Editor's note: The Great Recession, which hit Elkhart County hard, is over and the economy is rebounding. Right? That's what some experts say, though occasional economic turbulence and local unemployment of 9 percent sometimes make it hard to believe. In this four-day series, Thursday through Sunday, the Elkhart Truth revisits a few of the many people hit by the economic downturn with whom we've spoken to see how they're now faring. Read what they said, now and then.The series was done in conjunction with the British newspaper The Guardian. Reporters from the newspaper visited Elkhart in 2008 and again over the summer to gauge the local fallout of the recession and the impact of President Obama's economic reform efforts.Read Part 1, the Gonyon family's story, here.Read Part 3, Craig Johnson's story, here.Read Part 4, Umeki Williams' story, here.
WAKARUSA — When he learned four years ago that he'd soon lose his job, it shook Ed Neufeldt's world.
After all, he had spent 32 years — more than half his life at the time — at the recreational vehicle maker, Monaco Coach Corp. Moreover, the company, a giant in the field, was hardly a fly-by-night operation.
“I was so surprised,” recalled Neufeldt. “We were one of the biggest RV companies and I had thought we would never close the doors.”
Neufeldt, who lives in Wakarusa, was hardly alone. About 1,400 Monaco workers in all were laid off in 2008, among many others in the all-important RV sector here who also got pink slips as industry sales plummeted on the down economy.
Perhaps he would've just remained a faceless statistic, one of many here rattled by the economy. But Neufeldt somehow caught the attention of the White House — he put a face on the economic woes faced by many — and ended up introducing President Barack Obama when he visited Elkhart County on Feb. 9, 2009. Unemployment
that year spiked to 18 percent in Elkhart County, about as bad as anywhere in the country, and the president came to discuss his economic stimulus plan, speaking at Concord High School.
Neufeldt ended up getting plenty of media attention, and, perhaps more importantly, he eventually landed a couple part-time jobs. Turns out he hadn't even voted for Obama in 2008 — the Wakarusa man's a social conservative, he's pro-life, and cast his ballot based largely on that for GOPer John McCain.
No matter. Neufeldt's struggles do, indeed, reflect the problems many faced and still face here in Elkhart County as the RV sector rebounds. And, for what it's worth, he says he likes Obama, a Democrat. He doubts things would be any better on the economic front had McCain been elected.
Neufeldt still regularly passes the old Monaco facility in Wakarusa. Navistar Inc. bought out Monaco in 2009 and recently renamed it Navistar RV.
Based on the cars he sees in the parking lot, it appears business is humming. He's even received overtures about returning to the company. Neufeldt was swing man in Monaco's mill room, which means he helped saw the varied wooden parts that go into an RV.
A move back to the RV sector, though, isn't in the cards. “I told them, 'Why don't you hire a younger person that's struggling?'” said Neufeldt.
He'll take his two part-time jobs, cleaning a Wakarusa doctor's office and arranging the bread displays at several Elkhart County grocery stores for a LaPorte-based bakery. They pay only a fraction of what he earned at Monaco, but then he hears that RV jobs, some anyway, don't pay what they used to.
Either way, he isn't going to leave the job market. Though 66, he's not ready to fall back on Social Security, not ready to retire.
Sure, the economy's getting better. Neufeldt figures he and his family are better off than they were three years ago, when the economy was really limping along. His two sons-in-law, who had also lost their jobs, are working again.
That said, he still needs the money he earns from his part-time jobs, in part to pay for health insurance for his two youngest kids, still living at home. Thus, he'll just keep on working.
“Social Security is just not going to be enough money,” he said.
TO THE CASKET
After being laid off 2008, as he looked for work, Neufeldt started volunteering at Faith Mission, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Elkhart. Better that then stewing in his juices all day.
“That kind of helped me out,” said Neufeldt. “I thought, 'Well, I've lost my job, but at least I have a car, a roof over my head.' (Faith Mission clients) didn't have anything.”
His Christian faith also helped. “I'm a believer. I figured the lord would help me,” he said. “The church helped out a lot.”
Still, things change and he figures maybe the economy isn't ever going to be like it was, regardless of your religious or political inclination. The unemployment rate in Elkhart County has settled, somewhat. It's now 9 percent compared to 18 percent in 2009.
But with modern technology and increasing use of machines and robots, Neufeldt speculates out loud — maybe the jobless rate, 4.6 percent in Elkhart County back in 2007, will never dip below 8 percent again.
“I don't care what Mitt Romney does,” Neufeldt said, alluding to the GOP presidential challenger to Obama and his economic plans. “There are just too many jobs that are done by machine.”
As such, he mulls the possibility of never removing the three green rubber bracelets now adorning his right wrist, a show of solidarity with the unemployed.
He put them on in 2009 and his plan has been to take them off, one by one, as unemployment dips below 5 percent in Elkhart County, Indiana and the United States as a whole. Thing is, what if the jobless rate never falls that low?
“I may be wearing them to my casket,” Neufeldt said.