On a recent trip over the river and through the woods, I got the opportunity to catch up with my favorite road sign. It’s a public-service billboard on a lonely state road in Southern Indiana, and it always reveals how our brethren and sistren in the sticks are faring. Over the years, the billboard has displayed a variety of comically lame propaganda in the War For Sobriety. Back in the day, it featured the classic “this is your brain on drugs” egg skillet, which merely left passersby with a mild case of the ha-has and a longing for the Rise & Shine platter at Bob Evans.
Later, the billboard inadvertently touted the mind-altering benefits of everything from cocaine to painkillers to meth. (Speaking of which, if that full-page meth ad is on the facing page in this LEO, I’d be grateful if you’d fold me face out before recycling. I mean, e-yu. Thanks.) When it comes to moralizing, the ad industry seems to be caught up in the monster it created: The ads, no matter how horrifying, just reinforce what people have known for millennia — that abstemiousness was put here to be got rid of. And, confronted with a 55mph blur of fried chicken, Budweiser, Whoppers, flea markets, adult books and OxyContin, it’s hard to keep track of which ones you’re supposed to NOT do.
But last week, the billboard had perhaps its saddest message ever. Instead of warning against drugs, secondhand smoke, obesity or the loosest slots in Hoosierdom, the billboard warned against the scourge of bankers. Its stark text-only message read:
Foreclosure affects the whole family
Call Today 1-888-995-HOPE
It seems the housing crisis, like most crises, is coming down hard on rural America. With the cost of food, gasoline, healthcare and country-music concert tickets soaring, folks in the boonies are losing their homes — the only thing many of them have to hold up their Confederate flags — at an alarming rate. Foreclosures are currently running at twice their 2006 rate and experts predict as many as 2 million more by the end of next year.
As a boy of the boonies, this breaks my heart. Whether it’s the war, the post-family-farm economy, job outsourcing or access to healthcare and education, rural people always seem to bear a disproportionate share of the burden. A recent University of New Hampshire study showed that 37 states have a higher percentage of rural children living in poverty today than in 2000. It’s gotten so bad that RFD now officially stands for “raw fuckin’ deal.” At the rate we’re going, 2009’s rural American will make Tom Joad look like Jay Gatsby. It’s enough to make you feel sorry for them for so consistently voting themselves into this mess.
True, small-town people tend to be a little narrow-minded. And a lot of them are a few petroleum products shy of a Chicken McNugget. Most of them are wildly superstitious and too fond of firearms and high-school athletics. Also, they’re a little crazy. And some are what noted anthropologist Chris Rock would refer to as “cracker-ass crackers.” In other words, they’re exactly like us city people*.
But country folks losing their homes? That just ain’t right. Living in the city is supposed to be brutish and harsh. We live in cities because we like life on the edge (also Starbucks), where we could lose our homes — the only thing many of us have to hold up our “Support The Troops End The War” signs — at a moment’s notice. But country life is supposed to be slower, peaceful and cheap. At the very least, it’s not a place for homelessness.
According to the Ad Council, the point of the foreclosure message is this: If you are behind on your mortgage payments — no matter where you live — it might not be too late. Lenders are willing to help. There are nonprofit, third-party financial advisers available to help you avoid foreclosure.
But the billboard is also a helpful reminder that when rural communities aren’t exactly champin’ at the bit to help Louisville build bridges or a basketball arena, it’s not because they’re trying to stick it to their city cousins. It’s often because they’re trying to scrape together enough supper so the kids will have something in their stomachs when the man comes to take away their house.
*Except friendlier and 35 percent more Hispanic.
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