Rives, Karin Schill. “County in crisis.” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Sunday, 16 December 2001: pages 1A, 20A. 2886 words.
As of October 2001, Robeson County had the state's highest unemployment rate (12.5%) and had seen 35 plant closings (eliminating 7,400 jobs) in the last six years. This article uses the case of Shirley Oxendine to explore factors behind the county's high unemployment rate, the impact on individuals, and other problems caused by the plant closings. Shirley Oxendine had worked in factory jobs for 25 years. For 22 years she worked at the Converse shoe factory, which laid her off in August 1999 because it was moving the last of its U.S. facilities to Southeast Asia. Oxendine then got a job as a temporary worker (earning $5.15/hour) at Quickie Manufacturing, which makes mops and household cleaning supplies. That company has closed down one department, moving it to Mexico; Oxendine fears that, like Converse, all other departments will soon follow suit. Factors in Robeson County's unemployment situation include foreign competition; a gradual decline in the manufacturing sector; a sharp increase in plant closings after NAFTA was enacted in 1995; and a loss of tobacco and other farming jobs. Plant closings 1995 and later include Sara Lee (1,200 jobs), Alamac Knits (800 jobs), Gerber Children's Wear (450 jobs), Carolina Mills (625 jobs), Converse (850 jobs), Croft Metals (600 jobs), and International Jensen (600 jobs). Effects of the unemployment include sharp increases in families receiving food stamps, higher demand for services at the Southeastern Family Violence Center, decline in giving to United Way, “brain drain,” and 401(k) plan owners cashing in their retirement savings to pay debts. Robeson Community College enrollment has increased as laid-off workers retrain for new careers. Current efforts to assist Robeson County include visits from state and federal officials with Robeson County's economic development director, Gregory Cummings; a $500,000 grant from the N.C. Rural Internet Access Authority that will enable Core Vantage Technologies (in Charlotte) to bring high-speed computer access to the region; and the North Carolina Commerce Department's 21st Century Communities program, which is designing an economic development plan for the county.