Amid 18 percent unemployment, Indiana county finds unity
With one of the highest US jobless rates, Noble County sees a rise in volunteer efforts to help those who are struggling.
Lori Miller says she feels more needed than ever, and that is not a good thing.Skip to next paragraph
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People are streaming into the Ligonier Public Library not just to read, but to fax unemployment forms, to file claims online, and to look for postings on Internet job sites, says the assistant to the director. To help handle the load, Ms. Miller recently attended a workshop on how better to help the unemployed.
In Indiana’s Noble County, a patchwork of cornfields and small towns in the penumbra of Detroit’s failing auto industry, she is simply doing her part. In an area nearing Depression-era conditions – 17.9 percent unemployment – every resident has a role in helping the community survive: Bankers are refusing to foreclose on many families, the unemployed are volunteering at soup kitchens, and one gardener has planted 1,000 vegetables in his basement to feed the hungry.
It is a portrait of the future America is desperate to avoid – an economy eviscerated. Yet amid the despair, there is the spark of a deeper humanity, as residents of Noble County find, in each other, the strength to stand against economic forces threatening to overwhelm this corner of the Midwest.
Unemployment nears 18 percent
And the jobs keep vanishing. While the national unemployment rate rose to 8.1 percent last month, Noble County’s 17.9 percent jobless rate is only 0.1 percent below that of nearby Elkhart, which leads the nation in unemployment.
Many of Noble County’s factories make parts for the automobile industry, and so what was once a fount of jobs and modest prosperity is now a source of woe. In two weeks, one of Noble County’s largest employers, the Dalton Corp. foundry, which made casings for transmissions and air conditioners, is shutting down its furnaces, adding 250 more to the unemployed. These losses, and the fear of still more, have left many residents numb.
Many go to Common Grace when they have nowhere else to turn. They come often, seeking money for rent or utilities and sometimes groceries from the food pantry. At the same time a current of help flows in the opposite direction, as local people drop off food and send checks in the mail, most of the time unsolicited.
“On the one hand it’s frightening,” says the Rev. Dan Barker, Common Grace’s soft-spoken director, who wonders how deep the crisis will go. “On the other hand, there’s been a tremendous outpouring of generosity in the community. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Across the county in Ligonier, Jerry Hochstetler has been unemployed for a year, ever since the newspaper he worked for laid off pressmen. Four months later, the printing business that employed his wife closed. Yet he is in the kitchen of the Ligonier United Methodist Church not as one of the needy, but as a volunteer. Along with a dozen others, he is cooking potato and chicken soup and making sandwiches for more than 150 people, who come to eat lunch and take home baskets of bread, milk, potatoes, and other food.
“It’s either smile or cry,” says Mr. Hochstetler, who seems happy for the chance to make himself useful. “You know, you wake up in the mornings and make the best of what you’ve got.”