Editorial: Getting by, looking ahead

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 20, 2008

In 1932 national income had dropped to less than half of what it had been in 1929; 12 million to 14 million were unemployed; there was despair in all corners. … unemployment, business failures and farm foreclosures continued. In the election of 1932 the millions of unemployed workers, disheartened urban lower middle classes and distressed farmers swept the Republican administration from office …
ó “A History of the Modern World”
The U.S. economy is nowhere near the level of distress people felt in 1932, when what would later be known as the Great Depression was taking hold. But there are parallels ó increased unemployment, foreclosures and disheartened citizens voting for change.
President-elect Barack Obama plans to deliver some of that change with a relief package that will invest in roads and bridges, energy efficiency, school buildings, broadband networks, cleanup of Superfund sites and electronic medical record-keeping ó efforts that could give people a hand up without offering a handout. A middle-class tax cut is also in the works. All told, the package may be bigger than the Pentagon’s annual budget ó a prospect almost as scary as the recession itself.
That’s all well and good, but people hurting for a better paycheck cannot wait for a new New Deal to solve their problems. For now, they have to tighten their belts, take what work they can get, retrain ó and, looking to the future, urge their children to get the best education they can.
When prosperity does ripple out from whatever government investments take place, workers have to be in a position to ride the current into better jobs. Knowing how to assemble a truck is a valuable skill, but a more secure future may lie in an entirely different field. The production and distribution of physical goods has been fading out of the U.S. business landscape for decades. It’s time to gear up for what some call “the intangibles sector” ó industries like education and health care that continue to grow. The intangible sector has gained 500,000 jobs since the recession began in December 2007, while the tangible sector shed 1.8 million jobs.
Ronald Reagan said a recession is when your neighbor loses his job, a depression is when you lose your job. The depth of the downturn may depend on point of view. But for Rowan County, which has historically lower levels of education and income then surrounding counties, even the hint of a recession is serious business. A full-fledged recession inflicts real pain, as the lines of people waiting at helping agencies attest.
There are signs of hope. The work of the nearby N.C. Research Campus fits right in with growing areas of the economy. Rowan-Cabarrus Community College offers a wealth of training. And the public school system has new initiatives aimed at keeping students on track to graduate, the crucial first step toward full employment. Their education forms the infrastructure of this community’s future. Even in a recession ó especially now ó investing in education should be a top priority.