1:04am

Tue November 12, 2013
Reporter's Notebook

Dwindling Middle Class Has Repercussions For Small Towns

Originally published on Wed November 13, 2013 12:23 pm

My parents moved away from Lincoln, Ill., two decades ago, when I was in college. I hardly ever get back there. But my mom still works in Lincoln, and it was to Lincoln I headed to meet her this fall, after returning to the U.S. from the Middle East.

I got off the train from Chicago and immediately saw that the old depot building — where we used to go for fancy dinners before prom — was shuttered. A little monument commemorating the day Abraham Lincoln named the town in 1853 was faded and peeling. There was a man asleep on a bench at the train stop. He looked like he'd been there for days.

Driving around with my mom, I could not help but be struck by the question: What happened to Lincoln? I know this is a pretty common thought when people go back to their hometowns. But really, what happened?

I decided to find out for myself, to spend a week reporting in Lincoln.

It turns out that what's happening in Lincoln is happening in so many towns and communities across the country: As we recover from the Great Recession, jobs are coming back. But they are not middle-wage jobs — they are either high-wage jobs or low-wage jobs. The middle class is in serious decline. And that has all kinds of repercussions.

Fewer Jobs, More Crime

I started with Troy Brown, who went to grade school with my brother and is now a probation officer. He summed it up pretty well.

"The drug use has skyrocketed. The unemployment rate has skyrocketed. And just the general attitude — just no hope," he said. "I don't know really when it changed, but it seemed to be overnight."

Brown has seen that change up close. While the crime rate in Lincoln is steady, it's drug-related offenses that are going up. And the drug of choice these days?

Heroin.

So much heroin, Brown says, there's an overdose every week. And that's in a town of just 14,000 people. A handful of people have even died.

State authorities say in towns like Lincoln, people get addicted to prescription drugs then turn to heroin when they can no longer afford the pills. They say the supply of heroin from Mexico has increased, and that's why it's cheap and available.

Brown says, sadly, heroin is keeping him in business.

"Lincoln has really plummeted to the point where I would love for our office to have cuts because there's no more crime," he said. "But we're so swamped, it's just the exact opposite. I mean, I hate to say it, but I have total job security here."

Ken Greenslate is the chief of police in Lincoln. He says the town is not all bad.

He shows me the "new" part of town. It's just off Interstate 55, which connects Lincoln to Chicago, just a few hours north. Hotels, fast food restaurants, an assisted living facility and a warehouse for storing documents have all opened in recent years.

Schools asked the voters to pass a referendum imposing a sales tax for school capital programs, and the voters passed the referendum. And Lincoln recently got a grant to refurbish its downtown.

But like in so many towns across the Midwest, the population is shrinking and getting older. Factories have been closing since the '80s and '90s. One of the best government jobs in town, the state-run home for people with mental disabilities, was closed in 2002. Thousands of people lost their jobs.

Then came the Great Recession. Since then, the few factories that have managed to hang on in Lincoln have tended to hire temporary workers at lower wages with no benefits.

There is one new plant in town: a warehouse and distribution center for food products. But the jobs there are mainly stacking boxes or driving trucks. And the starting wages are $16 to $18 an hour — what economists say is barely a living wage.

A Disappearing Middle Class

This is the new reality that economists say is hitting so many communities across the U.S. Jobs are being created. But in Illinois and its neighboring states, the most jobs coming back are low-wage jobs.

In Lincoln, where unemployment is 8.4 percent — a point higher than the national average — the few middle class jobs left are in health care, teaching and prisons.

Police Chief Greenslate says that means some people turn to crime.

"When people don't have work, then they have time on their hands, and when they have time on their hands, there's more opportunity for them to find things they shouldn't be doing," he says.

Before our tour is over, Greenslate gets a call.

Police have stopped two suspects with 15 pounds of marijuana they think came from Mexico. An informant tells police that more suspects are holed up in a migrant-worker motel down the street.

Greenslate barrels his SUV up to the motel and corners the two suspects.

"Do not move," he yells, grabbing his handcuffs and stepping out of the vehicle. "Let me see your hands. Hands! Hands!"

I watch as one suspect tries to get away but then relents. The other looks like he's about to cry.

Turns out the latter was carrying a duffel bag with another five pounds of pot. The intended buyer for these drugs, police later tell me, was a 14-year-old boy — from Lincoln.

The next day I meet Joe Plummer, one of my high school classmates, at the Steak 'n Shake out by the interstate.

Joe and his wife, Josie, have three teenage girls between them. They say they worry about the drugs and the crime in Lincoln.

I ask them how they try to keep their kids safe.

"We teach 'em how to shoot," Josie said.

"I have 35 guns in my house. Every one of my daughters, and my wife, know how to handle a weapon as well as anybody could handle one," Joe said.

Joe takes me to the firing range where he teaches his girls to shoot rifles like an AR-15 and an AK-47 that he keeps locked in a safe at home — and a handgun he keeps in his bedside table.

Treat It Like A Revolution

Richard Longworth, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, wrote a book about the struggling Midwest called Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism. He says America's declining middle class means small towns are starting to have a lot more in common with crime-prone neighborhoods in big cities.

He also says towns like Lincoln need to realize this is not just about the recession. This is about a long, slow decline.

"The earth isn't going to open up and swallow them," he said. "They'll survive, but they'll be backwaters, getting ever more what you saw: shrinking in population, population older, young families not moving in, high school grads like yourself moving away to seek their fortune somewhere else."

Longworth says for communities to survive in this new reality, they'll have to reinvent themselves — try to keep the factory alive, attract people who are willing to work the lower-wage jobs.

Otherwise, what happens to towns like Lincoln will be just another episode in what he says is a major societal upheaval.

"I grew up in a middle-class America where we pretty much knew life was an escalator," he said. "You got on the bottom step, and if you behaved yourself, paid your dues, went to work, worked hard — you'd end up at the top of the escalator. And I think that escalator's broken now. It's a tougher scramble."

How to cover that upheaval, I ask?

"You've covered revolutions before," he said. "Treat it like just another damn revolution."

Sounds like a plan.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

As the U.S. economy recovers from the Great Recession, one fact that's emerging is that while jobs are coming back, most of these jobs are low-paying. Middle-class jobs, which have declined over the past few decades, are not coming back. NPR's Kelly McEvers has just returned from the Middle East. She's reporting now on how communities and people in this country are affected by this decline, and she's starting in her own hometown.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: I'm sitting on a rusty park bench in Lincoln, Ill. About a century and a half ago, Abe Lincoln christened this place right here with a cup of watermelon juice. I remember when I was in high school, this old depot building had been converted into a fancy restaurant. And this is where you would go on your way to prom. Now, the restaurant's closed, the depot building's overgrown, the little watermelon monument is all faded. A few days ago, I came back here to Illinois, and I got off the train in Lincoln; and I just could not help but be struck by this question: What happened to my hometown?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

MCEVERS: I head to the county courthouse to see Troy Brown, a friend of my brother's from grade school. He's now a probation officer. I ask him what happened to Lincoln.

TROY BROWN: The drug use has skyrocketed. The unemployment rate has skyrocketed. And just the general attitude - just no hope, I think, with a lot of young people, especially. I don't know, really, when it changed, but it seemed to be overnight.

MCEVERS: Brown has seen that change up close. The crime rate is steady, but drug-related offenses are going up. And the drug of choice these days...

BROWN: Kids that are using heroin. They're snorting heroin.

MCEVERS: So much heroin, Brown says, there's an overdose every week. And that's in a town of just 14,000 people. A handful of people have even died. Brown says, sadly, heroin is keeping him in business.

BROWN: Lincoln has really plummeted to the point where I would love for our office to have cuts because there's no more crime. But we're so swamped, it's just the exact opposite. I mean, I hate to say it, but I have, like, total job security here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Metro 24, go ahead.

KEN GREENSLATE: Matro 10-24, unable to locate.

MCEVERS: Ken Greenslate is the chief of police in Lincoln. He shows me a new part of town just off Interstate 55, which connects Lincoln to Chicago, a few hours north.

GREENSLATE: And we've had a new hotel go up there - the Hampton - and also...

MCEVERS: The city council has increased the sales tax on businesses like these, to renovate schools. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Voters passed a referendum that imposed the sales tax to fund school renovations.]

GREENSLATE: Thornton's Truck Stop...

MCEVERS: And Lincoln recently got a grant to refurbish its downtown. But like in so many towns across the Midwest, the population is shrinking, and getting older. Factories have been closing since the '80s and '90s. Since the recession, the few factories that remain tend to hire temp workers at lower wages with no benefits. There is one new plant in town: a warehouse and distribution center for food products.

GREENSLATE: However, its starting wages for its semi-drivers, not so great.

MCEVERS: Like 18 bucks an hour. This is the new reality that economists say is hitting so many communities across the U.S. Jobs are being created, but they are not middle-wage jobs. In Illinois and its neighboring states, the most jobs coming back are low-wage jobs. In Lincoln, where unemployment is 8.4 percent - a point higher than the national average - the few middle-class jobs that remain are in health care, teaching and prisons. Police Chief Greenslate says that means some people turn to crime.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing this town right now?

GREENSLATE: We need more jobs. We need more and better-paying jobs. You know, when people don't have work, then they have time on their hands. And when they have time on their hands, there's more opportunity for them to find things they shouldn't be doing.

MCEVERS: Before our tour is over, Greenslate gets a call. Police have stopped two suspects with 15 pounds of marijuana they think have come from Mexico. An informant tells police more suspects are holed up in a migrant-worker motel down the street.

GREENSLATE: Let's go pull in there and see. OK. They're going away from there. Let's go stop those guys.

MCEVERS: Greenslate barrels his SUV up to the motel, and corners the two suspects.

GREENSLATE: Do not move. Let me see your hands. Hands. Hands!

MCEVERS: We just stopped at this hotel, and now they are detaining two suspects. The guy's trying to get away a little bit. He's trying to fight. The police chief is cuffing them. One of the suspects kind of looks like he's about to cry.

Turns out, one of the suspects is carrying a duffel bag with another 5 pounds of pot. The intended buyer for these drugs, the police say - a 14-year-old boy from right here in Lincoln. The next day, I meet Joe Plummer, one of my high school classmates, at the Steak 'n Shake out by the interstate. Joe and his wife, Josie, have three teenage girls between them. They say they worry about the drugs and the crime in Lincoln.

So how do you feel like you keep your kids safe?

JOSIE PLUMMER: I teach them how to shoot, gun safety. We have lots of guns.

JOE PLUMMER: I have 35 guns in my house. Every one of my daughters, and my wife, know how to handle a weapon as well as anybody could handle one.

I'll just shoot at the gong for now.

MCEVERS: OK.

Joe takes me to the firing range where he teaches his girls to shoot so-called assault rifles, like an AR-15 and an AK-47, that he keeps locked in a safe at home.

PLUMMER: Are you ready?

MCEVERS: Uh-huh.

MCEVERS: And a handgun he keeps on his bedside table.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

RICHARD LONGWORTH: What's going on in Lincoln, is going on in a lot of places.

MCEVERS: Says Richard Longworth, of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He says America's declining middle class means small towns are starting to have a lot more in common with crime-prone neighborhoods in big cities. He also says towns like Lincoln need to realize this is not just about the recession. This is about a long, slow decline.

LONGWORTH: You know, the earth isn't going to open up and swallow them. They'll survive, but they'll be backwaters - getting, you know, ever more what you saw: shrinking in population, population older, young families not moving in, high school grads like yourself moving away to seek their fortune somewhere else.

MCEVERS: Longworth says for communities to survive in this new reality, they'll have to reinvent themselves - try to keep the factory alive, attract people who are willing to work the lower-wage jobs. Otherwise, what happens to towns like Lincoln will be just another episode in what he says is nothing short of a major societal upheaval.

LONGWORTH: I grew up in a middle-class America, where we pretty much knew life was an escalator. You got on the bottom step and if you behaved yourself, paid your dues, went to work, worked hard, you'd end up at the top of the escalator. And I think that escalator's broken now. It's a tougher scramble.

MCEVERS: How to cover that upheaval? I ask.

LONGWORTH: You've covered revolutions before. Treat it like just another damn revolution.

MCEVERS: Sounds like a plan. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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