Economy

Rural Residents Struggle with High Gas Tab

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How much you're feeling the sting of high gas prices depends in large part on where you live. The people taking the biggest hit live in rural areas where driving long distances is usually unavoidable.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The high price of gas is hitting people in rural areas especially hard. NPR's Alix Spiegel takes us to two rural communities where people are suffering.

ALIX SPIEGEL: According to the 2000 census, there are only 495 families in Tappahannock, Virginia, and per capita income is around $17,000 a year. In other words, the town is small and its people are poor. So it should come as no surprise that among Tappahannock residents, a single topic of conversation commands a disproportionate amount of time and attention.

Mr. JERRY SCOTT: The gas prices. That's all we're talking about every day. Not one day, but every day.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

SPIEGEL: I found Jerry Scott in the shadow of the tallest structure in town, an enormous grain elevator operated by Purdue Farms. Scott sat batting away flies in the midday heat with his coworker Jason Hayes, who agreed that talk of prices had overtaken their community.

Now, there is good reason for this obsession. Because they live in the country, where distances are great and salaries are small, Scott and Hayes are prisoners of prices in a way that few urban dwellers are. Scott has seen his weekly gas expenses double, and Hayes said the same.

Mr. JASON HAYES: I was spending around $40 a week. Now I'm spending about 90. Almost a third of my salary goes in gas.

SPIEGEL: In fact, the situation has become so bad that he and his wife decided to take action.

Mr. HAYES: My wife has recently, about a month ago, got a job. And that's helping some.

SPIEGEL: Did she go get a job because of the gas prices?

Mr. HAYES: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: This originally was not part of the plan. Hayes and his wife have a baby, a son now a year old. And the plan from the very beginning had been clear.

Mr. HAYES: She was going to be a stay-at-home mom.

SPIEGEL: Was her mom a stay-at-home mom?

Mr. HAYES: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: So she was going to be a stay-at-home like her mom…

Mr. HAYES: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: …but then the gas prices got high.

Mr. HAYES: Mm-hmm. It really hurts.

SPIEGEL: And Hayes isn't the only rural worker who's hurting.

Unidentified Child #1: I'm playing with the plane.

Unidentified Child #2: Daddy, I wanted to (unintelligible)…

SPIEGEL: Around 300 miles away in the rural community of Somerset, Pennsylvania, Mike Trimpy(ph) and three of his six children stood in the reception area of the Somerset Community Action program. The program provides assistance to families in need, and Trimpy clearly met the criteria. Though he worked full time in sanitation at a mountain resort 16 miles away, the high gas prices had taken a toll. Like, Hayes, Trimpy was now spending a substantial portion of his income just getting to work.

Mr. MIKE TRIMPY: Well, you could say about a third of it is going for fuel costs.

SPIEGEL: And so like Hayes, Trimpy has made adjustments. He and his wife have stopped shopping for anything but food. And to avoid more cuts, Trimpy is doing something that he has never done before. He and three of his coworkers have gotten together to car pool.

Mr. TRIMPY: I'll drive a day and they'll drive a day, you know, and sort of back and forth to try to help ease on this gas situation. In fact, if you go down to our human resources office, they will try to get you together, you know, so, like, you can form a carpool or something to that effect, you know, to try to help you get through these times.

SPIEGEL: Despite these efforts by human resources, Trimpy says, a number of the guys at work haven't been able to make it. Many just live too far away.

Mr. TRIMPY: We even had one coming out of Ligonier, and when this gas started to climbing, they had to get other jobs and moved on. There's been a lot of people come and go up here like that.

SPIEGEL: But at least these men were, in a sense, in control of their own fate. Rhonda Beckner(ph), a preschool teacher who works just outside Somerset, says her husband wasn't so lucky. Her husband is a truck driver. For the past 17 years, he's hauled load for a local company. Then the gas prices went up, and things started to look back. Beckner says she and her husband had just assumed that it would pass. But three weeks ago, they discovered they were wrong.

Ms. RHONDA BECKNER (Preschool Teacher): He came home with the truck and parked the truck like he always does on Fridays, and the company owner came down and said we can't keep going anymore. And that was the notice that we got.

SPIEGEL: The company, Beckner says, folded because of gas. And for the first time in his adult life, her 48-year-old husband was out of a job. Beckner says he spent the first couple of weeks sitting on the porch in silence.

Ms. BECKNER: He'd just sit on the porch and - really, in a daze. And I said what are you thinking? He said I just feel like I failed. I feel like a failure. And I said this isn't your fault. You didn't do this.

SPIEGEL: Still, the family is in trouble. They have paid their mortgage this month, but don't have the money for the next month or the month after that.

Ms. BECKNER: I mean, we actually, which I don't want to do, but we've actually checked into hauling something out of my retirement or out of my husband's retirement to make sure that I have a house in the next three months.

SPIEGEL: Oddly, Beckner says, her real concern is not her mortgage, which she says is a fixed cost, but paying for more fuel. Like most homes in Somerset, her house is heated by an oil tank. Usually, she and her husband spend the summer saving to buy fuel and try to get it when the prices are low. But prices are not low now, and Beckner says she only expects them to rise, which worries her.

Ms. BECKNER: November's too late. You got to buy fuel now, and, you know, that's my biggest concern.

SPIEGEL: A concern for good reason.

Ms. FRANCIS WATSON: We're going to lose our home because of this. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of crying)

SPIEGEL: This is Francis Watson, a lifelong resident of Somerset, whose fuel-induced problems started back in February. You see, it was in February in the middle of the cold Pennsylvania winter that it became clear to her that she would not be able to afford both the cost of her mortgage and the oil she used to heat her home. Given the cold, she decided to skimp on the mortgage, and once she got behind, she says, it was impossible to catch up. Everything spiraled.

Ms. WATSON: And they sent us a foreclosure notice. So we're hoping we can straighten things out, but I don't know if we can or not.

SPIEGEL: Watson has lived in the house, a small place in the woods, for 20 years. And she says she is hopeful that this problem will be resolved. But her daughter, Tina Erickson, who has come with her to the community center, is not as optimistic.

Ms. TINA ERICKSON: There's no way. They cannot afford their mortgage with the fuel. It's going to be impossible for them.

SPIEGEL: Tina Erickson says her mother will have to move, probably to an efficiency. And, Erickson says, her mother isn't the only person in the family who's struggling with the high price of gas.

Ms. ERICKSON: I mean, my brother has missed work because he is a proud man and he won't ask anyone for money and because he has no gas in his car. And he works at the prison. So, I mean, it affects everyone.

SPIEGEL: We are simple people, Erickson says. We don't need much. But to even survive, she says, is getting harder.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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