The good news is that when author Don Peck wanted to explore the grim prospects of the American middle class, he didn't come to Hernando County.
The bad news is, he went to our neighbor, Pasco County. The even worse news is that he should have come here. The rates of unemployment and foreclosed homes are higher in Hernando than in Pasco. The average commutes are longer, according to the 2010 census, and education and income levels are lower.
And if Peck had been able to hold off just a few more months on the publication of his new book, Pinched, he could have bolstered his argument with another especially depressing statistic. The Hernando Development Department prepared 124 permits for single-family homes in 2011, said Frank Baxter, the county's building official. But because 11 of them were left unclaimed, it issued only 113 permits — the lowest number of any year since the county started keeping records in the 1970s.
So who can disagree with this, one of Peck's main arguments?
"Former oases for aspiring middle-class Americans — Phoenix, Tampa, Las Vegas — have been exposed as mirages. Nationwide, new suburbs on the exurban fringe appear to be in irreversible decline, and the families in them are stuck and struggling."
I ordered his book after hearing a rerun of a radio interview with Peck.
We already know our national and local economies were too dependent on home building. And the conditions he wrote about in eastern Pasco's Bridgewater subdivision — large number of renters and foreclosed homes — have shown signs of reversing, at least in Hernando. Foreclosures have fallen for three straight years, and judged by the count of applications for homestead exemptions, the percentage of owner-occupied houses has increased in several new subdivisions.
Still, we need to pay attention when a writer as respected as Peck, an editor for the Atlantic magazine, sees the ills of the national economy through the lens of our region and especially our part of that region — the fringe.
The economy is increasingly stratified not only by population group but place, he writes. The winners are urban cores with well-educated residents such as New York, San Francisco and Boston.
The losers are suburbs. The bigger losers are far-flung suburbs. The biggest losers are far-flung suburbs of Sunbelt cities with economies built around home construction.
In other words, us.
The subtitle of Peck's book — How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It — offers the hope of solutions. Most of these are national: more investment in education and to encourage innovation, more public investment in general.
Applied locally, it means schools that turn out better-prepared graduates and drawing businesses that offer jobs that can keep them here.
It means creating a core of our own, because, clearly, there's no future on the fringe.