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Faces of poverty: A shaky economy takes its toll

Editor’s note: Undergraduate journalism majors at UNC-Chapel Hill recently explored the human dimensions of poverty, unemployment and economic distress in North Carolina. This is part of a series  of stories they wrote.

By Stephanie Bullins
For more than half her life, Tammie Thomasson worked at the same mill in Eden, a classic Southern textile-making town north of Greensboro near the Virginia state line. Then, her job was shipped overseas, and she was out of work. When Hanesbrands, Inc. closed in February 2009, 720 local workers lost their jobs, including Thomasson and her husband.
“We knew it was going to happen, so we tried to plan for that,” she said. “We tried to pay off as many bills as we could while we were working and tried to save. We knew it was coming.”
Two years later, Thomasson’s husband is working at Loparex, another mill in Eden that manufactures adhesive-backed paper. Thomasson still can’t find a job.
“You could sign up to go to school if you wanted to,” Thomasson said. “I did that for a year. I didn’t go for the degree.”
Along with severance packages, Hanesbrands, Inc. offered to assist workers interested in going back to school. Workers were given the option to go to Rockingham Community College and earn an associate’s degree or complete vocational certificate programs.
Thomasson got certificates in office administration, medical terminology and medical office billing and coding, but said she couldn’t even consider the degree program because classes and studying would take away too much time she currently spends with her 9-year-old son, Ryan.
Thomasson isn’t alone.
Eden has an unemployment rate of almost 12 percent, while the national rate hovers around 9 percent. Since 1996, layoffs in the textiles and other industries have cut more than 3,200 Eden jobs.
While Thomasson was able to attend a community college, more than 30 percent of residents over the age of 25 do not have a high school diploma. Less than ten percent hold a bachelor’s degree. Nationally, nearly 87 percent of adults age 25 or older hold a high school diploma, and nearly 40 percent received an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
The educational system is one of the main issues that needs to be addressed when looking at challenges faced by mill towns, said Karl Stauber, president and CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation, a private, nonprofit center that works to improve education, economic health and the quality of life in the Dan River area. Though the foundation does not study Eden specifically, Stauber said the city has several parallels to Danville, Virginia, and other small industrial towns in the South.
“We are leaving a factory economy and moving to a knowledge economy,” he said. “It will require workers who are facile with computers, good with numbers and work well in teams. But we still have an education system designed to produce factory workers, who do not have these skills, rather than knowledge workers.”
However, Stauber added that the economy also needs to change so that a revised educational system can have an impact.
As Thomasson learned, going back to school doesn’t guarantee a job. And Stauber said that difficulty reaches across generations.
“We have young people say to us, ‘Why should I go to community college to train for a job that isn’t there?’ ” he said.
Poverty is also an issue in Eden. According to the National Poverty Center, 14.3 percent of all persons in the United Stated lived in poverty in 2009, while the Census Bureau estimated 25.7 percent of Eden residents lived below the poverty line in 2009, up from 17.2 percent in 2000.
With rising poverty, high unemployment and low educational attainment, Eden also suffers from a decline in population. From 2000 to 2009, Eden’s population dropped about 3.5 percent, from 15,908 to 15,367.
Stauber said the decline in population was tied to job loss and few career opportunities.
“People stay because there’s an opportunity to make a decent wage,” he said. “People don’t want to leave, but they leave because there aren’t opportunities.” A history of job loss
Since the mid-1990s, Eden has seen steady layoffs in local mills, with few new opportunities for employment.
In October 1996, Fieldcrest announced the sale of its blanket division to Pillowtex Corporation. About 750 employees at Eden facilities lost their jobs.
The following October, Pluma, a fleece and jersey clothing maker, announced an expansion that would bring 50 new jobs. But in September 1999, after several months under bankruptcy protection, it closed four plants, including two in Eden, laying off about 500 workers.
In March 2000, a dyeing and finishing business, The Santee Company, acquired the former Pluma textile plant, bringing 110 full-time jobs to Eden. However, the company closed a year later.
The same year, Nova Yarns closed, eliminating another 70 jobs in Eden. In February 2001, Spray Cotton Mill shut down and nearly 150 workers lost their jobs. The yarn-making mill had been operating in Eden for 105 years. Additionally, in October, Karastan, a rug and carpet manufacturer, laid off over 70 workers due to unfavorable economic conditions.
Eden suffered another significant economic hit in July 2003, when Pillowtex Corporation announced complete bankruptcy and 450 workers in local facilities lost their jobs. Pillowtex had been operating seven mills in Eden.
In July of the next year, Eden’s economy received a boost as Weil-McLain, one of the nation’s leading cast iron boiler manufacturers, moved into one of the former textile buildings. The company brought 103 new jobs, as well as a $6.9 million investment in the area.
In 2007, Liberty Textiles of Eden laid off 155 workers, and Karastan cut an additional 47 jobs.
Eden hit even harder times in 2009 when Hanesbrands, Inc. closed in February and 720 workers lost their jobs, including Thomasson and her husband. In December, Mohawk Industries, Karastan’s parent company, laid off 140 more workers at their Eden plant. Looking ahead
Despite Eden’s economic trouble, Thomasson is trying to stay positive. One benefit of her layoff is getting to spend more time with her son.
“It was nice being home at first, being with my son, because he used to go to a babysitter,” she said. “So I pick him up at school and do different activities with him.”
But Thomasson is still looking for a new job to help support her family. She said she has been applying for jobs in Eden and in Greensboro, as well as online, but has had no luck.
Thomasson had been with Hanesbrands, Inc. for 23 years and was making $12.54 an hour when she was laid off. Getting the same pay at another mill job isn’t likely, but she reluctantly said she would consider it.
“Well, I was trying to get out of mill work,” she said. “I guess eventually if I didn’t find anything, I would try that again.”
Stauber said hope remains for towns like Eden. Industrial towns could bounce back from a failing economy, with the right business plan, he says.
“The key is creating a new competitive advantage,” he said. “Many mill towns want to stay stuck on the old competitive advantage, which is cheap labor, cheap land and sometimes even cheap energy. But that model isn’t working anymore because China is cheaper than they are. Malaysia is cheaper than they are. Vietnam is cheaper than they are.”
Stephanie Bullins is a junior from Eden, majoring in English and journalism, with a concentration in multimedia.

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