If he cools inflation, Reagan will 'play' in Sheboygan

"I figure Reagan can't do any worse than Carter," insists Ken Thomson, a young Sheboygan, Wis., resident who voted for the new President. Mr. Thomson holds down a full-time job in a Sheboygan flower shop and a part-time position in a men's clothing store. He says rising prices are prodding him to use his credit cards more, paying the extra interest charge involved, and to forego all but major repairs needed on his car.

As Ronald Reagan moves into the White House this week, hopes are high in this industrial Wisconsin city, where income and unemployment levels hover close to the national average, that he can somehow find the way to put the brakes on both skyrocketing inflation and rising unemployment.

Residents here are the first to admit that the order is a tall one and that their hopes for change may not be realistic.But as they acutely feel the pinch of a tight job market and a paycheck that doesn't buy nearly as as much as it used to, many here feel that they have no choice but to be optimistic.

"I think everyone here is kind of desperate for some relief -- they're hoping that Reagan can turn the economy around," says Diane Bliss, executive director of the Sheboygan Area Chamber of Commerce. "Most of the business people I deal with are used to cycles, but this one's unlike any they've known -- if it is a cycle. They hope that interest rates will go down so they can borrow money and that there will be tax cuts. But they're also fairly pragmatic. I don't think anyone around here is holding his breath."

Business leaders and workers in this labor town, which went for Jimmy Carter in the November election, may differ on just what Washington should do next. But they could not be more in agreement on the nature of the economic problem facing them and its effects. Most of those interviewed by the Monitor said they were sure that the diversity of industry in the city and the high percentage of people here who own their own homes have helped considerably to cushion the damage. Even so, most banks here have virtually stopped making home and car loans, and many of the numerous family-owned manufacturing plants here, feeling the ripple effects of poor business in the auto industry and elsewhere, have laid off workers. Rumors persist that more will follow.

"Local manufacturers just don't have the orders to put people to work, and consequently we have very few jobs to offer," notes John Ackermann, supervisor of the local Job Service office. He says most job openings are for skilled positions, such as accountants, secretaries, and engineers, while most of job hunters are unskilled, entry-level factory workers whose unemployment compensation is about to run out.

Joe Filipiak, one of several sitting near the Job Service entrance waiting for counseling help, is a machinist and repairman who has been laid off since April. Not too many years from retirement age and near the end of his unemployment benefits, he says he tried to train in a new field -- machine design drafting -- but that the math and physics involved were too difficult for him. He says he is eager to give an "honest day's work for an honest day's pay" but is none too sure what lies ahead. He says he and his wife and their three grown children live on $40 worth of groceries a week. "My wife has always been a bargain hunter, but I really don't know how she does it."

Joanne Meves, a mother of two who went to work at a fast-food restaurant here four years ago, says that if it weren't for that second income in her family, she and her husband would be unable to entertain their friends or do anything aside from work. For fun as a family, they go bowling. One son, who has a newspaper route, pays his own way.

Several persons interviewed insist that they already have cut back about as far as they can on extras but find that the necessities keep costing them more.

Gary Fintelmann, who works on a machine that glues table-top pieces together, says he and his wife do all their clothes shopping at the local thrift shop, stay home more often ("no more joy-riding with the price of gas what it is"), and, despite a sharp cutback in thermostat temperatures and the addition of plastic over windows and doors, find that their utility bill -- at $80 a month -- is higher than ever.

What puzzles Mr. Fintelmann and a number of others interviewed is why the new President has spoken of cutting back spending for welfare and other social programs. "Why do they want to take from the poor who don't have enough already?" he asks.

Behind a door labeled United Automobile Workers Local 459 and urging "Buy American -- Your Job Depends on It," several union members agree that it makes little sense in their view to talk of curbing inflation by cutting wages or other benefits. As one member puts it, "The only way inflation is going to go down is if the government in Washington spends less -- that's where it's got to start."

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