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Friday, July 4, 2008Gas For Sex
Around the time gas shot past $4 a gallon, Nevada brothel owner Bobbi Davis decided she had to do something.
So, starting this week, visitors to her Shady Lady Ranch in remote eastern Nevada get $50 of free gas for every $300 they spend on, well, you know what. Spend four hours with one of the brothel's "shady ladies," and the next $200 of gas is on her.
"High gas prices affect everything," she said, lamenting a recent drop in business from the truckers and tourists who regularly make the long trek to her brothel, located near Death Valley and 130 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Nevada's 28 legal brothels, a relic of the state's silver mining past, are mainly limited to rural areas under strict license restrictions.
"And we're pretty far from everything," she said.
Add the Shady Lady Ranch to the growing list of economic casualties of the global oil shock, which is exacting a particularly heavy toll on rural Americans. The high cost of filling up affects everyone, of course. But in small towns and rural areas, the pain is much more acute.
The price of oil, the main ingredient in gasoline, closed at a new record this week on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The caricature of the pickup-driving farmer isn't far off the mark. Out in the hinterland, people tend to own older and less fuel-efficient vehicles, drive significantly longer distances and earn substantially less than urban dwellers. Their vehicles are more than a year older - and they put several thousand more miles on them every year - than those of their city counterparts, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.
Also, public transit is non-existent in most rural areas.
And the roads they travel in their pickups and SUVs are a lot windier and hillier than what you find in suburbia.
"It hurts them more, for sure," said Fred Rozell, director of retail pricing at the Oil Price Information Service, which tracks fuel prices.
Across the United States, Americans are now spending an average of 4 percent of household income on gasoline. It's less in the wealthy counties around major cities, such as New York, where the figure is closer to 2 percent.
Four percent is not a record. In 1981, after the oil shocks of the late seventies, that number hit 4.5 percent, according to forecaster Global Insight.
But in some of the poorest pockets of the country, such as the Mississippi Delta, the share of income a family spends at the pump now exceeds 16 percent, according to a recent OPIS survey. The company identified 13 rural counties where families are spending more than 13 percent of their income on gas. Five are in Mississippi, four in Alabama, three in Kentucky and one in West Virginia.
High gas prices are forcing the rural poor to make tough choices. That can mean doing without some of the things most people take for granted, including food, medical attention and, sometimes, the drive to work, said Cindy Anderson, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio University.
"They're struggling to deal with high gas prices when they already don't have enough to spend," explained Anderson, an expert on the rural poor of Appalachia.
"Many of them are doing without some of the things they are used to."
There are also secondary effects of the gas crisis. Some food banks, where many rural dwellers go in tough times, are failing to meet rising needs because donors aren't making the long drive to give food and recipients can't afford to get there, Anderson said.
"The overall picture is pretty bad," she said. "These are people who often have no savings and no backup plans."
High gas prices have compounded an already tough environment for rural America. Anderson said the decline of farm and factory jobs has left many rural areas on the margins of economic viability.
At the Shady Lady Ranch, Tuesday was Day One of the gas promotion. So far, so good, Davis said. Five new customers asked for, and received, the gas special.
"No brothel has been doing this, so I thought we'd give it a try and see how it works," she said.