As we swing into Fall and welcome a change of season, I’m reminded that October marks Energy Awareness Month. This change of seasons can also mean increased penny pinching and hardship in my community. It’s an opportune time to talk about how we all — our government, state officials and local communities — can get better about managing energy resources and help struggling families out. For me, it’s also a necessary moment to emphasize the need to provide accessible, sustainable and equitable energy resources for everyone, particularly low-income families.
Originally, I grew up in New York City, but I spent my summers with family in rural Marion County, in Britton’s Neck, South Carolina. This area is as much a part of me as New York is. It’s where I have roots and is my family, my community and my home. The story of my own community that follows is a prime example of why we need to focus on smart ways to support equitable solutions
Located in northeast South Carolina, Marion County has a long, rich history. At first glance, you quickly pick up on its agricultural past. Remnants of tobacco fields still linger and rural schoolhouses sprinkle the countryside. Yet, despite Marion’s abundant farmland, the last thirty years have brought dramatic changes to the residents of my county.
Back in the 1980s, Marion County was booming with a newly revitalized economy. Residents worked in everything from textile to candy production. People had good jobs, were purchasing homes for the first time and buying cars — perhaps even two cars. Quality of life was on an upswing for residents and their families.
However, that all changed on January 1st, 1994. This marked the first day the NAFTA Trade Agreement went into effect. The very same manufacturing businesses that rejuvenated the county back in the ’80s left, abandoning their factory plants and building new ones abroad. This devastated Marion County.
The real tragedy? No new industry took its place.
Now, people can no longer rely on a salary and must depend on hourly, minimum wages. During peak tourist months — from sun up till sundown — Marion residents rely on hotel cleaning jobs in nearby Myrtle Beach, about a 35 mile ride away. They try to save as much money as possible over the summer months, but it just isn’t enough. When the season changes, they can’t find proper employment and many go into severe debt. My beloved Marion County has become one of the most impoverished counties with the highest unemployment rate in South Carolina. And this is having grave effects on the future of this area and its residents.
There is a continued “making do and bust” culture evolving — where we try to make the best of our living conditions, even though the system has set us up to fail. And to make matters worse, our climate has shifted as well. To put it simply, it’s too hot. We experience more rain and flooding than ever before and it’s destroying whatever agriculture industry we have left. If we don’t find good low-cost ways to use and provide energy more efficiently, we will eventually all be affected.
Residents from Marion County, SC — pictured (top to bottom): Calvin Woodberry and sister, Mamie Robinson; Harry and Helen Hemingway; and Helene Gause and her grandkids.
But I am hopeful. Yes, I am. Already, South Carolina is building crucial public/private partnerships that are getting good work done, but they need to be expanded. Programs like Help my House, where rural electric cooperatives — through on-bill financing — work with low-income households and make improvements that dramatically lower energy bills. This helps bring residents out of debt and provides more comfortable and sustainable living conditions. I think South Carolina can lead the way in how we create new jobs, improve living conditions and tackle climate change, while at the same time, transform how we treat our fellow community members. We all need to understand what’s at stake, as a country, not only in terms of helping families make ends meet, but in terms of a changing climate that could harm our communities in long and lasting ways.