Hanke dates the beginning of the regional recovery to The Timken Co.'s decision to build a $500-million steel plant in Canton in the mid-1980s. Today, Timken, with 7,000 employees, is the city's largest employer, followed by Republic Engineered Steel with 5,000.
But with unemployment still at 13%, it is clear that, like a patient slowly recuperating from a debilitating injury, Canton is not fully back on its feet. Indeed, word that a recovery is under way seems not to have reached the malls and the taverns where the unemployed and the hourly wage workers nurse their beers and trade dark rumors about more plant closings and layoffs--anxieties that still gnaw at the collective consciousness of this city's predominantly blue-collar work force like a bleeding ulcer.
Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that, even though Canton has a large immigrant population and budding commercial relations with several Russian cities, people don't spend too much of their time thinking about foreign affairs.
But ask folks around here about giving money to Russia or other countries and, once they get over their surprise about being asked the question at all, they respond with a vehemence that more than validates warnings by lawmakers in Washington that foreign aid, never popular, has even less support this year.
"Hell no!" says an unemployed retail clerk, who was laid off five years ago and has found only odd jobs ever since. "My feeling about foreign aid is it ought to be cut off altogether. If this country kept its nose out of foreign affairs, and paid more attention to its own, maybe we wouldn't have all the problems we have here today."
It's not so much that the people of Canton are stingy--or even all that isolationist. On the contrary, church groups do a booming business soliciting contributions of clothing, food and medicine for Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially from Canton's large Croatian community.
But rightly or wrongly--and perhaps encouraged by the incendiary rhetoric of Ross Perot--the notion that their government is willing to do for people overseas what it won't do for those back home, even while it raises their taxes to do it, has taken root here and given rise to a profound anger.
"The frustrations are understandable," Mayor Watkins said. "It's hard to be a philanthropist if you're struggling to feed your own kids."
Kim Barger, 29, divorced, mother of three boys and shift leader at a local Taco Bell, is a case in point. Interrupted during her coffee break, Barger was momentarily taken aback by the appearance at the Canton Centre Mall of a big-city reporter wanting to know what she thought of foreign aid. She pursed her lips for a moment. Then it all came out:
"I'm sorry, but I have a real problem with our government giving money to other countries when they won't help the homeless or other people who need it back home. . . . That's what our government should be doing. Taking care of its own first. . . . Why can't they just open their eyes and see what's going on in our own country? They need to help us out a little bit. There are those of us who are trying, but we could use a little help because we're really struggling. . . . I try, but I walk into a brick wall every time, and the government just doesn't seem to see the problem."
Barger's three boys--Eddie, 7, Mikey, 5 and Chad, 3--all have health problems. Eddie and Mikey have asthma, and Chad was born with a small hole in his heart. Divorced from a husband who has left the state and stopped paying child support, Barger must support all three kids on a wage of $5 an hour. She receives no health benefits.
Even though it means she won't get to see her kids at all, she's looking "desperately" for a second job to make ends meet--a tough assignment because her hours at Taco Bell vary.
"I just hang onto the hope that someday they'll promote me and I'll go up to $7 an hour," she said. "In the meantime, I've got to hold onto what I've got because there's nothing else out there and, God, I don't want to raise my boys on the streets."
Part of Canton's bitterness springs from the fact that the high-paying manufacturing jobs once so plentiful in this area have been replaced by much lower-paying service industry occupations--jobs that are often part time and offer none of the security or medical benefits taken for granted here 20 years ago.
"Yeah, sure they say people are working, but for what?" asks Frank Pariano, a 55-year-old former metalworker at a Ford Motor Co. plant that closed five years ago. "They're workin' for minimum wage is what. In all these restaurants," he says, waving his hand around the circle of fast-food stalls lining the Canton Centre mall. "In all these damn restaurants! And this used to be a steel town!"