Hard times spotlight rural resourcefulness

After two layoffs, Phil Cottingham is back at work, this time in a small welding shop he opened recently just off the main street of this small town.

His determination and resourcefulness are representative of many of the people affected by this county's unemployment, which at times during the last three months has exceeded 30 percent.

To see how the people here face such a challenge is to get a glimpse of not only rural poverty but rural pride.

More than 15 counties across the US had unemployment rates of 30 percent or higher and at least three had rates exceeding 40 percent in January (latest month for which comparable data are available), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although such seasonally unadjusted rates in these predominantly rural areas fluctuate, here in Bibb County, unemployment exceeded 20 percent for six of the past 13 months and was never less than 16 percent.

The local coal mines, lumber yards, and many factories to which people here normally commute have closed or laid off workers.

About one out of four people in this county of nearly 16,000 receives food stamps, according to George Allen Desmond, probate judge and chairman of the Bibb County Commission. The median income in the county is only about $3,500, he says.

He says he hopes coal mining will pick up again. And the county has set aside a number of sites for new industries -- if any can be attracted here.

Unemployment here, which follows a roller coaster pattern, dipped to 27 percent in February and 24 percent in March, according to estimates from the University of Alabama. Among other things, a local toy factory, which laid off workers after the Christmas rush, has been hiring them back recently.

Some adults who have been laid off are attending night classes at the county's vocational school. ''They are really motivated,'' says the school's director, J. E. Chapman. ''They stay so late the teachers have to run them out.''

Phil Cottingham attended the school to study welding. Previously he worked for Pullman Inc. making railroad boxcars. Things were looking good when everything seemed to happen at once.

''I bought a new car, a mobile home, and some property, my wife got pregnant, and I got laid off all in the same month.'' A year later he found work with an auto parts dealer, but business declined and in February of this year he was laid off again. In mid-March he opened his welding shop.

For the year he was jobless, he and his wife lived off her $10,000-a-year salary as a librarian, supplemented for a while by his $90-a-week unemployment compensation.

''We didn't suffer,'' he says, pausing in his work at the welding shop. ''My wife is a genius at managing money.''

Their parents loaned them some money and he picked up some temporary part-time jobs. They cut back on eating out and taking trips and relied heavily on their garden.

Irby Foster, another local resident, commuted 180 miles round-trip daily to a new job when he was laid off his regular one.

Priscilla Mack, who lives in neighboring Centerville, is young, jobless, and frustrated. She and a relative were digging out a stump in the yard in front of her mobile home on an unpaved road: ''If we go to school and get this learning and can't get a job - that's not fair,'' she said. Her husband works in a grocery store.

Willie C. Godwin has a job at a local lumber yard, but brings home only $120 dollars a week. ''I can't make it like this,'' he says, sitting in a small, modest home he helped build with boards salvaged from an old church.

But both poverty and joblessness are surrounded by a degree of detachment surprising in such a small town.

''Many of those who have a good living wash their hands of the whole thing,'' assuming the government is helping the jobless and the poor, says Christine Lightsey, of the county Community Service agency.

Some of the other counties with 30 percent or higher unemployment in January included: Sierra County, Calif. (37.9); Boise and Adams Counties, Idaho (33.6 and 37.6); Ohio County, Ind. (30.2); Stewart and Van Buren Counties, Tenn. (41.5 and 40.5), where local plants closed recently but where new companies have moved in and are hiring; and Starr County, Texas (52.4), where many Mexican-American migrants live without work during the winter, between trips.

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