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Tough times: Life inside the hardest hit county in the U.S.

Kevin Parham, 47, centre, talks with friends while eating dinner at Rowan Helping Ministries, a homeless shelter in Salisbury, N.C., on Mon., Oct. 31, 2011. "

JOHN W. ADKISSON/john w. adkisson The Globe and Mail

Not long ago, Rowan County was home to 31 millionaires, the highest per capita number in the entire country. Today it has earned a counter-distinction: Rowan has been hit harder by the recession than virtually any other place in the United States.

When the doors open at the local homeless shelter at 6 p.m., Kevin Parham, 47, is among those first in line. He has been laid off three times in five years, and suffered two heart attacks since he moved into the shelter a year and a half ago. He has been unable to land any kind of job.

"The thought of people living in their cars in my county takes my breath away," said Kyna Foster, executive director of Rowan Helping Ministries, a collective of Christian churches that runs the shelter. Her organization has helped 23,000 families in the past three years, a figure that represents nearly half of this county's 53,000 households. She took the job 18 months ago when she herself was laid off from a corporate job at Food Lion, a major grocer that was founded here in 1957 and helped generate its original wealth.

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Rowan County is not the poorest in America, but it is among those that have experienced the most stunning loss during Barack Obama's first term. Once a blue-collar county, Rowan has morphed into an unemployed one, where everything from federal stimulus money to state home loans to government retraining programs have failed to impede a deeper slide into poverty.

"Everything has been reset. Like we have to start all over again," said Susan Kluttz, a Democrat who has served as mayor of Salisbury for seven terms, or 14 years.

Last week, the Census Bureau released a new measure of poverty that showed a record number of Americans – 16 per cent, or 49.1 million people – are poor. While Occupy Wall Street protests have sprung up in cities around the world, some of the worst-hit areas in America are suffering silently.

Yet, they could prove to be the most politically crucial with a presidential election less than a year away. In 2008, North Carolina narrowly supported Mr. Obama by 3/10 of 1 per cent.

The incumbent's hold on this state, however, is tenuous at best with less than a third of independent North Carolina voters approving of the job he's doing, according to one recent poll. It is no coincidence that last month, Mr. Obama's campaign-style bus tour wound through this region to drum up support for his jobs bill and re-election bid.

The backlash has already registered at the ballot box. This is the first time since 1870 that the North Carolina General Assembly has had a Republican majority in both chambers. In Rowan, four of five county commissioners are now Republican.

Raymond Coltraine, the only Democratic commissioner, is almost apologetic about his political affiliation these days: "I'm a dying breed. I would vote for Obama again," he said, eating an oatmeal cookie at a local doughnut shop.

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"People here don't realize you can't blame everything on the President," he adds.

For generations, workers in Rowan County made their living in furniture, textile and tobacco mills. Life in cities such as Salisbury, with its graceful streets and wrap-around porches, revolved around family, faith and work. The factories sponsored summer baseball leagues. While other counties in America have emptied out as the recession sucked away jobs, people in Rowan have clung on, as though waiting for the past to somehow return.

The latest census data capture Rowan County's transformation into a nexus of loss: One in five people lives below the poverty line, double the number from before the downturn. Family poverty has also seen a staggering jump since 2007, to 17.9 per cent from 8.9 per cent. For a family of three, that means an annual income of fewer than $17,374 (U.S.).

Meanwhile, median household income, considered a key economic indicator, has plummeted from $49,175 (U.S.) before Mr. Obama was voted into office to $37,360 in 2010, leading into the next election.

However, Rowan County's economic problems began years before Mr. Obama was sworn in. In 2003, the textile firm Pillowtex announced it was filing for bankruptcy, closing all 16 of its U.S. plants, laying off virtually all of its 7,650 workers. Nearly 4,000 of those lived in Rowan and neighbouring Cabarrus County.

The shutdown was part of a broader decline in U.S. manufacturing. When the factories around which life revolved disappeared, things became unhinged.

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"It was almost like a religion," recalled Ms. Kluttz, the mayor. "Until that point the mills guaranteed people this wonderful life and retirement; then suddenly they were gone."

Mr. Parham, like most people in this county, never went further than high school. He didn't have to. He got a job at Cone Mills, another textile mill that recently shut down, when he was in the 12th grade.

At the time, the job paid $5 an hour plus benefits. It was considered a good wage for a 17-year-old 30 years ago, when the minimum wage was less than $4. His wages helped put his siblings through college and finance the purchase of three cars. He worked there for 20 years before getting laid off. Every time he managed to find new work – driving a truck or working on a packing line – he was laid off.

"Every time a Republican's been in office I've had steady work," he said, before checking into the shelter for the night, a ritual that requires him to be searched for weapons, given a Breathalyzer test, showered and changed into pyjamas before sitting down for dinner in the soup kitchen.

The big employers that did survive scaled back. Freightliner, which manufactures six types of trucks, went down to a single shift and cut staff from 2,850 to 1,000. Food Lion, the grocery chain that fuelled Salisbury's millionaire fortunes, went from 2,315 employees to 1,255.

Rowan County has tried to adapt. More than half of those laid off after Pillowtex closed went for government-funded retraining at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, but most were unable to find jobs. Those that did were often laid off again.

"We can train people all day and all night long in lots of things and give them any kind of certifications. But if the industries aren't hiring that person is still unemployed," said Jeanie Moore, the college vice-president.

She argues county councillors should consider offering companies economic incentives to locate in Rowan, but Republican commissioners oppose them. At the moment, the county is posting 2 per cent growth.

"At that rate we won't get back to where we were for decades," said Robert Van Geons, Rowan's executive director of economic development.

Elizabeth Cook, editor of The Salisbury Post, thinks her county's wealth will never fully rebound: "We'd like to think we're still in the middle of everything, but maybe we're actually in the middle of nowhere."

Read local reaction from the Salisbury Post on Globe reporter Sonia Verma's visit and profile of the community.

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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