Email | Print    Type Size  -  +

Ground zero for rising unemployment

Elkhart, Ind., has one of the highest jobless rates in the country. Now the president is hoping to sell his stimulus package there.

By David Whitford, editor at large
Last Updated: February 9, 2009: 1:21 PM ET

How low would home prices have to go before you'd consider investing in real estate?
  • 10% lower
  • 20% lower
  • I'm already looking
  • I would not consider buying right now at any price

New York (Fortune) -- President Obama spoke at Concord Community High School in Elkhart, Ind., on Monday, trying to make a case for his $827 billion economic stimulus package.

"I am calling on Congress to pass this bill immediately," the president said in a town hall meeting. "Folks here in Elkhart and across America need help right now, and they can't afford to keep on waiting for folks in Washington to get this done."

Why Elkhart? Not because they like him there - they don't really. Obama took Indiana, barely, in November but McCain beat him soundly in Elkhart with 56% of the vote. While a majority of Americans support the economic stimulus bill that Congress is debating, it might be a tough sell in Elkhart.

But if ever a town could use a little help from the federal government right now, it's Elkhart.

According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Elkhart-Goshen Metropolitan Statistical Area suffered the sharpest unemployment increase in America in 2008. The jobless rate jumped from 4.7% when the year began to a stunning 15.3% when it ended. That leaves Elkhart-Goshen with the third-highest U.S. unemployment rate overall, and the highest outside California.

Elkhart is one of those "traditional manufacturing economies" - a phrase that used to imply stability, but is now code for economic disaster. It's not a place where real estate speculators piled up bad loans, but people are losing their homes anyway.

Elkhart, on the Michigan border, with a population just over 50,000, was once home to the Dr. Miles Medical Company, which brought us Alka-Seltzer and Flintstone Vitamins. Conn-Selmer still makes trumpets for high-school bands there. Elkhart Brass makes firefighting equipment. And many companies in and around Elkhart make RVs and mobile homes (the Recreational Vehicle and Manufactured Housing Hall of Fame is there).

What happened to this "quiet masterpiece of the Midwest," as the Chamber of Commerce calls Elkhart? Higher gas prices led to layoffs in the RV industry, producing widespread devastation. Tax revenues are down. Foreclosures and food stamps, up. Job placement services, swamped.

The scope is hinted at in this scary collection of recent local headlines: "Plastics Manufacturing Company Fortis to Shut Down Elkhart, Indiana Plant." "Dexter Axle to close plant in Elkhart." "Elkhart County to cut back on plowing, paving, filling potholes." "Elkhart Jazz Festival shortchanged in city budget crunch."

Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore went to Washington the day after the inauguration to beg for $92.4 million for infrastructure projects that he says will put 2,300 people back to work. Looks like he may get his wish. To top of page

Company Price Change % Change
Ford Motor Co 14.79 -0.32 -2.12%
Bank of America Corp... 17.05 0.04 0.24%
eBay Inc 56.63 3.97 7.54%
Apple Inc 100.75 0.64 0.64%
General Electric Co 25.62 0.20 0.79%
Data as of Sep 30
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 17,042.90 -28.32 -0.17%
Nasdaq 4,493.39 -12.46 -0.28%
S&P 500 1,972.29 -5.51 -0.28%
Treasuries 2.51 0.02 0.68%
Data as of 7:40am ET
More Galleries
Why I'm protesting in Hong Kong Tens of thousands of protesters have flooded the streets of Hong Kong to demand open elections free from Beijing's influence. Eight protesters explain why they're taking a stand. More
7 epic gadget flops From the Microsoft Zune to the BlackBerry PlayBook, the Fire Phone is following in some unfortunate footsteps. More
What I gave up to save $1 million They may have million dollar-plus nest eggs, but they had to make some big sacrifices along the way to get there. Here's what these four savers did without in order to save seven-figures retirement. More
Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.