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From where I live in Roanoke I can hear the factory whistle blow several times a day. It produces a lonely wail first at 7 a.m., at noon and 12:30 p.m. for the lunch break, and then at 3 p.m. for the end of first shift.
My son and I have passed the factory many times as we’ve walked to the Roanoke River. We never knew what the initials “FWC” stood for. Recently, I saw familiar footage of the factory grounds on television.
The whistle I’ve heard so many times will soon go silent forever. The Fred Whittaker Corporation, a maker of dyes for the textile industry, will close in less than 60 days. The approximately 100 people who work there won’t hear the whistle anymore, either.
On Friday, we got the news that the nation’s unemployment rate hit 7.6 percent in January. Economists and government officials had expected it to be bad, but not that bad. Some 598,000 jobs were eliminated last month, the most since 1974.
As the job losses at Whittaker illustrate, this recession/depression is touching every corner of the country. Many people who are losing these jobs are in their 50s. They have limited skills and, in some cases, not much formal education. They can hardly be expected to start life over as though they were 21 and fresh out of college.
America’s tiny social safety net is the only immediate help for them. That means unemployment benefits and food stamps, but not much assistance beyond that. Most will wind up underemployed, and depending on family and friends to stay afloat.
Can’t the richest country on the face of the earth do better than this? Yes, we should have a stronger social welfare apparatus for our citizens, but that’s an argument for another time. Right now, President Obama’s American Investment and Recovery Act should be a first step to easing the pains of this crisis.
Conservatives love to say, well, the New Deal didn’t end the Great Depression, it was World War II. And that means what? That their answer for any economic crisis is a global war? Thanks, but no thanks.
The industrial surge that prepared us for war was the ultimate solution. But the programs of the New Deal got the ball rolling by putting people to work, which put money in their pockets and gave them hope. The economic stimulus package can do the same thing today. At the very least, it’s a necessary start.
We need new jobs that will address the needs of the infrastructure, which has been neglected for decades under conservative policies. When that bridge collapsed in Minnesota last year, we found out afterwards that thousands of other American bridges were at risk.
Republicans might only want to spend government money on war and the military; the rest of us must understand that this is a time for action from the federal government. It simply can’t sit still and do nothing. Obama and most Democrats realize that. Hopefully, their numbers in the new Congress will prevail, with or without GOP support, and we’ll get some action.
Meanwhile, if you still have a job you’d better be grateful for it and cling to it. Not all of us start our day to the tune of a factory whistle. But the silencing of those sounds is a metaphor for what’s happening in so many places across this country.
These are very tough times that demand new leadership. Voters chose that in November, and the new president is doing his part. His proposals should be given a chance to work.
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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.