Academic journal article Social Education

Tinderbox: Economics, Immigration, and Education in a North Carolina Town

Academic journal article Social Education

Tinderbox: Economics, Immigration, and Education in a North Carolina Town

Article excerpt

TRAVELING ACROSS TOWN from Interstate 85 to Franklin Boulevard in Gastonia, North Carolina, one is confronted with almost constant reminders of the love and sacrifice for country that exists here. Old Glory is a ubiquitous presence, and it seems almost every local merchant and convenience store proudly displays a sign urging passers-by to "Support Our Troops." There are other, more personal statements, too. "Welcome home, Sergeant Thomas Edwards" one such message reads, "You Make Us Proud."

Gaston County, in which Gastonia is located, sits at the southwestern edge of North Carolina, near the South Carolina border. Built on a textile economy, Gastonia, like much of North Carolina, has been decimated by the crisis in the textile industry. According to the American Textile Manufacturing Institute, between 1997 and 2001 the textile industry in North Carolina lost twenty-nine percent of its work force from plant closings and layoffs, causing nearly fifty-four thousand workers to lose their means of employment. In 2002 and 2003, an additional twenty-six textile plants shut their doors, including Pillowtex Corporation in Kannapolis in August 2003, which forced the layoff of an astounding five thousand workers in one swoop. Robert Freeman, chairman of the Board of Commissioners for neighboring Cabarrus County told the Associated Press: "I have friends who lost their job and are now dealing with foreclosures, having their cars taken away, and telling their kids they can't pay for college this fall." (1)

Since January 2001, seventy textile plants have closed their doors in North Carolina, and Gaston County has been particularly hard hit. According to the Gaston County Economic Development Commission, the county has lost 6,653 since 2000. Thirty-eight plants closed their doors in a two-year period and Gaston County's unemployment rate for the years 2000 to 2002 averaged over seven and a half percent, higher than the national average. (2)

A provision in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) makes the displaced workers eligible for school assistance, but as Paul Desrosiers told the Gaston Gazette's managing editor, that money only helps "to live week to week" and runs out quickly in the face of mortgages and other bills. "My 401(k)'s completely gone," he said, "no money in the bank. The only thing I have is the house I'm sitting in. I've exhausted all my resources." (3)

The federal government's ballooning deficits have caused it to slash funds for worker retraining and aid to state governments. In turn, the states are now facing a financial crisis of their own (North Carolina faced a two-billion-dollar budget deficit this year) and are being forced into Draconian cuts to make ends meet. The Gaston Gazette's Laura Fiorilli has reported that local governments in the county have lost the ability to tax $10 million worth of factory equipment because that equipment now sits idle. Real estate values for the buildings that once housed textile plants have plummeted, leaving local government with no option but to drastically increase everyone else's property taxes to make up for the loss. The loss of these jobs is increasing the likelihood that each former mill town will become a bedroom community, "and that's a very expensive proposition," according to County Manager Jan Winters. (4)

While this devastating economic decline was taking place, the area has also witnessed a remarkable influx of Hispanic workers and families. In the 1990s, North Carolina saw its Hispanic population grow by an astounding 400 percent. This was the highest growth rate of any state in America, according to Newsweek. (5) The massive influx of Latino workers and their families, coupled with the moribund economy of Gaston County, provides a clear recipe for social disaster, as many older residents blame the immigrants for their economic woes.

Christine I. Bennett has written, "Prejudice is an attitude based on preconceived judgments or beliefs (usually negative) that develops from unsubstantiated or faulty information. …

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