Sunday, April 26, 2009
One of my aunts lives in Dalton, Georgia, a city in the Appalachian foothills that describes itself as the carpet capital of the world. Indeed, there are numerous plants sprinkled throughout the region that produce carpet. Unfortunately, with the collapse of new home construction, there isn't much demand for it anymore. Perhaps as many as half of the plants there have been shuttered. Unemployment in Whitfield County, the county where Dalton is located, is officially 12.5%, the highest in Georgia, comparable to the most devastated areas of the Rust Belt, like Detroit.
Last Saturday, we drove down the Old Dixie Highway into town to go to the grocery store. There were numerous empty store fronts along the way, and, at one point, I observed a Latino family in front of one of them, a family with a little girl, displaying some used children's toys in a row, including a tricycle. By the time that we passed them again on our return, about half an hour later, numerous other household items, including a microwave, had been added. Upon seeing the microwave, it dawned on me: the family is selling everything to return to Mexico.
An era of economic development in north Georgia was coming to a sad close, with the most bitter consequences for those who had arrived too late to permanently established themselves and their families. Back in the mid-1980s, the cities and counties of north Georgia discovered that they had one of the lowest percentages of high school graduates proceeding to college in the United States. Work in the carpet plants was sufficiently renumerative to enable these graduates to live quite comfortably, given the low cost of living there. Embarrassed local elites adopted a conscious policy of encouraging young people to go to college, while actively recruiting undocumented people from Mexico to serve as a workforce in the growing carpet industry.
By the mid-1990s, Dalton resembled a Southwestern city more than it did a Deep South one. Local political and business leaders mediated disputes between a growing, Spanish speaking immigrant population and resentful hill country whites, falling back upon a tried and true emphasis on economic pragmatism. Dalton was one of the epicenters of Latino migration into the South, one of the major demographic trends of the last 20 years, one that exploded onto the nation stage during the 2006 immigrants rights' protests, when people in small to medium sized towns throughout the Appalachians and the Piedmont were astounded to discover that there were not only Latinos in their town, documented and undocumented, but quite a lot of them. Latinos later played an important role in the success of the Obama campaign in states like North Carolina and Virginia, as well as his surprisingly strong performance in defeat in Georgia.
But that's ancient history now. Fleeing immigrants are a symptom of a much more serious disease, the loss of manufacturing jobs that aren't likely to return anytime soon. Furthermore, when manufacturing jobs finally do increase again, the recovery is going to be conditioned upon a restructuring of the economy to the detriment of the people who need them. My experience in Dalton was more generally confirmed when I talked to relatives in western North Carolina. My uncle-in-law ruefully told me that the region had lost a lot of manufacturing jobs, and doubted that they would ever return. His sadness was genuine. Well educated people like him live in communities with many high school graduates who have relied upon semi-skilled employment throughout their entire lives. A sense of community and extended family trump the class based elitism that one commonly experiences in most major American cities.
And, it is precisely that sense of community and family, both real and artificially constructed, that is being frayed by the severity of this recession. As I returned my rental car at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, accompanied by my son, safely secure in his car seat, the woman who about to give me my receipt asked me if I had a lot of luggage. I said yes, as I had to take the car seat and several other items of varying sizes home with us, and she immediately called for a valet. Within a couple of minutes, another women arrived, and got into the driver's seat to drive us to our terminal. Of course, as anyone who has traveled through Hartsfield-Jackson would know, both women were African American, as the airport and its myriad support services, such as rental car companies, have been a major source of employment for African Americans in the greater Atlanta metropolitan area.
Most people who work in these jobs are friendly and engaging, sometimes to a fault, it is one of those stereotypes about Atlanta that happens to be true. As I conversed with the woman during our quick trip to the terminal, she informed me that business at the rental car companies was down, that people had been laid off, and that her husband, who was a supervisor at an unspecified company of some kind, had been forced to lay off a lot of people as well. It had been painful for him, she said, as he was close to them after many softball games and barbeques. It hurt him to lay off the younger workers. Better them than us, she told him.