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Boarded-up homes and empty storefronts dot the once-prosperous town of Elkhart, Indiana, where those still struggling to recover from the economic collapse of 2008 have a simple message for politicians ahead of key mid-term elections: fix the economy, stupid.
While the worst economic downturn to strike the United States since the Great Depression may have officially ended in June of last year, some 14.1 million people across the country remain officially unemployed.
That’s a strong improvement from the 16.1 million who were actively looking for work when unemployment peaked at 10.6 percent in January.
But it’s a far cry from where things were a couple years ago when jobs were plentiful, and the unemployment rate hovered around five percent.
Polls show that around 60 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction and about three quarters think Congress is doing a bad job.
Incumbents across the country — and President Barack Obama‘s Democrats in particular — are expected to take a big hit at the polls on November 2.
Roger Fox, 57, laughed when asked if he thinks politicians are doing a good job of handling the economy.
He’s been out of work for a year now and would rather place his faith in prayer.
Things are starting to look up, he said as he filled a cart at a busy food bank in Elkhart, Indiana.
“Target called me for Christmas help,” he said, referring to the large retailer. “This is the first time in a long time I’ve had a call for an interview.”
Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore is unabashedly optimistic about the economy and credits Obama’s stewardship and a massive government-funded stimulus program for averting a much deeper downturn.
“If the rest of the nation underwent the same recovery in unemployment as we have we’d be in good shape,” Moore told AFP.
“The problem for us is we have further to go.”
Elkhart has become a bellwether for the state of the nation’s economy after Obama visited the town four times — twice as a candidate and twice as a president — to highlight his economic policies and efforts to turn things around.
The midwestern town of 53,000 is largely dependent on manufacturing, particularly of recreational vehicles, and it was one of the first places to feel the pinch as RV orders dried up in 2008 amid high fuel prices and economic uncertainty.
Elkhart soon had the highest unemployment rate in the country, which topped out at a whopping 22.2 percent in January 2010.
The official unemployment rate has fallen to 15.3 percent — or 3,341 people in August — but that’s more than double the 6.6 percent posted in January 2008 when there were 3,316 more people in the official labor force.
DeCarla Lane, 37, is among those who want a job but aren’t officially unemployed. She was laid off two months ago, but was told she can’t collect unemployment insurance because she had only been working for about six months.
“They need to do more about jobs around here,” Lane said of politicians. “I’m about to lose my apartment. I don’t know where to turn to. It’s really hard.”
Moore, a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state, doesn’t think his party has done a good job of “tooting their own horn” and explaining to the public how much they’ve accomplished despite some pretty tough odds.
“We’ve done so much in 18 months, it’s incredible,” said Moore, 76, who watched his parents struggle through the Great Depression.
“It’s not going to work as fast as people want, but it’s going to work.”
Moore estimates that about 40 million dollars of stimulus projects have come to the Elkhart area to help repair roads, rebuild the local theatre, tear down an abandoned downtown foundry, and install energy-efficient windows in city hall, among others.
Elkhart’s high profile has helped it draw in new business — like the Norwegian electric car company Think which plans to build a new plant here — and established companies are starting to hire back workers.
Things aren’t working fast enough for Chelsey Nusbaum, 22, a stay-at-home mother who voted for Obama in 2008 and now thinks she made a mistake.
“I think the president could do more for our economy,” said Nusbaum, who has seen too many friends and family members lose their jobs and their homes.
“We’re struggling a lot more now than we were. He should be able to accomplish so much more.”
Copyright © 2010 AFP