenue losses in 2012 had forced Josephine County officials to enact drastic budget cuts. They closed the public library and required local parks to charge admission fees. They shut down a wing of the county jail, eliminating its capacity to hold people for offenses like drunk driving and theft. More than one-third of county employees lost their jobs within five years. “I let one hundred and twenty-seven people go in one day,” former County Commissioner Simon Hare said, recalling a layoff round that year. “It took me twenty-five minutes to do all of the signatures. It was really intense. I looked at every name. One hundred and twenty-seven families that’ll never be the same.” By 2014, Commissioner Hare had taken to quoting a song about the Great Depression, performed by the band Alabama: “Well somebody told us Wall Street fell, but we were so poor that we couldn’t tell.”

Back then, the county could barely provide any services other than minimal public safety and public works, plus state-mandated functions like holding elections. Even those ran on a skeleton crew. Funding evaporated for services related to public health, mental health, and child welfare. Despite the local history of catastrophic wildfires, most of the county had no publicly funded fire and ambulance services. Residents in those areas who wanted fire protection had to purchase it on a subscription basis from a for-profit company owned by a private equity firm based in New York City and a global firm based in Colorado. Hare had gone to business school before becoming commissioner. “They don’t teach you how to reduce,” he said. “They just teach you how to grow.”

These cuts took place in the second-poorest county in Oregon. At the time of the cuts, one in five people lived below the poverty line and one in three relied on food stamps. The county’s rural areas struggle with violence related to alcohol and meth addictions, and opioid use outpaces most of the country. Local common sense requires being able to distinguish a person on meth from a person on an opioid. Volunteers like Evans have trained to carry and administer Narcan injections to counteract an overdose. Ken Selig worked for the county as a deputy sheriff and medical examiner for thirty years. He is a father, so one of the hardest parts of the job was finding teenagers who had died of an overdose. He tried to tell himself it was a peaceful death, at least, as if they died in their sleep.

* In nearly all cases, this book uses the full names of real people. Those persons identified only by first name have been anonymized.

Excerpted with permission from Avid Reader Press, from “The Fight to Save the Town” © 2022 by Michelle Wilde Anderson

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