Portrait of a Recession

Railroad Station in Jackson Michigan
[Gautham Nagesh]

The news this week that the economy lost 467,000 jobs in June was a sobering reminder to most of the country that it's unlikely we've seen the bottom of this recession. But here in my hometown of Jackson, Michigan, people are hardly surprised to hear about the loss of manufacturing jobs. It's become a fact of life.

Jackson is in many ways the perfect place to witness first-hand the effects of the economic downturn. Located 80 miles west of Detroit on I-94, the city flourished as a railroad junction during the 1920s before the Depression took hold. Since then the economy has focused on utilities and manufacturing auto parts for the Big Three, which have been in steady decline for the past 30 years. Unemployment hit 14.1 percent in May for Jackson County, the highest figure in a quarter century. Forbes magazine even declared Jackson the worst small city in America for jobs in April, an honor that most people around here view as unnecessary piling on.

The latest blow came last month when the local manufacturer Sparton Corp. announced it would be moving its headquarters to Illinois and shuttering the Jackson plant, costing the city another 200 jobs. Local newspaper columnist Brad Flory of the Jackson Citizen Patriot told me the company was the city's biggest employer during the Depression and did a lot to help the town pull through tough times. Withington Community Stadium where my alma mater Jackson High School plays football is named after the company's original founders.

The closing of Sparton Corp, "says a lot about how 'rust belt' cities must shape new futures" Flory said. "Sparton is quite a loss in many ways, not the least of which is symbolic."

I stopped into Jackson Coney Island, a local institution located just a couple miles from the old Sparton plant, to get a sense for how locals view the plant's closure. Having grown up in the area I'm used to seeing folks respond to dire economic news with a certain Midwestern stoicism. But with two-thirds of the Big Three in bankruptcy court, people have started to see the writing on the wall.

"Sparton was a big loss- many jobs but we've also lost a part of history that we're never going to replace," said Georgia Barnhardt, a lifelong resident of Jackson who had two aunts who worked at the plant during the Depression. Barnhardt and her daughter Paula Ward are used to the job losses and plant closures, but recent events feel different to them.

"Young people are moving out because there are no jobs," said Ward, referring to her own 35-year-old son who was recently put on furlough from his job as a shift supervisor at a local manufacturing plant that supplies auto parts. Orders were too slow, she said, but they hope he will start working again in a couple weeks.

Her mention of young people leaving causes me a twinge of guilt, since I'm probably a perfect example of someone who has fled for greener pastures. While my parents still live and work here, both my sister and I have been forced to leave to find jobs after college. The same is true for the vast majority of our friends from high school. During recent trips home I have even started to notice a disappointing trend of people feeling like they to explain why they still live in Jackson. I'm always quick to tell them that given the right opportunity, I would be happy to join them.

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