Sunday, September 2, 2012

Small Town America ... Women Take Over as Primary Breadwinners ... The Story of Russell Athletic Wear, Manufacturing Jobs and Alexander City, Alabama

When I think of manufacturing and construction jobs, I think of men. And when I think of nursing, home health care and child care jobs, I think of women. Maybe that's sexist, but that's just the way I think.

Who Wears the Pants in This Economy? tells the developing story of globalization's impact on small town American manufacturing and the men and women of these towns. It also reveals why many women are replacing men as the primary breadwinners throughout much of America today:

"Patsy Prater’s office looks like something between an executive’s and a teacher’s, her large desk crowded with neat piles of grant applications and daily logs but also with dishes of candy and other freebies for the young and old who pass through. On the bulletin board behind her head are big, colorful signs designed to remind her public-housing clients of what they are eligible for: cellphones, computer classes or prescriptions that she makes sure they have even if she has to drive them to the pharmacy herself. At the front of her desk is a photo of her “grandbaby,” who lives in Madison, Ala., three hours away. She wishes she could be there, taking care of the infant now that her daughter is back at work. “I love this job,” she said. “I know it’s where I’m supposed to be. But I am not a women’s-rights-type person. My place is in the home, and I’m fine with that, so long as my husband is earning the bacon. ’Course, that hasn’t been happening so much lately.” . . .
For the greater part of her marriage, the setup worked just fine for Patsy. Because Reuben stopped her from going to college, she could do what she wanted, which was to raise their three daughters without feeling guilty about not working. Reuben, who had a bachelor’s of science degree from Auburn University, was one of the longest-running service contractors for the Russell Corporation, the maker of athletic wear and the town’s largest employer. He ran a lucrative business cleaning the special pine floors at some of the mills and also had private clients in town. He made enough money for a very comfortable life: a house on a quiet, rural road here in Alexander City, Ala., four cars and multiple church missionary trips for his family to places like Africa and Brazil. Because he owned the business, Patsy could help him out with payroll and accounting on her own time and always be free to pick up the girls from school.

The mills supplied enough steady employment to keep most people in Alexander City out of poverty... and allow many families in town to live well. Here, a man with a degree in textiles or engineering could make $70,000 or even $100,000, enough to afford a house on the lake and a motorboat. He could drive a Lexus S.U.V. and take his family on a vacation to Disneyland and go to church, where, if he needed it, he would be prayed for by name.

In 1996, at the height of its success, Russell employed 7,000 of the town’s 15,000 residents. But the company soon faced competitors that undercut its prices. Like many textile companies in the area, Russell began shifting its plants to Mexico and Honduras, where clothes could be made cheaply. A decade later, only 3,200 people were still working for Russell in Alexander City, and the company was bought by Berkshire Hathaway. Now, at the facilities that remain open, that number is down to about 900, leaving many families in town in financial straits. . . . 

Reuben said he realized that he would never have his old work life back and tried to remake himself. He found a job as director of mall operations in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and then one at a conference-call company in West Point, Ga., and next at a tire plant in Dothan, Ala. None lasted long. One “crazy thing or another,” as Patsy puts it, always doomed him: his long commutes, his health, family obligations, constant reminders that he was no longer his own boss. Over time, he became discouraged. He wasn’t “making the money I need to be making.”
As Reuben’s paychecks became less dependable, Patsy began “stressing” and wondered what she could do to help. Over the years she taught music at day-care centers, sometimes taking their youngest daughter, Jordan, with her. She had been “scared to death” to go back to college, but she studied at night with the aim of becoming a special-education teacher. Around 2006, a friend cornered her in a hallway at church and said she knew of a job that sounded perfect for her. Patsy was known as a helper by nature, driving seniors to church, assisting the youth choir, organizing mission trips. The friend recommended an opening at the city housing authority as a family self-sufficiency coordinator, which meant helping families in public housing become independent by connecting them with services. . . . 

In the last decade, men, especially working-class and middle-class men, have had very different experiences in this economy from the women around them. The manufacturing sector has lost almost six million jobs, nearly a third of its total work force, and has taken in few young workers. Across eastern Alabama, the old textile mills closed one after another, badly shaking up the economy. In Tallapoosa County, which contains Alexander City, the unemployment rate at the time I first visited last year was 13.3 percent — pretty standard for the region during the height of the recession. The housing bubble masked this new reality for a while, creating work in construction and related industries. But then that market crashed as well. Some jobs are trickling back now that Alabama is shifting its focus to “advanced manufacturing,” meaning jobs in industries like automobiles and aeronautics that require a higher degree of skills and training, says Joe Sumners, director of the Economic and Community Development Institute at Auburn University. But traditional manufacturing is unlikely to play the same role in the economy it once did.

While millions of manufacturing jobs have been lost over the last decade, jobs in health, education and services have been added in about the same numbers. The job categories projected to grow over the next decade include nursing, home health care and child care. Of the 15 categories projected to grow the fastest by 2016 — among them sales, teaching, accounting, custodial services and customer service — 12 are dominated by women. These are not necessarily the most desirable or highest-paying jobs. But they do provide a reliable source of employment and a ladder up to the middle class. It used to be that in working-class America, men earned significantly more than women. Now in that segment of the population, the gap between men and women is shrinking faster than in any other, according to June Carbone, an author of “Red Families v. Blue Families.”

In Alexander City, while the men were struggling, women either continued on with their work or found new jobs as teachers, secretaries or nurses or in the service industry. Like many states, Alabama has cut government services over the last few years, but the jobs that remain are relatively stable, Sumners said. More important than the particular jobs available, which are always in flux, is a person’s willingness to adapt to a changing economy. These days that usually requires going to college or getting some job retraining, which women are generally more willing to do. Two-thirds of the students at the local community college are women, which is fairly typical of the gender breakdown in community colleges throughout the country.

“An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the global economy,” says Michael Greenstone, an economist at M.I.T. and director of the Hamilton Project, which has done some of the most significant research on men and unemployment. “It’s a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.”

As the usual path to the middle class disappears, what’s emerging in its place is a nascent middle-class matriarchy, in which women like Patsy pay the mortgage and the cable bills while the men try to find their place. . . .    

When that structure disappeared, “there was no place for us to go,” Charles says. But more than that, there was no way for them to be. . . .
Many women worked at Russell — as seamstresses and occasionally as managers — but they were never allowed to be part of its ruling fraternity. For most women, Russell was never a way of life; it was just a job, and jobs are, as Charles says, transferable. Once it all started to fall apart, some women in town took out loans or used savings to go to school to become nurses, human-resources managers and legal secretaries. Many were willing to take low-paying jobs because they hadn’t spent their lives expecting to be the primary breadwinner. They did not find the available jobs humiliating or beneath them; they found it thrilling to be making steady money. After years of receiving promotions while their husbands looked for work, many women ended up in Patsy Prater’s or Sarah Beth Gettys’s position as the main source of support for their families. “Without Patsy’s job,” Reuben says, “we’d be sunk puppies.” . . . 

James Chung, a market researcher for Reach Advisors, analyzed census data showing that in most of the United States, young, single, childless women in their 20s working full time have a higher median income than equivalent young men. . . .
As the economy fails to fully recover, it’s unclear what will happen to traditionally male or female jobs generally. Some sectors seem undeniably strong: health care, for example, and technology, although there aren’t many tech jobs in places like Alexander City. Manufacturing survives mainly in new and highly specialized forms. Local government jobs, especially ones in low-tax states like Alabama, have gone through severe cuts in the last decade and are unlikely to be cut much further. Jobs like Patsy’s, which rely on federal financing, could be vulnerable given the current political fixation on budget cuts. An important quality for anyone trying to survive in this economy is one that Reuben, in his own limited way, is trying to embody — the one that seems to come more easily to his wife — the capacity to “remake myself again, find my new niche.”"      

Summing Up

America is undergoing rapid, fundamental and structural change. Thus, so are we as Americans. And the rest of the world, too. Globalization is very real.

As we've overpaid for houses, real estate and other things, including education, thereby accumulating heavy debt burdens, and as we've allowed our educational institutions to weaken over time, the rest of the world has been playing catch-up.

As a result, now we're in a highly competitive global horse race. Still, too many of us don't seem to comprehend the challenging new reality which will necessarily bring fundamental and structural change to our U.S. economy.

But there's good news, too. Historically, American consumers have been and still are the engine of growth for global competitors who seek to export to the ultra-competitive U.S. market place. So we're the home team with the home field advantage. But we must unleash our competitive juices and play to win. Energy is perhaps the best example of the need for change, but certainly not the only one.

But for now, largely due to the bursting of the real estate related debt bubble, we're saddled with heavy household debts, and many of our home mortgages are "under water" as home prices have declined precipitously.

As this has happened, the U.S. economy has clearly stalled and unemployment remains unacceptably high. Moreover, there's very little light, if any, at the end of the good jobs needed tunnel.

Meanwhile, much of our political class continues its sleepwalking ways and apparently doesn't understand that the mere passage of time really won't heal all wounds. And that this isn't your father's recession. Simply waiting for the skies to clear and economic life to return to normal will prove to be a loser's game. Yet that's the one being played right now by our feckless leaders in Washington.

The need to (1) encourage private sector growth, (2) develop better and more affordable educational institutions, (3) implement entitlements reform due to an aging population, and (4) recognize the game changing nature of global competition, each and all necessitate a fresh approach if America is to resume its proper place as the envy of the world. Of course, we can do all these things, and do them well, but first we have to internalize the need to do so.

With transformational change efforts, no such lasting change is possible without the recognition that we're in a crisis, followed by an appropriate sense  of urgency, a change in mindset and an understanding that as Americans we're all in this together.

And no matter what the politicians say, such transfornmational change must come to America. The crisis is real and the need for action is great.

There's no reason for pessimism but there's no place for failing to face facts. And the facts are that government can't provide us with prosperity and good jobs. Neither can the Federal Reserve nor can the Congress and President. We have to do that by rolling up our sleeves and doing that all by ourselves.

Of course, government doesn't have to stifle our efforts by standing in our way. But even some of the politicians try to do just that, We the People are still in charge. Let's run them out of town.

Now we all need to act like, as Clint Eastwood said the other evening about America, "We own it," and make it perfectly clear to the politicians that they in fact work for us.

Thanks. Bob.

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