Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Rural areas’ hard times not in the stats

Marketplace Staff Aug 17, 2009
Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Rural areas’ hard times not in the stats

Marketplace Staff Aug 17, 2009


Tess Vigeland: Maybe our previous commentator should move to Nebraska. That state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country — 5 percent versus the national average of more than 9.5 percent.

But as Sarah McCammon reports from NET Radio, numbers that look OK on paper may not translate well in real life. Especially in real rural life.

SARAH MCCAMMON: It’s a sunny afternoon in Minden, Neb. — a small community surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. Kerry Blomme is remodeling the inside of a white house. He’s been doing projects like this on his own, since he was laid off last fall from his job with a commercial drywall company.

KERRY BLOMME: To be alone on a job by yourself in a homeowner’s place; it’s just kind of different that way.

Blomme is in his early 40s, with glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard. He says he could probably find a job with another company. But that might require moving to a larger city like Lincoln or Omaha. That would mean less time with his wife and two teenage sons, one of whom is starting college this fall. And Blomme says he doesn’t want to start at the bottom again.

BLOMME: I’m not a young man anymore. It’s hard to keep up with some of the kids that are in the trade. And if they got slow, I’d probably be the first to go.

Blomme hasn’t filed for unemployment, so he doesn’t show up in unemployment statistics for the state. Ernie Goss is an economist with Creighton University in Omaha. He says many workers here string together part-time jobs, or get discouraged by the lack of opportunities in rural areas, and give up the search.

Nebraska’s unemployment rate sounds good — it’s only about half the nation’s average. But Goss says those figures don’t fully capture what’s happening in the rural areas.

ERNIE GOSS: The unemployment rates are low by comparison, but those are disguised because there are individuals out there that would be more than willing to take one of these jobs. But to be counted in unemployment, you have to be out of work, looking for work.

And so, a lower unemployment rate creates a myth that people in rural, agricultural places somehow have it easier. Randy Cantrell had studied rural communities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

RANDY CANTRELL: They’re able to grow their own tomatoes out there and therefore, they’re sorta in this frontier model and they’re able to survive these things better because they’re were doing things for themselves anyway. But the reality is that they’re as enmeshed in the bigger economic picture as the rest of us are.

For Kerry Blomme, being without a steady job means his income has dropped about a $1,000 a month.

That’s especially tough, when Blomme’s wife, Sherri Brewer, is struggling to keep her business alive. She opened Brewer’s coffee house in Minden two years ago, and at first, she made a profit. But now, Brewer says she’s not even making a salary.

SHERRI BREWER: I always get upset when I see the financial people on TV when they tell people to cut back. They always say, cut back on that morning latte. And I’m like, “Please don’t.”

Sitting together in the empty coffee shop, Sherri Brewer and Kerry Blomme say they’re “treading water.”

BREWER: I would say this last year has been…

BLOMME: Different.

BREWER: Just dreadful. It’s financially hard; you argue more. But at the same time, we tell each other, if we can get through this, we can get through anything.

But they admit the income uncertainty and the long hours are taking their toll.

In Minden, Neb., I’m Sarah McCammon, for Marketplace.

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