STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Towns and cities across America are feeling the economic decline, and today we're going to visit one community, Wilmington, in southwest Ohio. DHL Express decided to end its domestic air freight business there, and that's left thousands unemployed. Now the community is trying to figure out what's next. We have more this morning from NPR's Pam Fessler.
(Soundbite of horns)
PAM FESSLER: It was still dark and cold when 11 semi trailers filled with food rolled into downtown Wilmington recently. It was a lot like those caravans that arrive in the wake of a natural disaster. And people here say they are in the middle of a disaster, a kind of economic Hurricane Katrina.
Unidentified Woman #1: Hi Ma'am, how are you? Do you have one voucher or - okay, you have that (unintelligible).
FESSLER: That's why more than 1,400 people were willing to stand in the brutal cold, some for more than an hour, for a box of groceries and personal supplies like shampoo and dental floss. It came from the international charity Feed the Children. People said it felt a little like they were in the third world.
Unidentified Woman #1: We need four folks to help this family.
FESSLER: Some of those waiting in line outside the local soup kitchen had clearly been here before. But for most, it was a first. People like Patsy Young, who lost her job in December after 19 years as a forklift operator for ABX Air, which helped run the DHL air park.
Ms. PATSY YOUNG: I've worked ever since I was 15 years old. I've never been without a job, so this is kind of like totally new for me.
FESSLER: That's why these layoffs have been so devastating. For decades, the air park provided steady work for this largely rural community. People had nice homes, good health insurance, but now about 10,000 are expected to lose their jobs. One in three Wilmington residents could be affected. Patsy Young says it doesn't help that she's got lots of company.
Ms. YOUNG: It's kind of like going down on the Titanic. You know, you're not alone, but it doesn't make it any better.
Mr. LARRY JONES (Founder, Feed the Children): Nice to meet you.
Ms. MARY ALICE KENDALL: Nice to meet you, sir. God bless you for what you're doing.
Mr. JONES: Thank you.
FESSLER: Inside, Mary Alice Kendall thanks Feed the Children founder Larry Jones for his help. She says she used to send his charity $50 each month, but that was before her husband stopped working at ABX. She's thrilled that so many neighbors are pitching in to hand out food, but it's hard to be on the receiving end. She says she's never had to ask for this kind of help before.
Ms. KENDALL: No, no, no. And I don't want to today, but, you know, what are you going to do?
Unidentified Man: Okay, we're getting ready to do Ohio taxes now.
Ms. KENDALL: Okay.
Unidentified Man: Now did you file your taxes last year? You paid…
FESSLER: People here are trying to keep things together as best they can. At the United Methodist Church downtown, a volunteer helps the Kendalls file their tax returns. It's part of the Ohio Benefit Bank, a one-stop shop for benefits such as healthcare, food stamps and energy assistance. Pastor Dean Feldmeyer, who helps run the center, says almost $2 billion in tax credits and benefits go unclaimed each year in the state.
Pastor DEAN FELDMEYER (United Methodist Church): Because the poor simply don't know how to get them, or they know how to get them, but they're so intimidated by the process that they just can't bring themselves to go through the humiliation that's required to stand in the line and deal with bureaucracy and all that.
FESSLER: So here they get a sympathetic ear - in fact, very sympathetic. One of the three volunteers lost his job in December. Another, Kim Hilderbrant, says she and her fiancé just had to shut down his music store because business was so bad. She says some of their customers even cried.
Ms. KIM HILDERBRANT (Volunteer, United Methodist Church): They couldn't believe that we were closing and wondering why, and, you know, the why is look around. You don't money for food and you don't money for your mortgages, you don't have money for your rent.
FESSLER: She'd like to move, but can't. There's nobody to buy her house. Some friends and neighbors have lost their homes.
Ms. HILDERBRANT: We're losing way more than just a big company. We're losing our family.
FESSLER: Hilderbrant says maybe some of that stimulus money from Washington will help, but people here are realists. Ohio is set to get $8.2 billion in stimulus funds, but there are already proposals to spend six times that amount. Randy Riley is a commissioner in Clinton County, where Wilmington is located.
Mr. RANDY RILEY (County Commissioner, Clinton County Ohio): I don't know if we'll get anything from the stimulus package. There's so many fuzzy areas in that stimulus package and so much muddy water, it's hard to imagine how that's going to settle out.
FESSLER: So the region's been trying to attract new businesses on its own. It's put out requests for proposals on how to redevelop the air park, but there's nothing firm so far. Still, like many here, Riley is optimistic that this hard-working community will attract employers.
Mr. RILEY: I don't see that we have a negative or a gloomy future. In fact, I've told several people I think five years from now, we will be just as well off, if not better, than we were five or ten years ago.
FESSLER: But the big challenge is getting there. Like local governments all across the country, Clinton County has a tight budget because of declining revenues. The schools are laying off teachers, and the county has a hiring freeze, including for agencies that face growing demands.
TRUDY (Clinton County Child and Family Services): Child and Family Services, this is Trudy.
FESSLER: The county family services office has almost twice as many clients as it did in better times. But director John Hosler says he can't hire new case workers and has two unfilled positions.
Mr. JOHN HOSLER (Clinton County Family Services Director): It's a very difficult situation, because these case workers are the people that admit the folks into the safety net - the food stamps, the medical cards, whatever.
FESSLER: He says it now takes a lot longer to get aid to those who need it. The stimulus package should help. Food stamps and unemployment benefits are due to go up. There's also money to help states administer these programs. But Hosler says unfortunately, things here are about to get even worse. Many of the unemployed have severance packages that are set to run out.
Mr. HOSLER: I think the grim reality of not having any money, not having any income, not having any chance of being called back to work really hasn't set in yet.
Unidentified Woman #2: If we want to delete a record, let's go down to the last record we entered.
FESSLER: For now, many of the laid-off workers are taking advantage of free classes offered at transition centers run by the county DHL and ABX. They're learning things like resume writing and how to create an Excel spreadsheet. Mary Ellen Diersing of ABX says the world's changed a lot since most of these works last looked for jobs.
Ms. MARY ELLEN DIERSING (ABX): We start off with introduction to computers. We have employees that have been displaced, laid off that don't even know what a mouse is.
FESSLER: The workers say they appreciate the help, although they do wonder where it will lead. In the center of the warehouse where the classes are held is a reminder of just how much things have changed. It's a large trailer that, until last summer, ABX took to surrounding counties to recruit workers because jobs were so plentiful. Now it's used as a classroom to teach the unemployed how to apply for jobs online - jobs that, for the most part, don't exist.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Tomorrow, we'll hear the story of two young Wilmington men who put aside work in the Peace Corps so they could come back home and help their troubled community.