Hagerstown is a microcosm of frustration across the U.S. HAGERSTOWN'S ECONOMIC BLUES


July 19, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

HAGERSTOWN -- Jobs vanish. Politicians keep bickering. And the long, slow fuse of public anger burns down to the nub.

Consider the quiet 61-year-old guy with the crew cut who worked for 21 years without missing a day. Then his company laid him off, just like that. He spoke to some classmates at a jobs seminar about it the other day, and said, as calm and earnest as you please, "I felt like taking a submachine gun in up there and just cleaning house. I could see how something like that can happen."

A few jaws dropped, but, being unemployed, his classmates understood. To them, there is a war going on out there, and they're losing it every day of the week to bureaucrats and the bottom line. After a while -- after they've mailed out hundreds of resumes and gotten turned down for one kind of government help after another -- there is little left to do but give up or give 'em hell.

So people do both in this small city in Western Maryland, turning against the political establishment even as they need its attention most, and zeroing in on the ills of their nation with conversations that echo sentiments now heard from Maine to Montana.

In doing so, they have made Hagerstown an "America in Miniature," to borrow a Maryland tourism slogan, as their rising temper, apathy and need have joined hands in the nation's wobbly march toward November.

"My family and friends, you never hear them talk about politics or who is coming up for elections," said Bobbie Nave, 31, whose interest in politicians awakened six months ago when she lost her job, with two children to support. "Maybe it's because people feel our government really isn't doing anything for us. I know that's how I feel -- that it's not doing anything for me.

"But I pay my taxes every year," she added bitterly. "They expect that."

Political professionals have seemed bewildered at times by this darkening public mood. At times, it's easy to see why.

Voters such as Ms. Nave complain about a neglectful government even as they collect unemployment benefits and enroll in federal job-training courses. One laid-off worker blames his company's demise on over-regulation; another says deregulation was the culprit. One blames another company failure on government trade policy when the real villain was a series of corporate mergers and buyouts.

Yet politicians might better understand the frustration behind such apparent confusion by looking closer at what has happened in Hagerstown and other places.

Here, cloaked by traditional but misleading indicators such as the unemployment rate, one can find a scale model of the broad economic change that has swept the nation the past 12 years.

A time of job stability

Judging from interviews with more than 40 local residents and officials, the anger of the voters here is at a simmer. They have already helped shove a veteran member of Congress out of office -- Rep. Beverly Byron was defeated in the Democratic primary in March. Voters here also joined in the rebellious early clamor to put Texas billionaire Ross Perot on the ballot.

But even before the Perot campaign suddenly flickered out, there were signs that the anger might begin to fizzle into cool resignation and disgust, producing an electorate that will only shrug and say in increasing numbers, "Why vote when they're all bums?"

"And maybe those people are right," says Gary Schwartz, who, as head of Hagerstown's United Auto Workers local, is leading a voter registration drive among union members. "I feel that way basically myself, but you take the best that you have to choose from. It's all you can do."

Go back to the beginning of 1980 and you'll find a Hagerstown and surrounding Washington County with less reason for cynicism, even though the unemployment rate was about the same as it is now.

The local job market was flush with higher-wage manufacturing jobs. It was still the kind of town where you tended to go work for a company right out of school and stay there for life, perhaps working your way up to supervisor or, in your wildest dreams, plant manager. Your brothers and sisters did the same, everybody staying within a short drive of each other. The two biggest local companies, Mack Truck and Fairchild Industries, employed more than 7,200 between them.

Today Fairchild is long gone, a 1983 casualty of an earlier recession. Mack has whittled its payroll to about 1,200. But more dramatic is that roughly one in seven Washington County workers has moved down the pay scale since 1980, sliding from manufacturing jobs to lower-wage positions in the retail and service industries. For people just entering the job market, services and retail have become the fastest-growing prospects, though still paying the least. Similar trends prevail nationwide.

Finding someone to blame

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