For an hour on these Friday afternoons, dozens of families sit patiently beneath a painting of Jesus as volunteers check their details and hand out three precious brown bags of food.
The building in Vineyard Haven is a food bank, one of two on Martha’s Vineyard — an island better known as a playground for presidents and playboys.
President Obama’s vacation here ends Sunday, after which he’ll resume his push to secure “a better bargain for the middle class” by embarking on a two-day bus tour of New York and Pennsylvania. In hard-hit places such as Scranton, Pa., and Buffalo, N.Y., he’ll press his point that widening income inequality has frayed the social fabric of the country.
But the place he’s leaving is no exception to that fraying. Though presidential photo-ops don’t show it, the island is actually a place where the wealth gap is starker than almost anywhere else in the United States, year-round residents say, and middle-class hopes and dreams are drifting out of reach.
Losing the middle class
James Streicher Evans, a slight and soft-spoken 26-year-old with a college education, earns $20 an hour landscaping the manicured estates of the super-wealthy.
And then, in the winter, he signs up for unemployment benefits and waits for spring. He said he has little opportunity to find a year-round job or build up savings, and even less prospect of buying a house.
For him, like many islanders, the middle-class dream of being able to work hard and get ahead is an impossible one.
The average wage on Martha’s Vineyard is 71 percent of the state average, according to a recent government report on the island’s housing needs. By contrast, rental prices are 17 percent higher and house prices are 54 percent above average.
“We’re losing our middle class and we’re losing our young people because the jobs aren’t there and because of the cost of living and housing,” said Peter Temple, a retired businessman who serves as executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative, which encourages island philanthropy.
“The few job opportunities that exist on the island — in construction, retail and the service industries — are dependent on the area’s wealthy visitors and provide work for only a few months of the year,” Evans explained.
Demand at food banks
Betty Burton is a 64-year-old librarian who is also responsible for running the island’s two food banks.
A resolute woman with light brown curly hair and a colorful necklace, Burton said demand has soared since the housing bubble burst and the country plunged into recession in 2008.