The House of Raeford turkey processing plant in Raeford, North Carolina. Credit: Spencer Woodman/The Nation.
Maxton, North Carolina—On a sweltering morning in early August, Lester Dixon packed a U-Haul truck tightly with his family’s possessions, which would soon set off for a nearby storage facility. No longer able to afford rent on their four-bedroom home, the family would disperse later that day to stay with friends and relatives until a cheaper dwelling became available. Resting his elbows on the lid of an industrial-size plastic garbage bin, Dixon pointed to one thing he’d be holding onto: a regional phonebook he used daily to call warehouses, factories and retail stores across the state that might hire him as a forklift driver.
On July 1, Dixon, along with over 70,000 other North Carolinians, lost his unemployment benefits in an unprecedented cut to state aid for the jobless. By voting to slash its unemployment insurance program last February, the state violated federal guidelines, causing it to become the first state ineligible for federal jobless aid. Over the next few months, an additional 100,000 job seekers in the state, who would have otherwise qualified, will lose benefits.
State Republicans argue that the cuts, designed and lobbied for by the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, will keep the state’s business taxes within reason while its government repays a massive debt owed to the federal government for its post-recession unemployment program.
At 8.8 percent, North Carolina’s unemployment rate is the fifth highest in the nation, and some of its most extreme joblessness is focused in rural counties along its eastern and western flanks. Dixon’s town of Maxton, on the state’s southern edge, divides between Scotland and Robeson counties, which reported June unemployment rates of 16.2 percent and 13 percent respectively. Advocates worry that people and organizations in such areas could bear a particularly harsh impact of the benefit reduction.
“With that income, we’d still be living in our home,” Dixon, 48, shouted over the roar of a freight train running just beyond the backyard of his vacated house. “This was our home, the whole thing. I used to care for my mother, now she’s trying to look after me and that hurts me to death.”
Three decades of mechanization and outsourcing in Dixon’s region triggered successive waves of mass layoffs. (Even while loading the U-Haul, two of Dixon’s moving helpers approached me to ask if I was offering work.) Low-skilled jobs in particular have been slow to return. “The boss at a plant down the road says he’s got a big stack of applications for a forklift operator, but problem is, you’ve got to have a computer degree nowadays to qualify for it,” said Don Porter, economic development director for the nearby town of Raeford, where Dixon used to work as a forklift driver. “I can take you to the factory and you can see shelves being stocked all day, but you won’t see any people—it’s robots doing everything.”
Sitting in his cavernous office inside Raeford’s decommissioned train depot, Porter explained that jobs are still fast disappearing from the region. Later that week, his town of 4,600 would lose almost a thousand jobs in the closure of a massive turkey processing facility called the House of Raeford. For decades, the plant had been a keystone of the town’s private sector economy. Porter worries most for workers old enough to face challenges updating their skill-sets, but who also must continue to earn a living.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Porter said. “But I don’t know how this is going to turn out for some folks.”