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America's Municipal Meltdown: It's Tough Times for Troubled Towns

Small towns are feeling the pain far worse than the rest of us, and no one knows how to stop the bleeding.
 
 
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When Barack Obama traveled to Elkhart, Indiana, to push his $800 billion economic recovery package two weeks ago, he made the former "RV capital of the world" a poster-child for the current economic crisis. Over the last year, as the British paper The Independent reported, "Practically the entire [recreational vehicle] industry has disappeared," leaving thousands of RV workers in Elkhart and the surrounding area out of work. As Daily Show host Jon Stewart summed the situation up: "Imagine your main industry combines the slowdown of the auto market with the plunging values in the housing sector." Unfortunately, the pain in Elkhart is no joke, and it only grew worse recently when local manufacturers Keystone RV Co. and Jayco Inc. announced more than 500 additional job cuts.

In a speech at Elkhart's town hall, Obama caught the town's plight dramatically: "[This] area has lost jobs faster than anywhere else in the United States of America, with an unemployment rate of over 15 percent when it was 4.7 percent just last year… We're talking about people who have lost their livelihood and don't know what will take its place… That's what those numbers and statistics mean. That is the true measure of this economic crisis."

Elkhart, as it happens, is but one of countless towns and small cities across the U.S. that have proven particularly vulnerable to tough times simply because their economies relied on just a few major employers, or a single industry, or even a single company that has gone under or cut back drastically. Places like Elkhart are feeling the pain in ways most of the country isn't -- yet; and even worse, from the out-of-work to local officials, no one knows how to stop the bleeding.

Take Dalton, Georgia, and its 33,000 residents. As the self-proclaimed "Carpet Capital of the World," it wasn't exactly well positioned when the foreclosure crisis hit and the construction industry ran off the rails. In fact, with its carpets piling up underfoot rather than heading out the factory doors, the housing crisis has all but wrecked Dalton which, from the 1980s to last year, had never been at a loss for jobs. Now, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show the Dalton metro area ranking "second among 369 American cities in its rate of job loss, jumping from 6.2 percent to 11.2 percent last year."

Across the country, individuals, foreclosed or suddenly jobless, have been melting down like the economy and so bubbling up into the news in the form of extreme acts ranging from suicide and murder to arson and robbery. The same might now be said for news about whole troubled communities.

A few months ago, stories of economically-troubled towns were strictly local fare. Now, more and more of them are rising to regional or national attention. Take Lehigh Acres, Florida, a community that's home to large numbers of carpenters and pest exterminators who rode the housing boom until it went bust in a county that, between June 2007 and June 2008, lost a higher percentage of jobs (8.8%) than any other in the nation. A New York Times article on the "once-middle-class exurb" detailed the devastation:

 

"[H]omes are selling at 80 percent off their peak prices. Only two years after there were more jobs than people to work them, fast-food restaurants are laying people off or closing. Crime is up, school enrollment is down, and one in four residents received food stamps in December, nearly a fourfold increase since 2006."

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal profiled the plight of Rockford, Illinois, an industrial city about 90 miles northwest of Chicago with 12.5% unemployment, the highest in the state, a shortfall of $7.6 million in the city's budget, streets filled with "gaping potholes" and a "city center… rife with vacant storefronts."

 
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