To understand just how grim things have gotten in Elkhart, Ind., consider a new law passed last month by the city council that limits residents to one garage sale a month.
According to a New York Times report, it seems the perpetual garage sales — which for scores of people in this town are a sole source of income, and for others the only source of clothing — were annoying some residents. The restrictions will make the financial pinch that much tighter.
“I have no other option,” said Todd Baker, 34, who lost his factory job in July right before his wife gave birth to their third child. Friday was his last permissible day to sell old children’s clothing, muffin tins, a fake white Christmas tree, stereo speakers and dozens of household doodads out of his garage.
“I’ve never missed a day of work in my life,” Baker said. “Man, I’m shocked that I have to shut this down. My neighbors are usually out here, too. We’ve got regulars who are in the same situation, or lost their house, and when the bank took it, they took everything that was in it. I’m just trying to do as much as I can because the heat bills are going to go up 25% this winter, too.”
Elkhart, near the Michigan border in an area known as Michiana, is the white-hot center of the meltdown of the American economy. Its main industries, the manufacturing of recreational vehicles, has fallen apart over the last year because of high gasoline prices. That has taken down ancillary businesses like RV parts suppliers and storage warehouses.
The Times reported that the jobless rate in Elkhart has increased more than in any metropolitan area in the country; it rose over 4.8 percentage points from August 2007 to August 2008. According to labor statistics released this summer, nearly 10,000 people were out of work, a rate of 9.3%.
“I’m just dwindling to the bottom,” Melinda Owens, 24, said as she emerged from the unemployment office.
City services are on the decline, and hold-ups are on the rise — there were nine armed robberies or attempted armed robberies on convenience stores in just the last two weeks. On Friday, the front-page news of the paper, the Elkhart Truth, was about a local plastic company that was actually not closing its plant.
The busiest spot in town seems to be the unemployment office, where 20 people stood in line on Friday and streams more passed through. Bryan and Christy Fisher were among them. The couple lost their house to foreclosure this year, then found one to rent; next week they will downsize to an apartment.
According to the Times, Bryan Fisher’s job in RV production has been reduced to four days every other week. “For a family of five, this is a big deal,” he said. “We have three kids, and two of them are in high school. We are hoping to find a way to send them to college, but you can’t send a kid to college on eight days of work a month.”
Whether voters here believe that Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, or Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, can offer solutions to the dire economy seems a matter of greatly mixed opinion. Fisher is planning to cast his lot with McCain, while his wife said she would vote for Obama.
While it may be hard to find a consistent political opinion in Elkhart, it is not hard to find people in pain. Nearly every street seems to have a house for sale or rent. Storefronts are newly shuttered. Masses of residents huddle outside the unemployment office, dragging on cigarettes and trading stories of companies that left, late unemployment checks, job leads that may or may not come to fruition.
“It’s horrible here,” said Alicia Egas, 26. “My fiancé just got laid off. We have four kids, and we’re not getting any income except for his unemployment. Food stamps are not giving us very much, and we’re behind on rent, we’re behind on utilities, and those are threatening to get shut off. And of course it’s impossible to get a job around here that makes any money. I’m stressed. We’ve never been this low. I’m voting Obama because hopefully he can bring a change.”