Friday, September 17, 2010

The economic downturn in a one-company town

Public Radio's Marketplace reported earlier this week from Kingsport, Tennessee, population 47,356, as part of its series about "Searching for Hope in the Recession." One aspect of the story is the fact that Eastman chemical company is such a dominant employer in the small city. To illustrate the effects of the economic downturn on Kingsport, Jeremy Hobson's story featured interviews with several townsfolk, from a hairdresser to a minister to a paper mill worker.

The comments by the paper mill worker, Wayne McConnell, were strikingly colorful. Hobson asked McConnell who he "blames for the hurt here, and he starts with Washington":

Wayne McConnell: I'm about to the point that in my book, they need to load all of them in Washington up on a big plane, take 'em over and turn 'em loose in Afghanistan, and leave 'em over there.

But McConnell saves his real anger for Wall Street bankers.

McConnell: Well in my book, they ought to hang 'em. I mean, when you take bailout money and then you pay 'em $2 or $3 million bonus, something ain't right there on that. We're not used to that high-paying job down here though, I don't think.

Mr. McConnell's drawl and colloquialisms are much more striking when listening to the excerpt rather than merely reading a transcript of it. You can listen here. Indeed, McConnell fairly screams "hillbilly." I grew up as a hillbilly among people like Mr. McConnell, and I found myself cringing as I listened to his comments, in part because I knew how other listeners would completely discredit him--not only for the content, but because of his style. This made me wonder about journalist Hobson's decision to use the quote--what he thought he was achieving--since he, too, must have realized that many (most?) listeners would find McConnell offputting, thereby giving them a reason to discount the needs and interests of the entire community.

Indeed, one Marketplace listener who commented on the story identified himself as a native of Kingsport and wrote of McConnell:

It unfortunate that Jeremy had to give airtime to that facepalm-worthy loudmouth at the end.

If a former local feels that way, I wonder what other listeners thought. Or is it possible that class migrants like myself and the former local who commented are harder on the McConnells of the world than complete outsiders?

In any event, McConnell also notes that many working at the paper mill from which he retired are in their 70s, but they are afraid to retire for fear of not being able to get by. I suppose that like many laborers--perhaps especially in the South--they are without pensions or retirement savings, hoping to live off their Social Security. See a recent story here about some challenges associated late retirement for laborers.

Hobson concluded the segment by noting that the per capita income in Kingsport is only about $20,000 a year. (More demographic and economic information is available here). That is, indeed, a far cry not only from what Wall Street bankers make, but also from what more typical members of the professional/managerial class in this country earn. The national per capita income in the U.S. is $27,466, putting Kingsport's at about 73% of the national figure. The contrast between median family income for Kingsport and the nation is $50,076 to $63,211, or 79%.

Kingsport straddles Sullivan and Hawkins counties and is part of the Kingsport TN-Bristol, VA Metropolitan Statistical Area.

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