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A nearly empty Pearl Street Mall on Tuesday, March 17, in Boulder. BOULDER, CO – MARCH, 17: A message to citizens on the marquis of the Boulder Theater on Tuesday, March 17, in Boulder. Many businesses in Boulder and other areas of Colorado are closed due to coronavirus concerns. (Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)
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By Bill Ellis

Everything will get much better next year, so says President Trump. He is wrong. Our Great Depression didn’t start in one year and finish in the same one, or even in that same decade. We are in a depression. My hometown’s depression started in the early 1990s and was still affecting my former classmates at our 50th reunion in 2010.

It was the same for the southeastern part of the country in the last quarter of the 20th  century and early years of the 21st. The New South developed along the east slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and continued down through the Carolinas and into Georgia. Small town textile mills sprouted during the last third of the 19th century and in some cases brought economic success back to the South. But all that disappeared in the Southern depression as factories closed and jobs were shipped off to Southeast Asia and the deep South.

My hometown of Martinsville, Va., is really a small city of about 16,000, and growing smaller. When I lived there, employment for the working class was provided by five furniture factories and two textile mills. Bassett, Va., a few miles down the road, was an even smaller town of about 10,000 and everyone there worked in the Bassett Furniture factory, the largest in the world at that time. The Dupont nylon plant employed 4,000 just outside Martinsville. The two textile mills supplied 75 percent of the world’s sweatshirts, spawning the local saying that our town was the “armpit of the South.”

Some historians claimed 19th-century textile workers lived in poverty worse than slaves. Powerful mill owners called town meetings of all employees and threatened to fire anyone who wanted to join or create a union.

The South’s depression came on gradually as factories and mills began closing in the late 20th century. One classmate had been a production supervisor at Bassett and said they tried many times to cut costs but failed in the end. It was cheaper to ship wood to Asia, where it would be assembled and shipped back to the U.S. ready for sale.

Nothing hit me harder than attending my 50th high school reunion and meeting classmates who had suffered through our hometown’s depression, where unemployment had been the highest in the nation at 26 percent. For perspective, Dupont closed in 1993; my reunion was in 2010. Most out-of-town returnees had retired. Many classmates living in town were still working.

What’s next? Workers are being laid off from jobs that may not be there when COVID-19 ends its horrific run. Employers may determine it is more economical to hire younger workers at lower wages. Or, simply not hire at all.  Some employers may decide to retire early. Politicians urge businesses to reopen when health experts say it is not safe. But then, they are just running for office while we may be running for our lives.

Yet, all is not doom and gloom. During the worst of times in Martinsville, doctors and nurses formed a free clinic. The pandemic has proved we must have a national health care system. (See Geoff Dolman’s excellent editorial “Health care is the dark side of American Exceptionalism” in the May 10 Times-Call.) We lead the free and developed world with 600,000 bankruptcies and 40,000 to 50,000 deaths every year due to citizens, mostly minorities, who are unable to access health care. Not only do we lead, but there are no deaths and bankruptcies in countries with a national health care system. (See also T.R. Reid’s “The Healing of America.”)

There are lessons to learn and opportunities to act upon. Foremost is this: The largest military budget in the world cannot fight a virus pandemic. It is time to invest in our nation’s health and education, and stop being an international police force. And, it is the best time to invest in renewable systems of energy where more jobs are being created than in fossil fuels.

Bill Ellis lives in Longmont and is the author of “Paradigm Shift,” a story about hometown depression. 

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