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Hickory, NC: A Case Study in Pitfalls of 'Free Trade'

Jeremy Sprinkle
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(Picture) Geraldine Ritch of Hickory, NC lost her job then her house to globalization

Geraldine Ritch lost her job to China, then her house to foreclosure in Hickory, NC (photo by Jim Bounds for Washington Post)

Western NC town has 15% unemployment, focus of report by Washington Post

North Carolina has lost more jobs - 90,000 - to foreign competition than any other state since 2002, according to the Labor Department, which certifies workers eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) benefits.

In a front-page story on Tuesday, the Washington Post highlights the struggle of many in Hickory, NC to cope with job losses because of globalization:

The region has lost more of its jobs to international competition than just about anywhere else in the nation, according to federal trade-assistance statistics, as textile mills have closed, furniture factories have dwindled and even the fiber-optic plants have undergone mass layoffs. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation -- about 15 percent.

The Post interviewed dozens of workers for its story, including Geraldine Ritch:

"Our stitching was perfection," said Geraldine Ritch, 62, whose $15 an hour job sewing leather in a furniture factory was cut last year. "So I never thought we'd lose our jobs to China. But we did. We did.

TAA is supposed to remedy the negative impact of globalization on manufacturing jobs like Geraldine's. In reality, the Post reports that the extended unemployment benefits and free tuition for job training at local community colleges offered under TAA can't make up for the losses:

Many workers are forced to forgo the training because they cannot afford to live on unemployment benefits long enough to get the training certificate or a degree. The average unemployment check is roughly $300 a week, and many study without benefit of health insurance.

Ritch, for example, is enrolled in a class to learn how to work in a doctor's office, but she recently lost her home and her health insurance.

"I pray," she said.

For those who manage to complete retraining, many won't be able to find work, and most of those who do get a job in their new field earn only a fraction of what they did at their old jobs:

The GAO analysis from 2000 found that 75 percent of displaced workers in TAA found jobs. Of those, only 56 percent earned 80 percent or more of their previous wage.

Overall, median household income in North Carolina is down over 10% according to the U.S. Census Bureau. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing jobs like those lost in Hickory are down almost 41% from 2001. The prophets of 'free trade' say the transition to a high-tech economy will make up for such losses, but information jobs are down almost 15% in the same period.

People in Catawba county are losing confidence in 'free trade', the Post reports:

"The people in the think tanks keep saying we are going to become -- what's the term? -- an 'information and services' economy," said Allan Mackie, manager of the North Carolina Employment Security Commission office. "That doesn't seem to be working out too good."

You can read the full story at the Washington Post online by clicking here. Get more facts and stats about working family issues here.