Deb Shelton can almost track the ebb and flow of the recession's impact on Franklin, KY by the shifting content of classified advertisements she manages for her local newspaper. Sitting at her desk in the editorial offices of The Franklin Favorite, she flips through paper-clipped stacks of notecards she has kept for the past few years, each one documenting how many ads and of what type she had in a given week.
A few years ago, each issue typically listed four or five foreclosure announcements for Simpson County. But in late 2007 the number of home losses began a steep climb, soon doubling to a level it has fairly consistently sustained ever since.
Foreclosures represented only the leading edge of an economic blight that had begun seeping into the community. Through 2008 Deb watched as the number of help wanted ads dwindled, particularly towards the end of the year. Where she once used to have two pages of job listings, "Now I'm lucky if it's half a page, or maybe three-quarters," she tells me.
Documenting her community's slide into recession, Deb didn't need a crystal ball to see what the future held for her family. Her husband worked for a local Luvata plant, which manufactures copper tubing for heating and cooling units. Ninety percent of their business came from the housing industry.
Larry Shelton was laid off in March 2009.
They had been a two-earner couple for the better part of their 29-year marriage when the news dropped. With no notice aside from nagging intuition, and no severance except a payout on earned vacation time, the 50-year-old father of three suddenly found himself back on the job market.
Deb's advance knowledge of jobs announcements could give Larry a jump on other applicants, if there was any work to be had. "I always scan the ads for him," she says, "but there is really nothing out there. Really, nothing." With an unemployment rate exceeding 14%, Deb does not exaggerate the dismal economic landscape in Simpson County.
After finishing up for the day, Deb takes me home to meet her husband. The neatly manicured front lawn and perfectly-tended landscaping shows the hand of Larry's long hours of free time.
He meets us on the front porch, extending his hand and introducing himself as the house maid. As we go inside, he apologizes for the mess, explaining with a smile that the maid has gone on vacation.
Sitting around the dining room table, Larry talks to me about how it feels to be unemployed after three decades of working life. "Some mornings it is hard to get up and keep going. I'll admit that," he says.
"It's easy to get depressed because I've always worked. You find yourself sitting there a lot, but there's always something to do." Larry tends to the gardening, housekeeping, and other tasks around the house to keep himself busy.
After his father was diagnosed with bone cancer recently, Larry found reason to be grateful for this stint of unemployment. Without a job to claim 40 hours of his time each week, Larry is available to tend to his father's needs during this difficult time. For both the Shelton's, this seems a kind of sign that all things happen for a reason.
Even under this hardship, Deb and Larry see the omnipresent hand of God guiding their path, nurturing their spirit and giving them strength to endure. "In our case," Larry explains, "we have faith that the Lord will take care of us. You live that and you believe in that."
"Every day above ground is a good day," Deb adds.
Self-pity does not make an appearance during our conversation. Rather, both express a profound appreciation for their many blessings. They still have their home. Though money is tight, they can still feed their family. They may not have new clothes, but the old ones haven't fallen to tatters yet. They have their health and three wonderful children. "You have to maintain the positive perspective that there are so many others out there that are so much worse off than you." Larry says. "We're not homeless, not hungry, not living in our car or under a bridge." Despite the challenges, life is good.
That's not to say that Larry doesn't experience moments of darkness in his quest to land a new job. You know it has to be tough when even Wal-Mart and Taco Bell aren't hiring, he tells me. "It can be discouraging to look even though you know there's nothing out there. But then if you don't look it becomes even more discouraging."
Larry has to keep up the search in order to retain his unemployment benefits, though he doesn't think he could bring himself to accept a part-time job or one that pays minimum wage. The meager check he receives from the government isn't much, but amounts to more than he would make working full-time for minimum wage. "I know that's not the right perspective," he admits, "but at the same time, I've been paying into that system my entire adult life."
If things haven't improved when Larry's unemployment benefits run out--likely early next year--the Shelton's aren't sure what they would do. Deb wonders if they may have to rely more on their 20-year-old son for support, unless his warehouse job becomes another casualty of the recession.
A close friend who survived the last round of layoffs at Luvata looks likely to be cut from the workforce in the near future. If the recession turns into an extended depression, Deb suggests maybe the woman and her two children could move into the Shelton basement. "You know how they say two can live cheaper than one. If things get really bad, we can pitch in and live together. In times like these you have to band together."
Though they contemplate the possibilities, neither believes things could get that bad. Looking towards the future, Deb concludes with certainty: "My faith tells me things will get better."
Larry views the trying times as a challenge he can surmount with perserverence, intelligence, and inner strength--an experience that has been and will continue to tranform the apreciation he has for his life and family. "I firmly believe something good will come out of this," he says. "I have faith. You have to have something to hold onto. Otherwise, you don't have anything."