June 17, 2002

Falling Wages and Troubled Lives: Town Stumbles as Economy Shifts


SULLIVAN, Ind. "Take time to care," says the sign on the road into this small town in southeastern Indiana. But time and care seem to be things that people here and in surrounding Sullivan County have little left to spare.

"People are so worn out these days, they don't want to run anything," said Paula Followell, 41, a legal secretary for her husband, Douglas. "They are busy scraping together multiple paychecks and commuting to work."

Mr. Followell, 56, complained that few people had time to get involved in the community anymore. "We don't have any interest from anyone young," he said of the town, which is 100 miles southwest of Indianapolis and the seat of Sullivan County.

The drop in civic engagement follows an upheaval in work and wages that has left the town, in the words of a Sullivan banker, Bruce Walkup, "flat in the Dumpster."

In Sullivan County, population 21,751, men's incomes dropped 11 percent in the 1990's, according to the 2000 census. The jobs in strip mining coal, which paid about $50,000 a year, all but disappeared, and by the end of the decade, the median men's income here had fallen to $30,207.

As men's wages have declined, more women have taken jobs to make ends meet. Fifty-four percent of adult women now have full-time jobs, up from 46 percent 10 years ago. Their earnings rose correspondingly in the decade, by nearly 16 percent, to $20,790, though that still left them making far less than men.

The figures are similar around the country: men's median earnings nationwide fell over the last decade by $889, or 2 percent, to an inflation-adjusted $37,057. At the same time, women's earnings rose by 7 percent, to $27,194.

The stark result of this shift, people here say, is a condition in which everyone is a breadwinner and the whole town loses.

The old town square here, once a center of activity, is a much quieter place.

"There's no interaction," said Bill Tennis, 61, a retired funeral director whose two grown children have left Sullivan for Indianapolis. On Friday nights not so long ago, Mr. Tennis said, "the stores on the square would stay open to 8 or 9 o'clock. You'd come to town, pass the news around."

Jeff Canfield, 37, pastor of the Word of Life Church on Court Street, said: "We had a National Day of Prayer at the beginning of May at a church on the square. It was interfaith. We had five clergy. Four people showed up. We have a difficult time getting people for children's classes. It's not that people are bad. It's just priorities."

Because Chamber of Commerce board members can no longer make time for evening meetings, they settled on a May meeting at noon. "We had 4 of 15 of them there," said Joan Smith, the chamber's volunteer secretary. As for the Jaycees, the younger men and women who run the town's September festival, she said, "I would say they do not have enough members now to keep their charter."

The Optimists and the Women's Club have gone. The Rotary Club, the Lions Club and the Elks remain, but they are having trouble attracting new members. "We are almost nonexistent in volunteer groups," said Jean McMahan, owner of the News Stand, a lunch counter and magazine store on the square, and a former city councilwoman.

"The few people who do it can't do it all," Mrs. McMahan said. "The mothers are so busy, working, trying to keep clothes clean and meals on the table. They get home and it's, `Get out of my hair and let me get this washing done.' "

Bruce Ayers, 49, has an old-fashioned, well-paid, blue-collar job as a laborer for the gas company. His wife, Debra, 47, is a legal secretary. They have a son, Justin, 14, and live close to the square in a neatly kept 1920's house with a big red front porch.

Together they make a little more than $50,000 a year, Mrs. Ayers said. While she says that she likes her work and that she is pleased that she can buy her son everything he needs at J. C. Penney, she has little spare time for anything more than teaching Sunday school.

For many people, life has gotten worse. "More kids are out running the streets because they cannot pay a sitter and pay the bills, too," said Tina Gourley, 38, a bartender at Runt's Lounge, a dim and cavernous bar on a corner of the town square. Ms. Gourley, who is divorced, is raising two daughters, 15 and 10, lately with some support from her ex-husband.

Last year, when she worked the bar's night shift, from 5:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., she relied on a woman in a neighboring trailer to keep an eye on her children.

It didn't work. "My older daughter couldn't handle the responsibility of taking care of her sister, plus taking care of herself," said Ms. Gourley, who now works days. "So she went wild. She was getting suspended from school for fighting. She stole a car. They put her in a juvenile home for a weekend."

According to the county's circuit court judge, P. J. Pierson, rising rates of juvenile delinquency and drug abuse are the result of people working more and spending less time with their children. "You have a responsibility of a parent to teach values," he said. "These must be taught at home, around the kitchen table."

Families are breaking up because parents are working too hard, he said. In 1990, about 7 percent of the adults in Sullivan County were divorced, according to the census. By 2000, the number had risen to 12 percent.

To address these problems, Judge Pierson runs a school in his courtroom every other Saturday morning for about 20 youths who have been getting in trouble. He requires them to bring forms from their teachers noting how they have been doing in school. "They remain in the school until all their grades are up to at least C's or they reach 18," Judge Pierson said.

Of course, men whose wages have declined have felt particular pressure. Though blue-collar, heavy industry jobs that enabled many men to support a family have been evaporating for three decades, the decline from 1989 to 1999 spread beyond jobs in factories, mills and mines to those in offices, stores, warehouses and trucking.

Some have turned to the drug business. In the county jail, half of the 64 inmates in May had been arrested on charges of making or selling methamphetamine. "It's an epidemic," Sheriff Ed Martindale said. "A lot of them are trying to make a living."

"One was doing $150,000 or $160,000 a year," Mr. Martindale said. "A lot of them are illiterate. They can't get a decent job." When they raid a family's methamphetamine lab, his deputies seize the children. Placement of children in foster care, often with grandparents, has surged with the rise in drug abuse, he said.

Others, though, are trying education. "I made $52,000 a year mining coal," said Walter Burns, 46, who was nursing a Budweiser in Runt's Lounge. "I've been going to college for two years. I'm going to become different, educated. It's like a two-class system in this country. You're educated or not."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Permissions | Privacy Policy