Lenoir, North Carolina — After three layoffs and months without any unemployment benefits, Jason Johnson can barely disguise his contempt for the political circus playing out around him in this key swing state.
Johnson, 35, worked for more than a decade at American and Efird, a textile manufacturer that used to operate two plants here. He lost his job in 2008, when one of those plants shut down; the company offered him a new position at a factory in Gastonia, but Johnson thought the 75-minute commute was unreasonable.
“Ever since then it’s been pretty much the same thing,” he said. “People are shutting down. They get slow, we get laid off.”
He found a job at Sealed Air, a packaging manufacturer, but it was short-lived: the company laid off dozens of employees in 2010 when business slowed down. Then there was a stint as a prison guard, which ended when Johnson’s jail merged with another to save money. Now, dozens of job applications later, he can’t even find work in a convenience store.
But the real betrayal, he says, came in May, when the state terminated his unemployment benefits – his only source of income – four months before they were supposed to expire.
“I wasn’t supposed to get off the draw until sometime in August… so I was trying to save a little every week,” he said. “I haven’t earned a dime since May.”
Voters like Johnson, a demographic pollsters dub the white working class, accounted for 39 per cent of the electorate in 2008. They tended to support Republican candidates: three out of five voted for John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee.
But Mitt Romney has struggled to generate the same enthusiasm: Less than 50 per cent of this demographic definitely plans to vote for him, with nearly 20 per cent still undecided, according to polls conducted last month.
Johnson falls into that latter group. He doesn’t support Barack Obama – “he hasn’t done anything to help us” – but won’t go so far as endorsing Romney, either, especially not after railing against the “filthy rich people” who don’t invest in the American economy. “I just don’t think it’s going to make any difference,” he says of the election.
‘Like a little Detroit’
Furniture and textiles used to be the lifeblood of Lenoir, a small city of about 18,000 nestled in the Appalachian foothills in western North Carolina.
Life revolved around the dozens of factories that lined the highways. “This is a community that lived on, I work third shift, I work second shift. They all got out at the same time,” said Lilly Bunch, the director of Helping Hands, a non-profit medical clinic in Lenoir.
Broyhill, once the largest privately owned furniture manufacturer in America, had its headquarters here, a sprawling complex which evokes the Kennedy Center in Washington. Unemployment in the 1990s often hovered around 2 per cent, well below the national average.
“We were like a little Detroit,” said Todd Perdue, a member of the city council. “At one time you had 7,000 people working in furniture in the city of Lenoir on any given day. That number is less than 1,000 now.”
The reasons are varied. Some of the manufacturing jobs shifted to lower-wage countries, mostly in Mexico and East Asia.
Other firms, like Sealed Air, scaled back their operations because of the twin recessions in the 2000s, or merged with competitors. Even Broyhill is now part of a larger company, Missouri-based Furniture Brands. “The bellwethers of the industry have either gone away or been absorbed into large conglomerates,” Perdue said.
By 2010, unemployment in Caldwell County, which includes Lenoir and the surrounding towns, had surged to more than 17 per cent. The official jobless rate today is still about 12 per cent, and local officials say that figure is too low, because it doesn’t account for thousands of people who’ve simply given up on looking for work.
The state has added thousands of new jobs in high-tech sectors, like medical research; Lenoir itself is now home to a Google data centre. But experts say these positions are of little direct benefit to many of North Carolina’s lifelong blue-collar workers.
“That person who is no longer working in a textile mill, that’s not the person you’re going to find working in a research plant,” said Michael Walden, an economics professor at North Carolina State University. “Most of those workers end up in lower-paying service jobs.”
And so this exodus of manufacturing jobs has rapidly rewritten the social contract in Lenoir and cities like it across North Carolina.
A generation ago, someone like Bronda Jones would have had a guarantee of lifelong employment and a middle-class salary. She spent more than 21 years working at Nacco, which manufactures parts for forklifts. “I thought I was going to retire from there,” she said. “We were like a big family.”
But the company began shutting down its Lenoir plant in mid-2003, and Jones found herself unemployed and saddled with expensive medical bills. She was spending hundreds of dollars a month to buy medicine for her diabetes and high blood pressure, and she still owed hospital bills from 2000, when her husband died from brain cancer.
“We had always worked and had insurance,” she said. “I had never had to ask for help before. But finally I did. You finally run out of resources.”
Jones eventually turned to Bunch’s clinic, which provides her medicines free of charge. “A fourth of the community here doesn’t have health insurance,” Bunch said. “You’re someone who’s never needed help before, you had a good job in the furniture factory for a long time, you’re 55 years old… [but] we just don’t have any big employers anymore.”
‘Just wanting to see some results’
Both candidates have tried to use the slow-motion collapse of North Carolina’s manufacturing industry to their political advantage. They have blanketed the airwaves with television and radio advertisements, accusing their opponent of hurting blue-collar workers and promising to strengthen the middle class.
Obama has repeatedly hammered Romney for allegedly outsourcing jobs to China when he was CEO of Bain Capital, and often tells voters like Jones that his health care reform legislation will help them find affordable insurance.
None of their arguments seem to be connecting with an electorate battered by decades of job losses.
“Most of those, if not all of those people, they’ve never had to live on a salary like most of us have,” said Jones, who is undecided about her presidential vote in November. “Most of them have never been poor or had to struggle, and so I really don’t think they can understand.”
Beyond health care, Obama has delivered a few benefits for the working class: the stimulus package passed in 2009, for example, helped states offer extended benefits to the chronically unemployed.
Johnson’s story, though, helps to illustrate why so many of these voters feel they’ve been ignored. He was receiving “extended benefits,” a federally funded scheme that provides benefits for the long-term unemployed. The program is time-limited; Johnson was eligible to receive benefits until mid-August. He planned to save a little money from every paycheck – “so at least I can pay for gas to drive around and apply for jobs,” he said.
That was the plan, at least. But in late April, the federal labor department informed North Carolina that it was no longer eligible for funding, because the state’s unemployment rate had dropped below a certain threshold.
So Johnson and about 18,000 other people – some of them jobless for more than a year – drew their last unemployment check on May 12, months ahead of schedule.
“Every single election that I can remember, they said I’m going to lower taxes, help the people,” Johnson said, rolling his eyes. “And yeah, Obama has helped people with some things, but it’s not – maybe not the right things.”