Live from one of America’s unemployment crisis epicenters
Continuing this blog’s unplanned tour of America’s boomtowns-turned-bust (following Bradenton, Fla.), I come to you from Elkhart, Ind. Well, I think the Starbucks I’m sitting in is in Dunlap, technically, but it’s still part of Elkhart County. That’s where the job market has crashed like an RV hitting a brick wall, quite likely literally, given how the area’s dependence on recreational vehicle manufacturing has dragged it under.
The Elkhart-Goshen area’s (Dunlap is smack dab in between the two cities) unemployment rate in December 2007, the beginning of the recession, was 4.7 percent. Now it’s 18.8 percent. Thanks to so many plants closing down, Elkhart apparently is moving to the No. 1 spot for EPA Superfund sites, a story the Elkhart Truth plans to publish in Sunday’s paper. Elkhart-Goshen’s unemployment isn’t the worst — step right up, Mackinac County, Mich., with your 28 percent — but it’s the highest rise in the country. Hence, that RV-hitting-a-wall metaphor.
But you probably knew all that, thanks to President (and candidate) Obama’s frequent appearances in Elkhart, and the scads of news stories using the area as the living, breathing, nonworking metaphor for America’s economic struggles. Though I would like to alert ProPublica that a grocery store sign advertising 10 cans of Manwich for $10 is not a sign of economic apocalypse.
My job, as I mentioned earlier on this here blog, is to use Elkhart as the living, breaking, nonworking metaphor for how America’s economic struggles are affecting youth sports. As I also mentioned earlier, I won’t be divulging everything I learned, not with MSNBC.com paying me to divulge them as part of its Elkhart Project. I will say this — if you just looked at the scene around the area’s baseball and soccer fields, you would never know there was a recession. The fields are full, the kids are concentrating on the game (or on the dirt), chilly moms are wrapped in blankets, stressed-out dads are standing by themselves and grunting, parents are gossiping, others are telling their kids what a good job they did, others are asking why their kids what they didn’t hear them yelling to pass the ball.
I’ll spare other details, but suffice it to say that Elkhart is a living, breathing, working (not just nonworking — most of the people I talked to are employed, as are most people in Elkhart) metaphor for what parents are doing in these hard times — everything they can to get them on the field. These aren’t pushy parents who dream of pro stardom bringing the family out of its misery. They’re sincere parents who want to give their children the most and best they can, and if the children want to play, they’ll cut back on eating out or something else to get them to play. And if they can’t, there are grandparents, friends, leagues and others willing to help out.
It’s hard not to root for Elkhart after you’ve spent a little time here. Since World War II, it’s been an immigration station for people wanting a better life — first Southern whites, then African-Americans, and lately Mexicans and Central Americans. They know high gas prices and tight credit will probably never bring the RV industry back to what it was. But the story they want to tell is not that they’re victims. It’s that they’re hardworking, skilled people who are ready to punch the clock again once someone gives them a clock to punch.
In fact, some of them are coming back, now that local RV manufacturer Gulf Stream is entering a joint venture to build an electric hybird pickup. Hopefully, that’s not only a sign of a coming turnaround for Elkhart, but also a living, breathing, working metaphor for the rest of the country getting back on its economic feet.