Earlier this month, I visited a hilly corner of North Carolina to spend time with family friends. As we sat around the kitchen table, a former musician whom I shall call Dave revealed that he had recently started an entrepreneurial sideline to supplement his meagre family income. During part of the week, he works in a local pawnshop but he does not lend out cash. Instead, Dave fills out application forms for people who want to buy firearms — but cannot read or write. He only charges a few dollars for this but the service is so popular that it provides a steady income. “Lots of people round here can’t read and write,” Dave told me with a rueful laugh. “But they all want guns. So they pay me to do that — I use their driving licences to get all the details.”
Welcome to an oft-ignored feature of America in 2015 — and I am not just talking about firearms. These days, there is hand-wringing aplenty, particularly on the political left, about income inequality. As a Financial Times series indicated last week, the gap between rich and poor is yawning ever wider as the middle class shrinks.
But what is often forgotten is that this income inequality reflects and reinforces other pernicious cultural chasms. Today, millions of Americans are enjoying the bonanza of an information boom, with once unimaginable power at their fingertips or, more specifically, on the buttons of their tablets and smartphones. They are “haves”, in the sense of having access to the 21st-century economy. But there is also an underbelly of “have-nots”, who lack access to this economic and information engine, sometimes for the most basic reason of not being able to read or write.
Much of the time this underbelly is concealed; at least from people like me, fortunate to live among information-blessed urban elites who take reading skills for granted. But the issue is surprisingly widespread. And it is not just a problem of rural communities or non-white groups — indeed, many of Dave’s North Carolina clients are white.