“A lot of major employers have left, and the town is drying up,” Ms. Thiessen said of Jackson. “We’re starting to lose small shops, too – Hallmark, the jewelry and shoe stores, the movie theater and most of the grocery stores.”
After 30 years at a factory making truck parts, Jeffrey Evans was earning $14.55 an hour in what he called “one of the better-paying jobs in the area.”
Wearing a Harley-Davidson cap, a bittersweet reminder of crushed dreams, he recently described how astonished and betrayed he felt when the plant was shut down in August after a labor dispute. Despite sporadic construction work, Mr. Evans has seen his income reduced by half.
So he was astonished yet again to find himself, at age 49, selling off his cherished Harley and most of his apartment furniture and moving in with his mother.
Middle-aged men moving in with parents, wives taking two jobs, veteran workers taking overnight shifts at half their former pay, families moving West – these are signs of the turmoil and stresses emerging in the little towns and backwoods mobile homes of southeast Ohio, where dozens of factories and several coal mines have closed over the last decade, and small businesses are giving way to big-box retailers and fast-food outlets.
Here, where the northern swells of the Appalachians lap the southern fringe of the Rust Belt, thousands of people who long had tough but sustainable lives are being wrenched into the working poor.
The region presents an acute example of trends affecting many parts of Ohio, Michigan and other pockets of the Midwest.
Slammed by the continued decline in the automobile and steel businesses, Ohio never recovered from the recession of 2001-2, and blue-collar families who had made it partway up the economic ladder find themselves slipping back, with chaotic effects on families and dreams.
Throughout the state, the percentage of families living below the poverty line – just over $20,000 for a family of four last year – rose slightly from 14 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2007, one study found. But equally striking is the rise in younger working families struggling above that line. The numbers are more dismal in the southeastern Appalachian part of the state, where 32 percent of families lived below the poverty line in 2007, according to the study, and 56 percent lived with incomes less than $40,000 for a family of four.
“These younger workers should be the backbone of the economy,” said Shiloh Turner, study director for the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, which conducted the surveys. But in parts of Ohio, Ms. Turner said, half or more “are barely making ends meet.”