Public aid in stricken oil patch. Proud workers won't let government help pull up bootstraps

The day Chuck Sanders signed his unemployment-compensation papers, he cried. ``My parents raised me to believe socialism is bad, you make your own way,'' says the Midland, Texas, father of three, who after 9 years with a company lost his job as an oil-rig dismantler in April.

``I thought about my daddy and my granddaddy and what they would have done as I sat there signing those papers. When I got home I sat down in the driveway and cried.''

The native Texan's reaction to hard times in the oil patch is typical in a region that puts a high value on rugged individualism in the face of adversity, and where the admonition to ``pull yourself up by the bootstraps'' has been raised to near-mantra status.

That optimism that attitude entails will no doubt help the region weather the difficult economic adjustment ahead, just as the entrepreneurship it fosters should help the energy belt wean itself from an overdependence on one industry.

Yet many experts believe that individualism and exaggerated optimism could actually impede recovery in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana if they blind people to the need for changes in the economy, for better social services, and for educating workers to take on new tasks.

``Too many people who are out of work and looking for something new are going about it on an individual basis, and that's just not going to work,'' says Lyles Martin, a counselor for unemployed workers in Lake Charles, La.

``It seems to me that the answer for Texas is first to recognize the problems,'' says Ellen Mitchell, director of the Houston Metropolitan Ministries Hunger Coalition. With requests for food from the city's 121 emergency pantries having jumped 60 percent, to 480,000 requests, last year, she adds, ``Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps may be the honored tradition. But if we don't feed the kids we're seeing now, we're going to have tremendous problems in 15 years.''

What is needed, many economists and other observers say, is a greater sense of community and partnership as the energy states develop a new economy for the 21st century. San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, who notes that Texas is one of the most urbanized states in the country, is fond of calling for a burial of the ``lone cowboy mentality.'' Mr. Cisneros and others emphasize the need for more public-private cooperation and a greater emphasis on education and other services for the general good.

A recent study by the University of Houston Center for Public Policy noted that Houston fails to receive its fair share of federal funding for food programs, housing, transportation, and other services, largely because of a tradition that discourages government assistance.

``Historically, Houston and other cities here have walked away from money considered poverty funds,'' says John Gilderbloom, a University of Houston sociologist who helped author the study. He says attitudes are slowly changing.

The kind of economic dislocation affecting the energy states has been experienced in other parts of the country. Steel has suffered in Ohio and Pennsylvania; automobile and farm-implement manufacturing in the upper Midwest.

One major difference, however, is that for the most part those industries are unionized, and unions have played a large role in helping displaced members obtain assistance. Also, government help for those losing their jobs was often more organized in those areas than in the oil patch. And displaced workers were generally willing to accept assistance until they could get back on their feet.

Even among oil-related workers who belong to a union, the need to accept relief is often hard to swallow.

``I've never seen prouder, more conservative individuals than the union workers here,'' says Manuel Zamora, regional coordinator for the AFL-CIO's Human Resources Development Institute in Houston. ``They tended to look on the person waiting in line for a handout as a lower individual. When it was their turn we told them, `You have to adjust, you have to look on social services as when you benefit from your insurance,''' Mr. Zamora says. ``We had to use all kinds of explanations to get them to even consider using these services.''

Keith Brossett, who worked more than eight years in the metallurgical lab of US Steel here before losing his job in April 1986, says it was hard for him to accept unemployment ``even though I knew inside that I was entitled to it.'' He says some of his coworkers had come to Houston from Pittsburgh, ``and they seemed to have no qualms whatsoever about going on government support.''

Yet as economic changes come with increasing frequency, programs to help ease economic dislocation and redirection will become more common, observers say.

Louis Weber, another Midland resident, says he has had no philosophical problem living on unemployment, because it has allowed him to go back to school to retrain for a new career in nursing. Mr. Weber worked in an Iowa factory making tractor cabs until he was laid off in 1980. He then moved south.

For a while times were so good in the oil patch, he says, that one year he and his wife made $60,000. ``But I saw the writing on the wall even before I lost my job [in April 1986],'' he says. ``I knew I was going to have to go into a completely new field.'' Weber has two young children at home, and he says that without $220 a week in unemployment payments and a federal program paying for his tuition and supplies, ``I'd have to quit school to find a job right now. And about the only thing out there,'' he says, ``are jobs as fry cooks for McDonald's.''

Still, Chuck Sanders says he firmly believes ``the best thing about unemployment is that it runs out.'' Instead of trying a formal retraining course, he traded a gun and $50 for carpet-cleaning equipment worth $1,800.

``I always like to earn enough in a week so I don't take any of their dirty money,'' he says, referring to his $220 weekly unemployment allotment.

So strong is their aversion to any association with idleness or government assistance, many of the unemployed simply refuse that rubric. ``There's a greater tendency here to try to cover up with the argument that you're `self-employed,''' says Harold Gross, an economist at Southern Methodist University.

``There's a feeling that, if you're unemployed, you failed yourself - the economy or your industry didn't fail you,'' Dr. Gross says. But that tendency to euphemize can, he adds, make the transition to new employment more difficult.

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