Editorial: Measures of Vulnerability; The Human Story (Valley News)

The juxtaposition of two front-page stories in this newspaper on Tuesday offered valuable instruction in how to think about the financial crisis embroiling Washington, Wall Street and Main Street.

In one story, business writer Chris Fleisher zoomed in on the plight of 39-year-old Charlie Wright, father of three, whose position at the digital mapping company Tele-Atlas in Lebanon was eliminated in July. In the accompanying sidebar, he zoomed out, looking at the Lebanon area's economic profile in relation to comparable regions across America. As it happens, the region ranks No. 1 in a list of regions labeled "least vulnerable" to recession, according to a Forbes magazine survey.

For Wright and countless others in the Upper Valley who have lost their jobs or worry about how they'll manage to make their next mortgage payment or wonder how they'll fill the oil tank this winter, the ranking must call to mind the oft-cited aphorism about lies, damned lies and statistics.

The lesson? Vulnerability is a relative measure. Even the "least vulnerable" places such as the Upper Valley are nonetheless vulnerable in an economy characterized by a complex web of interconnected parts. And behind every sterile number released by Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census, behind every descending Dow Jones graph, are people, possibly friends and neighbors, whose lives have been changed immeasurably.

On paper, this corner of the country looks strong, at least according to the standard indices used to paint economic portraits. To evaluate the strength of Main Streets across America, Forbes looked at unemployment figures, median income, poverty rates, education and outstanding mortgage debt in 141 areas designated by the Census as "micropolitan areas," regions with an urban core -- in this case, Lebanon -- of at least 10,000 people but no more than 50,000.

The Forbes survey, released last week, found that Lebanon and its surrounding towns in New Hampshire and Vermont were in the most advantageous economic position compared with all the other micropolitan areas surveyed, ranking favorably in most categories, including median income ($51,099); unemployment (2.6 percent, far below the nation's overall 6.1 percent unemployment rate); and poverty (8.3 percent, as compared with 13 percent nationally). All this makes for an economically resilient region, more sheltered than others from the impact of the recession that many economists say the United States is now in.

But the region's good fortune does not trickle down to all. The point might seem obvious, but it shouldn't be forgotten. Like others throughout the Upper Valley, Lebanon resident Charlie Wright is editing his resume and visiting employment agencies. And like millions throughout America, he's waiting to sell a house -- in this case, one in Arizona that he and his family left behind a year and a half ago when they relocated to Lebanon, a place that attracted him largely because of the quality of life. "I didn't move here because I wanted more money," Wright said during an interview notable for the absence of self-pity. "I moved because I wanted a place for the kids to make memories." Given the tough circumstances in which Wright finds himself, those memories are likely to be bittersweet.

So whether you happen to follow the foreclosure notices that have increased in this newspaper over the past three months or track the volatility of the stock market or monitor the monthly unemployment figures, keep in mind that numbers tell a story, but not the whole story -- the human one.