Our greatest challenge

Published 7:22 pm Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Jennie (not her real name) tried to sound optimistic, as if things would be OK, but I knew her all too well.

The strain of today’s harsh economy could be heard in the voice, even through the hundreds of miles of wireless telephone talk.

“Our principal met with many of us today,” Jennie said. “She told us that the school system had been directed to cut $32 million from its budget. All of us who had been hired within the last year were advised of the possibility that our contracts might not be renewed next year.

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The same thing had happened last year. She had been able to move across the river into another school district and felt better and more secure. Now, that security was taken away.

“All I want is to be able to teach more than one year in the same district.”

There was real frustration and concern in the way she talked. The profession of educating our children and youth used to be a safe and secure job. Not anymore. Folks, it’s tough out there in today’s economy.

Take Jim (also, not his real name) as another example. Jim is about 50 years old and has been out of work for at least a year. The stress in his family’s life is quite evident and his image of himself has been damaged greatly.

I believe Jim when he says he has looked hard for a job. Every now and then there has been a glimmer of hope, but then, and sometimes at the very last moment, the opportunity vanishes. He no longer is included in the unemployment figures. He’s too discouraged to even look for work.

Our president and national Congress speak of their desire to help Jennie and Jim. When asked what the mantra is for 2010, they reply “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” Then they go about their work, spending days and months on health care reform. That seems to be the only record the Washington deejay can play. Meanwhile, the country yearns to hear another song.

It’s kind of ironic. The politicians of Washington, who seem to be led by the nose of the latest public poll, can’t hear the ones that scream, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Every poll I viewed as I wrote this had the economy and unemployment much higher on the list of priorities than health care. It is obvious to me that we are on some very shaky ground and it’s not going to get any firmer until the economy rebounds and people are back at work. That’s easier said than done.

What’s the problem?

I stumbled upon a little of it over the recent Christmas holidays. I was shopping for something at one of the big box stores. The item I was looking for was very common and I found it quickly. In making sure that it was the right size and all, I happened to see that it was made in China. That struck me funny because it was such an everyday item and I wondered, why would America import something so ordinary?

I saw another common, everyday item next to it and happened to look at its whereabouts of origin. China. I decided to take a little survey. I would pick, at random, 10 items (counting the two I had already chosen) and mentally record where they had been made. Of the 10 randomly chosen items, all were imported and at least eight were from China.

I began to think about my shirts. I must have 30 or more. I found one that was made in the USA. How about shoes? Mexico.

Car? Honda, although probably made in this country. But the profits go to Japan.

Appliances? Televisions? My survey is very personal and unscientific, but you get the drift, don’t you? Simply put, we don’t make anything anymore.

Recently, I was visiting with a member in Mitchell County. He was recuperating from some surgery and we were casually talking about his working history. He’s a hard working man and had worked in Pelham back in the 1970s and ’80s. He just happened to say that, in those years, there were probably 3,000 jobs in Pelham.

There was a thread mill that ran 24/7 and employed hundreds while making cotton thread. He had worked at a bumper factory that had hundreds of employees. They made bumpers for trucks all over the country. Mobile homes were made in Pelham. There were two sewing factories that made all kinds of clothes. I can only assume that Bainbridge’s industrial and manufacturing base was just as healthy.

The agricultural sector of the economy and all the businesses that are associated with it were vigorous. Grocery stores, clothing stores, laundries, restaurants, gasoline stations, car dealerships, banks, schools, health care facilities and all the other businesses that grow up in towns and cities might not have been making a “killing,” but folks were making a living and moving forward and jobs were available.

All of that activity is indicative of an economy and America’s economic machine was once the envy of the world. The world coveted our freedom and our power, but, at the core of all that power was not a bigger and more technically advanced military. At the center of American power was an economy that was diverse and broad and made the things that the world wanted to buy. We once made the best cars, the most popular clothes, and the most convenient and reliable appliances in the world.

Now, we hardly make anything. And that’s the problem. Our economy has moved from making things to consuming things. Why and when that happened, I don’t know. I guess we were trying to make our lives easier and fuller. That may have happened in some cases, but overall, it has cost us more than it helped.

Our greatest challenge today is to find a way to restore that vigorous and diverse economy. It wasn’t founded by the government and it won’t be resurrected by the government.