In one S.C. city, voters focus on the economy

Unemployment on rise as jobs move overseas

Email|Print| Text size + By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / January 24, 2008

LANCASTER, S.C. - Mary Harris spent 32 1/2 years at Springs Industries, a textile manufacturer that dominated the local economy here for more than a century. She was earning $11.45 an hour when she lost her job folding pillowcases two years ago.

Last month, her husband, a dye and chemical mixer at the company, also was laid off when the plant he worked in shut down.

"I just thought I would be there forever," she said during a break recently at Wal-Mart, where she now makes $8.20 an hour cutting fabric for customers and straightening shelves.

"I had no idea it was just going to fade away so fast."

Harris is one of thousands of displaced textile mill workers in this northern South Carolina city who are struggling to make due in an increasingly hostile economic environment. With the Republican primary last Saturday and the Democratic contest this Saturday, most voters who stopped to talk about the election listed the economy as their top issue.

Standing on her boyfriend's front porch, which overlooks the rubble of a partially torn down Springs plant, Clydia Lucas, a 47-year-old former mill worker who gets by on a $624 disability check each month, says she plans to vote for Hillary Clinton.

"She says she's going to help the poor people, and we're poor people," she said. "There's no jobs, they've shipped them overseas. You live here all your life, and then they take it away."

Behind the counter at Walgreens this week, Cindy Broughton waited patiently for a young woman to count out $18.18 in change stashed in plastic baggies to pay for her purchases. Broughton said she voted for Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary.

"He knows the fix we are in down here, as far as jobs and opportunities," said Broughton, 53, who earns less than half of what she used to make at the Springs customer service plant before she was laid off in 2006, but at least has health insurance to cover her husband, who has diabetes.

Home to just over 8,000, Lancaster is a friendly but quiet community about 40 miles south of Charlotte, N.C. The weathered downtown closes early; the highways nearby are dotted with chain restaurants like Waffle House and Applebee's; a couple of miles outside the city is rolling countryside, mottled gray in January. At Leigh Anne's, a homey restaurant downtown, owner Marc Culler knows who to call to check in on regular customers if they fail to show up for a couple of days.

Signs of financial strain are everywhere - in the crowded waiting area of the unemployment office, in the payday loan companies promising fast cash without a credit check, in the "for sale" signs dotting the lawns of one-story brick houses.

"I know a lot of people who want to sell, but there's just not a market right now," Culler said.

Lancaster County straddles the two economic sides of South Carolina, a state that boasts impressive job growth but also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Like Columbia, Myrtle Beach, and Charleston, the northern section of Lancaster County has benefited from an influx of middle-class retirees and the arrival of office-sector jobs in the counties around Charlotte, a growing banking center.

But Lancaster and the more rural communities surrounding the state are suffering from staggering manufacturing job losses - 10,000 Springs jobs have disappeared in the county in the last 15 years, 800 to 1,000 manufacturing jobs in the last year alone, said Keith Tunnell, president of the Lancaster County Economic Development Corporation.

"It's a tale of two cities, I guess," he said.

The people getting the bulk of South Carolina's new jobs tend to be young adults with college degrees or educated workers from out of state. The unemployed are often former manufacturing workers, and those least likely to find work are in their 50s and 60s, and without the office and computer skills to move into office jobs. In Lancaster County, the unemployment rate hit 10.9 percent in December, up 1 percentage point from November.

Tunnell and other community leaders have been working hard to diversify the economy and recruit manufacturers, with limited success. Government subsidies are also available to pay for the retraining of workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas, but Tunnell said it is not always easy to persuade workers to take advantage of them.

"They're used to working in the same job for 10, 15, 20 years, and for some of these folks it's a shock to their system to suddenly realize they can't just go to another mill to go to work because there are no mills left," he said.

So, like Harris and Broughton, many people are finding work that pays less, or that offers worse benefits. Some are driving to Charlotte or Columbia for work, and finding their paychecks nibbled away by rising gas prices. Many have moved into the construction trade, a sector that has also slowed dramatically in the last year because of the housing crisis.

It is unclear which Democrat could benefit most in the primary from the community's financial woes.

In interviews, many said they preferred Clinton because of her experience and because they had fond memories of better days when her husband was president.

Others are drawn to former senator John Edwards, who visited the city yesterday, focusing heavily on the economy and making the most of his South Carolina mill-town roots. Alston DeVenny, a lawyer and former county council chairman, said he supports Edwards partly because of his background and partly because of his healthcare plan.

"We can't compete with Canada, and with Western Europe, when those systems are in place that allow manufacturers in particular to spread [healthcare] costs to all of society instead of just on the manufacturers themselves," he said.

Zantrell Jones, a 34-year-old employment manager for Winthrop University in nearby Rock Hill, said she thought Barack Obama offered a sense of hope and optimism, "a new perspective on things."

But some said they were dissatisfied with a campaign season that failed to focus on the most important way their community could find its way to a better future. Gathering with a group of retired mill workers for their usual morning coffee and conversation at a McDonald's, Gene Catoe, 75, a Democrat who worked in the cafeteria of a Springs mill until he retired, said he wishes the candidates would talk more about education.

"That's what's going to pull us out of this thing," he said. "We're not going to have anything left but hamburger flippers. And who's going to be around to buy the hamburgers?"

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