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Is the modern urban infrastructure unfriendly towards the poor?


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In my local town all the merchants price match with the stores in the big cities. I buy everything local unless I happen to be in the big city.

Now that I'm renovating my home, I've found something similar. When I first started the project a few years ago, I was driving 50 miles to the nearest Home Depot because the price savings on plywood alone paid for the gas and left with money in my pocket (about three years ago, the price difference between 5/8" plywood at Home Depot and at the local lumber yards was something like $8 a sheet!). What finally convinced the local lumberyards that they needed to start catering more to small buyers (rather than contractors, who might drop $10,000 at a shot) was a rumor that a Home Depot was coming to our relatively small town (about 20,000 people). All of a sudden plywood prices dropped to within a buck of Home Depot's, lumber prices became equivalent, and instead of the absolutely terrible quality wood we'd been seeing for years, all of a sudden it was good quality stuff that didn't split the second you drove a nail into it.

All in all it's tough to compete with big box stores. When Walmart came to town, it had a pretty disastrous effect on some of the local merchants. It's hard for stores like Zellers to compete with Walmart, let alone mom and pop operations.

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Having a shitload of people at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder is hardly a solution to the problem either. They tried that in the 19th century as the full social effects of the Industrial Revolution hit home in Britain. The general consensus was "We've got this rising middle class that we can't burden with the woes of the poor!" This was precisely the kind of logic that lead to the disasters of the Potato Famine, and, in general, to the severe social problems that affected the major British cities in the Victorian Era.

The idea that if we just get rid of a social safety net that everyone will clamor up and immediately become good thrifty citizens just isn't born out by reality. You can see where the Victorian political elite even finally came to that awareness when they started developing the Poor Laws, which were the first steps towards a modern social safety net.

I mean, what do you think is going to happen if we just kick a million people off of various forms of taxpayer-funded social assistance?

The narrow view of all of this is that welfare people are lazy and can't adapt. That view is usually advanced by people who have won the economic game. No one can doubt that the industrial revolution and changes in agriculture were better for society as a whole, but governments weren't enlightened enough to see that these changes had to be managed and that the improvements had to be shared across society. These are the roots of socialism: Marxism is seen as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution.

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Unfortunately, the urban redevelopment of the cities and larger centres are killing rural communities. Big box stores market themselves 30-60 miles in some cases and the lack of low priced competition in villages and small towns make if difficult to compete. Supply and demand, no doubt, but I wonder if these villages and towns reinvent themselves, whether big city retailers will cry the blues and ask for more government hand-outs.

In food retail the "buy local" is having an effect on small town economies but I don't believe it will be enough to save them.

Of course, in a world of $200 a barrel oil or more, those big-box stores' supply chains will shrink rapidly or collapse altogether - suddenly California strawberries will just be too expensive for people to buy regularly, and folks will "buy local" not because of altruism, but because that's the best economic choice - if anything we'll be seeing much more demand for local produce.

Also - farming will have to become more labour intensive and organic, because oil and it's products (insecticide) will be more expensive. That means more agricultural workers, which means towns will probably stop shrinking and start growing a little.

The challenge is for now to make sure suburbs don't continue to eat up land we'll need for food in a few years with housing that may become obsolete by that time.

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