As jobs continue to die on the vine here, Jennifer Holderread fusses over her vegetable garden and some troubled thoughts about the male psyche.
“There are so many men in this county who have had their bubbles popped and now their wives are taking care of them,” she said. “What is this going to do to them? This is a huge role reversal for them.”
The issue is front and center for Holderread, 32, a diminutive, feisty blonde who was born and raised in Elkhart’s Baugo community, graduated from Jimtown High, then married her high school sweetheart in 1999.
Work started petering out last fall at RV maker Canterbury, where her husband, Daniel Holderread, 33, had made a good living for years. At first, there were partial furloughs, she said.
“That’s really hard on a family … trying to keep things on a budget,” she said. “Are you going to make $250 a week from unemployment or are you going to make $350 for working?”
About two months ago, the ax fell for good. Daniel Holderread was laid off and told there would be no call-backs. Jennifer Holderread’s brother, future brother-in-law and his mother also got walking papers from the same plant. Her father-in-law still works there, although his hours are sporadic lately.
While the dedication and hard work of those in the manufacturing sector may be immortalized in beer commercials, Holderread said many Americans don’t realize the thankless, anonymous sort of toil it can be even in good times.
‘These guys have never been celebrated’
“These guys have never been celebrated,” she said. “It just makes me sad.” Her father-in-law has put 30 years into making RVs and “what does he have to show for it? Nobody’s going to give him anything but a pat on the back when he retires.”
Her ire flashes when she recalls how many in the industry worked virtually around the clock to pump out the thousands of travel trailers the federal government ordered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, only to see some of their firms later sued over the products.
To have their livelihoods now snatched away as a result of unstable gas prices and the credit crunch is humiliating for some.
She is happy that her own position at a property management firm allows the family, which includes son Kain, 5, to pay the bills, but she is concerned that there is more than a financial cost to the job losses, especially for the men.
“The women libs may be going, ‘Yeah,’” that wives are able to step up and support their husbands, “but I see what it does to my husband, my brother,” she said.
Both her husband and brother are now attending technical school in a bid to find new careers in the IT industry. But the timing of the layoffs muddied her husband’s eligibility for a grant to pay for the $6,000 course, which could force him to delay completing it.
In the meantime, the Holderreads are cutting expenses wherever they can. They plan to give up their cell phones. They canceled their annual trip to Tennessee. And Jennifer is trying to maximize the output of her vegetable patch.
Accentuating the positive
She also is keeping a close eye on the national media coverage that Elkhart’s high unemployment rate and President Obama’s visits here have sparked. A frequent contributor to discussion pages in msnbc.com’s Elkhart Project, she’s determined that the town of which she is so proud not be wrongly stereotyped.
While she believes the unemployment rate may be even higher than official figures indicate and that “it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” she says it’s important that Elkhart’s positives also be stressed.
“We’ve got so many talented people here, so many musicians, so many artists,” she said. Best of all, “the people of this community come together when they are hit.”
Right now, she believes it’s important for people to let go of political affiliations and focus on the big picture. “It can’t be a Republican thing. It can’t be a Democratic thing. It has to be a common sense thing.”
A registered Democrat who did not vote for Obama, she said, “I support him now 100 percent. He’s my president.”
But she does question the most publicized chunk of federal stimulus money so far bestowed on Elkhart, $4.2 million to repave runways at the local airport, which offers no scheduled commercial flights.
“It only benefits the private sector,” she said. “That $4.2 million could have gone to Habitat for Humanity or to rebuild some of our community. Why wouldn’t they think of that first?”
She hopes future spending will do more to stimulate permanent growth in the economy. “Somebody has to create the jobs. If we have to go into business for ourselves, that’s what we’ll do,” she said, perhaps in some computer-related concern once her husband and brother have finished their IT courses.
“We’re bad but we’re still hopeful,” Holderread said. “’We’re a city with heart. We’ll come back from this.”