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Jobless Plead for Rural Relief

March 21, 2004|Martha Waggoner | Associated Press Writer

LUMBERTON, N.C. — Half a world away from where the United States spends billions of dollars rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, people line up for their unemployment checks on a small-town street dotted with empty storefronts.

Factories here that made golf shirts, mobile homes and Converse sneakers have all closed. The jobless rate is approaching double digits, and idled workers taking high school classes wonder if anything they do will make a difference.

"I've always been told to get a high school diploma so you can get a better job -- but there are no jobs out there," said Sadie Howell, 47, who last year lost her position at the textile mill where she had worked for nearly three decades.

"You can easily get depressed," she said. "But you have to fight it."

For 150 unemployed laborers in this corner of southeastern North Carolina, "fighting it" means getting on a bus to Washington, D.C., later this month to tell the nation's leaders that there's plenty of rebuilding to do right here at home.

They say government free-trade policies have devastated the manufacturing economies that were once the lifeblood of rural America.

What they want is the same kind of government money and attention that has helped prop up farmers for generations and that is now flowing overseas.

"Rural America needs a major relief and reconstruction program similar to programs we have established in Afghanistan and Iraq," said the Rev. Mac Legerton, who is organizing the March 30 trip to lobby members of Congress.

He's among those who fault free-trade deals, particularly the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, for allowing a flood of cheap imports and a shift of jobs overseas.

"The economy of rural America has never survived without tariffs and subsidies," he said. "We support agriculture with billions and billions of dollars in subsidies.... So why have we allowed our manufacturing economy in this country to be treated any differently, and abandon it and the workers and families who have given their lives to manufacturing plants?"

More than 2.8 million manufacturing jobs have been lost nationwide over the past 3 1/2 years. In North Carolina, the twin pillars of textiles and furniture have gone into freefall.

Among states with a significant number of manufacturing jobs, North Carolina leads the nation in the percentage of those jobs lost since 2000, with the 162,800 jobs representing nearly 22%.

In rural Robeson County, with just 123,000 people, those numbers are magnified. It has lost nearly 60% of its manufacturing jobs since 1993, along with their estimated $115 million in wages.

The county's unemployment rate has risen to 9.2%, nearly 4 percentage points above the statewide figure. Nearly 23% of its residents live in poverty.

Most of the wealth in Robeson County, it seems, is just passing through: Snowbirds headed to or from Florida stop at one of the many chain restaurants that cluster along Interstate 95.

Arbie Keels, 47, who was laid off last year by a mobile home manufacturer, is among a group taking twice-a-week classes to get his high school diploma.

Like others in his class, he questions whether anyone can -- or will -- help.

"We put people in office who are supposed to provide answers, but I don't see no light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), whose district includes Robeson County, helped arrange the trip to Washington. He hopes that it will boost pending bills that would aid rural areas.

"It puts a personal face on the statistical needs," he said. "There are severe needs in our area."

Among the planned proposals the unemployed workers will make in Washington is a $20-million public-private investment initiative with the help of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Robeson is not that different from other rural counties, says Billy Ray Hall, executive director of the N.C. Rural Center. "There's a desperate need for jobs in rural areas as we have this huge transition from manufacturing."

At a Washington news conference March 30, researchers from several state universities plan to present their findings on the impact of job losses in Robeson County.

"The voice of rural America has not been heard in this debate," said Legerton, leader of the grass-roots group Center for Community Action. "We hope to inspire and motivate leaders to come forward and dialogue, and develop a common platform for the renewal of the rural economy in this nation."

Still, Robeson's unemployed workers realize that it's a long way from a dialogue to a steady paycheck.

Mamie Grant, 56, was laid off from one textile plant in 2000 and now works at another, never sure from one day to the next whether she will keep her job.

"We should have stayed in school," she said. "Then we wouldn't be sitting here."

Years ago, she recalls wanting to be a probation officer or working with special education students. "I had things I really wanted to do in life."

Said Keels: "Just means somebody else would be sitting here."

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