A Reduction of Self-Reliance and the Local Economy

The Center for Global Awareness is releasing our 6th book this summer: Connecting the Roots of a Holistic System: The Global Economy, A Brief Edition. The book is for students in grades 9-12 and non-economic major undergraduate students. To celebrate this event we are publishing a series of blogs this summer that summarize the essence of one of the chapters in the book: The Impact of Neoliberalism in the United States: Ten Consequences. We hope you follow and enjoy the blog series!  The following blog is the first in the series.

Impact #1: A Reduction of Self-Reliance and the Local Economy

SmallI s BeautifulThe first consequence of neoliberalism is the undermining of small businesses and farms and local self-reliant economies and communities. A British economist of the 1970s, E.F. Schumacher, coined the phrase “small is beautiful,” an alternative to the more popular phrase “big is better.” Accompanying the rise of neoliberalism is the systematic reduction in small, local, self-reliant economies in favor of large, economies of scale dominated by large corporations that are intermeshed with the global economy. Self-reliance is trust in one’s own capabilities, judgment, or resources; independence. It is the opposite of dependence.

The phrase self-reliant certainly does not mean that a community is completely self-sufficient – that would be practically impossible in today’s modern world – but it does mean that small local businesses and farms can provide many locally produced goods and services for a large number of people. You might be thinking: “How do local economies undermine neoliberalism?” Local businesses owned by local people circulate money within the local economy benefiting the community, rather than dollars transferred to core elites and large corporations. Wal-Mart is a perfect example. Although wages paid to Wal-Mart workers and sales and property taxes stay in the local community, the profits generated through sales at the stores make their way into the bank accountants of the Walton family, the wealthiest family in the world. Think of the bonanza if just some of the profits stayed in the community where the store is located. This process benefits local people and does not create dependency on any one company in town as the main provider of jobs – which may move on a moment’s notice.

Many of us are so accustomed to shopping in malls and chain stores such as Wal-Mart and Target that we probably have no clue what a local business or self-reliance is all about. I definitely remember the local community and local businesses – especially since for eight years I was a local small business owner myself! I would like to tell a story to explain the local community in which I lived for a number of years.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, my family and I lived in a small town in central Illinois near Champaign-Urbana. Since I wanted to care for my two young children at home, I did not have a wage-earning job at the time. Most of my shopping and contact was with small businesses. I shopped for groceries at a small, family-owned grocery store located in Fisher, Illinois. All the family members worked at the store, even the aging grandfather. If need be, they would offer you credit – you just had to pay them back by the end of the month. No interest was charged. For more variety I occasionally traveled about 15 miles to a larger grocery store in Champaign. Although it seemed large at the time, it was only a fraction of the size of the Wal-Mart Super Stores today. On occasion I would purchase soda drinks that were sold in returnable bottles that I took back to the grocery store and were re-bottled and used again. My husband worked at a co-operative grain elevator, and we purchased a half side of beef from the local farmer that we had packaged at the local butcher shop. We froze the meat in our freezer and had more than enough for the year; in fact, I took the surplus to the soup kitchen in Champaign.

1b Vegetable-GardenWe planted a huge garden. It was easy to grow delicious and nutritious vegetables in the rich central Illinois soil. I canned or froze most of the produce from the garden for the coming winter, almost always having local produce at every meal. It was no problem to find the vegetables I did not grow, since locally produced fruits and vegetables were plentiful. I canned applesauce, peaches, pears, tomatoes, pickles, beets (my young daughter’s favorite), beans, and other vegetables. I froze as many vegetables as our freezer would hold. I went to the local U-Pick field and picked a year’s supply of strawberries and raspberries that I froze or made into jam. As you can imagine, we had very little waste from our foods.

1c downtown Rantoul, IllinoisThere were few cheap, imported clothes made in China during this time, and since I was an average seamstress I made many of our own clothes. I mostly stuck to fairly simple things such as knit t-shirts for the kids but also ventured into clothes for myself and some shirts for my husband. For other clothing needs I loved to shop at two wonderful women’s clothing stores that were located in nearby down-town Rantoul. Local women owned the stores and they offered stylish, high-quality clothes made in America.

1d Monical's Family PleaserMost of my shopping was done at local businesses. There was a “Five and Dime” store that had just about everything in it; my son particularly loved to look at all the toys, located conveniently on the lower shelves. There were also men’s stores, shoe stores that also repaired shoes, a drug store and pharmacy, and about anything else you could possibly want. There was no McDonald’s at the time, but a Kentucky Fried Chicken was on the outskirts of town. We would go occasionally to a locally owned pizza parlor that had family specials that stuffed us all.

Does this sound like your life today? I imagine not. But it is far different from my life today as well. The point I would like to make in this short trip down memory lane is that small businesses were very much part of the landscape a generation or two ago, and self-reliance was something that was prized, especially in rural communities and small towns. We moved from that small community in the mid-1980s to a larger city, and when I returned a few years later I noticed that many things had changed. The Rantoul downtown was losing its small businesses; the clothing store I loved so much had shuttered its windows and many other businesses had been boarded up. They said they couldn’t compete with the big box stores that were cropping up on the farmland just north of Champaign. Neoliberalism had arrived and displaced the small towns and local business owners with franchise stores owned by investors in larger cities, such as Chicago to the north. The prosperity of small town businesses and small farmers was beginning to disappear in the 1980s and this trend continues today.

questions-to-consider

  1. Are you or anyone you know self-reliant today? If so, in what ways?
  2. Do you shop at any small, local businesses? What do they sell? Why do you shop there?

 

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