5 years later: For some Elkhart County workers, having a job hardly guarantees economic security
GOSHEN — James Bacon has a job.
For that, he’s thankful.
He’s a welder at an Elkhart County company that supplies the recreational vehicle industry and has held that job since 2009, when the recession that walloped Elkhart County started tapering off. Before that, when the local economy was, perhaps, at its worst, he was unemployed and relied on his wife’s income alone.
Undoubtedly, things are better than back in March 2009, when the county’s unemployment rate ballooned to 20.2 percent. Most notably, the jobless rate here has edged down and, as of May, sat at 5.3 percent.
Still, it’s not like employment has done much to ease the 37-year-old into a comfortable rhythm at this stage of life. Things are still rough, no matter the full-time job, no matter the five years that have passed since the end of the Great Recession.
"We’re doing good, but we aren’t doing the best,” Bacon said, as he sat in the dining room of his three-bedroom rental, which he shares with his wife, Michelle, and two of their three daughters, ages 15 and 9.
For many in Elkhart County, like the Bacons, life is still a struggle. As a matter of fact, the lower jobless rate is based on the size of the ever-fluctuating labor force. As of May, the number of people actually working in Elkhart County was 91,912, which still lags the pre-recession high of 99,513 in 2006.
And having a job doesn’t necessarily mean all’s good in the world.
While the family relied on food stamps and the bills piled up before Bacon got his current job, his $11-plus-an-hour wage hardly covers the family’s needs. He, like many workers, relies on help from social service agencies to fill the gap. Food distributions to Elkhart County food pantries by the Food Bank of Northern Indiana increased from 522,000 pounds in 2008 to 1.82 million pounds in 2013. That sort of jump, say many who work with the needy, reflects growing demand from a growing pool of workers not making living wages.
If this is a thriving economy, it sure doesn’t feel like it to Bacon. It’s his Christian faith more than any hope of a brighter economic future that seems to keep him going. A Bible sits on the kitchen table and a placard reading “God is the blessed controller of all things” hangs on the wall.
“Me, I trust in the Lord and he will supply all of my needs,” said Bacon. “That’s my main thing right now.”
THE WORKING POOR
It’s a Monday afternoon. Bacon’s shift recently ended and he is at The Window, a food pantry and soup kitchen on Main Street in downtown Goshen, the grime of welding from his tough work is still evident on his forearms.
He just collected a bag of sandwiches and other packaged foods, which he plans to bring home to his family. It’s at least one less meal he’ll have to pay for to feed his family. Each weekday, a catering company sends The Window leftover burritos, pizza slices and other items not sold at work sites on its varied trucks. The Window hands out the food to those, like Bacon, who show up.
”I come here pretty much every day after work,“ says Bacon.
He’s not the only one. The unemployed, low-wage workers and others patiently wait their turn in line for a chance to pick 12 sandwiches and other food items from the collection. Boxes of day-old doughnuts are also there for the taking.
"The economic recovery has helped,” explains David Kindy, a volunteer helping distribute the food, “but you still have a county full of the working poor.”
Up to 80 people a day visit The Window to take advantage of the program, one of many offerings there.
A man with a tattoo of comedy and tragedy masks walks past and puts in his two cents. “The system is designed to fail. You can quote me on that,” he says.
Bacon, too, shares a somewhat pessimistic outlook.
"I would love to see it get better so I don’t have to come here,” he says. “But I don’t see it.”
'TOO FAR GONE’
Back at home at his kitchen table, Bacon notes that he earns too much to qualify for food stamps. "You don’t want to ask me about that," he says.
The family gets help elsewhere, though.
The Salvation Army helped recently with the gas bill. Their church, Grace Bible Baptist in New Paris, helped cover the cost of summer camp for their two youngest daughters. The kids can get free breakfast at Shanklin Park thanks to a special summer program, though Michelle, as an adult, has been told that she’s expressly prohibited from dining on the food.
Even so, it’s still tough.
Rest and relaxation doesn’t usually amount to anything too elaborate — no movies, no trips.
“We might walk up to the park. That’s about it,” says Bacon.
Forget about ever owning a home. Michelle, advised by her doctor not to work given an anxiety condition, has a pile of medical bills that need to be paid off.
"I could work every day for the rest of my life and I’d never pay for them," she says.
Special presents for the kids are usually contingent on their availability at second-hand stores. One of their daughters wanted some in-line skates, just like a girl across the street. Thank goodness a pair was available at the Goodwill for $5.
Michelle wonders what life would’ve been like had she more aggressively pursued her nursing studies. Bacon notes he didn’t finish high school and hopes his daughters don’t follow that route, though it’s hard for him to contemplate what’s in their future.
"I hope they go to college and get a good job,” he says.
On the bright side, Bacon likes his work, even if the pay isn’t the greatest and the factory is a short trip from home. And he and Michelle have been able to keep their marriage together for 17 years, despite all life has thrown their way.
But the economy still seems so mired, so incapable of pulling up those on the periphery, those who often do the toughest jobs. Bacon thinks everything’s too expensive, that an across-the-board drop in prices would make life a whole lot easier.
That probably isn’t in the cards, he acknowledges. For that matter, he doesn’t see any way to fix the economy to where it would benefit him. "I don’t think you can right now. It’s too far gone to try to save it,” he says.