Dalton, Ga. — Hard work and low pay have long been a way of life in this northwestern Georgia city -- the nation's carpet capital. Residents like Diane Hawkins started working when they were in their mid-teens.
But last year, inflation-hit Americans began cutting back on purchases of carpets. Fewer new homes were being built and fewer families could afford to redecorate their current homes. Carpet companies began laying off people.
Georgia produces about 60 percent of all carpets and rugs made in the United States, and Dalton is in the center of the area with the biggest concentration of mills, according to the Carpet and Rug Institute located here.
Unemployment in this county climbed to 17 to 20 percent by January (estimates vary). The jobless here, proud and normally quite independent people, are forced to adopt survival tactics to feed their families as they look for new work.
The local churches and some civic leaders raised about $54,000 to help some 420 families pay high winter utility bills and buy groceries.
Now local unemployment rates have dipped, but only to about 14 percent, and there are no more fund-raising projects planned to help the jobless.
Some residents here say unemployment is part of the remedy the nation needs to whip inflation and bring interest rates down. But others point out that the poor appear to be the most affected.
And, in many places, there is a gap between those who've only heard about the jobless statistics and those who know firsthand what burden those figures represent.
The administrator of this city of approximately 65,000 says he does not know anyone who has been laid off. The mayor could not think of anyone either. A state unemployment official says records are not kept locally in a way to show how many people's unemployment benefits have run out or even what the average payment is.
(Unemployment compensation payments range from $27 to $115 a week and last up to 26 weeks. Some states extend this; Georgia does not.)
Diane Hawkins had been earning $3.90 an hour at a local carpet mill until she was laid off in February. Now she receives $61 a week in unemployment compensation. Her husband, Tommy, used to work 50 hours, including 10 hours of overtime, at a local mill for $3.75 an hour. But he has been cut back to 35 to 40 hours a week.
Eager to ''help my husband,'' as Diane explains, she is looking for a new job. Meanwhile, family finances are tight.
''I pawned the radio to get some food,'' she says. ''My baby doesn't even get the milk she needs.''
The Hawkins have two curious, energetic children, four and two years of age, who can charm a visitor.
One of the family's most frequent dinners these days is beans, Diane explains.
''We went into debt on furniture payments when work was good,'' she says. Now the family is behind on those payments, but the furniture store is going along with their partial payments.
The city-owned utility company has not been as understanding. It cuts off customers who cannot pay in full. Two nights, recently, the Hawkins were without lights because Tommy's check came in two days after the cutoff date deadline, even though the family had offered partial payment.
During normal times when both were working, Diane and Tommy learned to cooperate in many ways. Tommy, for example, would often cook to give Diane time to rest. Now, they have grown even closer, she says, in their efforts to stretch their reduced finances. ''Some things are more important than money,'' she adds.
And, she says, ''If I'd see a family starving, I'd help them.''
The Hawkins got $20 for groceries from the fund raised by local churches and civic leaders like Carl Griggs, a retired carpet industry executive described by his friends as a millionaire.
''We feel we're one community family,'' says Mr. Griggs. Business response to the fund raising was minimal, however, he says. Most of the donations came through the churches, although some donors were probably businessmen. Businesses are ''hurting,'' too, he adds.
Community leaders and others here disagree over President Reagan's handling of the economy.
Dalton Mayor Donnie Ellis, who lost the carpet business he owned before the economic slump hit, still backs the President. But even he questions why the economy does not straighten out. ''Maybe we all have to get by on a good deal less.''
Billy Nimmons, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dalton, thinks the Reagan cuts in social programs are like ''burning down a house to get rid of a roach (fraud).''
''I think the poor are the biggest victims of Reaganomics,'' he says in the panelled study of his church office.
As for getting along on less, Richard and Lisa Trammell, both out of work now , seldom eat out any more. And another unemployed person interviewed in the state unemployment office here, says he looks for sales, combines trips to save on gas, and has to accept help from a neighbor family.
But the desire to work is strong in Dalton. ''I've worked since I was 15,'' says another woman. ''There's a lot to be said for trying.''