A year after a national ABC News team traveled to recession-plagued Elkhart County, Ind., to gauge the responses of a group of residents to President Barack Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, yet another ABC network production crew returned to Elkhart Tuesday evening (Jan. 25) for Obama’s 2011 address to hear those same residents’ perspective of the economy and how things compare to last year.
“Last year, ABC wanted people who had been affected by the recession,” said Andy Fies, producer for the news segment. “The point this year primarily was to reconvene the same group as last year. There are some here who weren’t here last year, but our goal was to check with the very same people that we talked to last year and see what had changed for them.”
Those changes, as reported by “20-20” correspondent Deborah Roberts, were a mixed bag. In a brief link with the network’s New York studio, Roberts noted that some were still unemployed and others under-employed — including Ed Neufeldt, the Wakarusa resident who introduced Obama to Elkhart and a national TV audience during a stirring 2009 visit. Neufeldt now works three jobs.
At one point, Roberts asked the local audience how many were unemployed last year and now had jobs. Nearly half raised their hands. Only four, however, responded in kind when she asked how many had a better financial outlook this year than last.
“We’re here at the Keystone RV plant which is one of the few bright spots here in Elkhart (County),” she told ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer. “It’s actually rehired a lot of the workers they had to let go years ago. But a number of people who watched (the State of the Union address) with us are unemployed or some are working three jobs just to try to make ends meet.”
Likewise, Roberts said the reception to the president’s speech was mixed.
“Some said they felt encouraged by the president’s comments,” she told Sawyer. “They felt inspired. Others said they felt he was a little ‘mushy,’ They didn’t have enough detail and didn’t feel he worked hard enough in talking about cuts in this economy. And the economy is what they’re really worried about here because, as you say, the unemployment rate is really high and a lot of these folks are looking for something to hold onto.”
Ironically, Indiana unemployment figures were released the same day as the president’s address. And while Elkhart County’s unemployment numbers have dropped substantially from the depths of the recession, they still lead the state’s 92 counties in joblessness with an estimated 12.8% of its workforce unemployed.
The area’s recessionary status, of course, was the prime reason Roberts and her crew returned to the factory floor of one of Keystone’s Goshen manufacturing plants for the evening. One of the largest employers in Elkhart County, Keystone was forced to trim its numbers by more than 1,000 workers at one point. As Keystone President Bob Martin reminded RVBUSINESS.COM, however, the company has reversed the trend.
“We went from over 3,000 employees to 2,000 — and now we’re back up to more than 3,000,” said Martin. “We’re still growing and expanding. The RV industry is up, but Keystone is gaining more market share. We’re up to close to 25% market share. That translates into more orders and us being able to hire more people.”
One of those hired was Sue Christophel, one of the individuals on ABC’s local panel.
“Most of the people here were on the panel last year,” said Martin. “One of them, Sue, was unemployed at the time. As I met everyone, I was given business cards, resumes. Many were very interested in getting a job. She’s one that I met, and I sent her down to my customer service department. She ended up getting a job about two months after this event last year.”
Not surprisingly, Christophel was among those who responded positively when Roberts quizzed the audience about their financial outlook for 2011. She also came away from the president’s address with cautious enthusiasm.
“I thought it was good, better than last year,” she responded. “The way I look at things now is really different. I’m more optimistic with the opportunities that have come my way. I’m more able to receive what Obama had to say. Before, when he was talking, it was just talk; it was too far out in the future and I didn’t believe what he was saying. I was almost two years without a job, so what he was saying meant nothing to me.”
The speech also resonated with John Ruple, a warehouse worker for a distribution company in Elkhart.
“To me, Obama struck a much more moderate tone this time, and I liked a lot of what he said,” noted Ruple. “There are a lot of long-standing problems; everyone knows the government is too big, it’s inefficient. If they can address that and start streamlining things, that’s a start. I also liked what he said about the government being unsustainable. If you continue to spend more than you make, where does that leave you?
“I’m a little more optimistic this year,” he added. “The economy is starting to improve. Whether that’s due to the things that they (the government) has done, or just natural progression, I don’t know.”
Wendell Powell also found something he liked in the president’s speech to Congress. While noting that he was searching for full-time employment, Powell consulted part-time for a renewable energy engineering vendor and perked up considerably when Obama spoke of wanting to see the government invest $150 billion over the next 10 years in clean energy.
“I liked some of the examples he used,” Powell said. “Particularly the roofer company that, instead of being discouraged due to the economy, shifted gears and started producing solar energy panels. We need that kind of innovation; we need alternative sources of fuel. We’ve got to get on the fast track — maybe even faster than President Obama was talking about.”
David Schrock-Shenk, on the other hand, was less optimistic.
“I thought the speech was a little ‘lame and tame,’” he said. “I don’t think his proposals matched the rhetoric. The things he laid out — his goals — were not very big and not very brave.
“We here in Elkhart County — and maybe nationally — have sort of settled into a chronic emergency,” he added. “Last year there was still a sense of emergency — the unemployment was high — and this year I don’t think the president actually talked about addressing unemployment. It was ‘We need to create jobs.’ We’re sort of used to 14% unemployment … and so the people who are still unemployed do feel a little bit left behind and do feel it’s a little inconvenient to still be unemployed in January of 2011, whereas in January of 2010 it was still high news.”
Due to the extended length of the president’s address and the response from the Republican Party, the Elkhart presentation did not feed live to the network as first anticipated. Instead, the production crew taped the audience’s remarks for use in news programs today (Jan. 26). As Keystone’s Martin noted, however, the publicity for the industry is beneficial, however it’s used.
“It’s exposure for the RV industry,” Martin acknowledged. “It’s national news. It helps our lifestyle, it helps our industry.”