By Rebecca R. Bibbs
For The Herald Bulletin
When the economy turned south, starting in 2008, Richard Melton, owner of Star Realty, felt it in his pocketbook. And like many Madison County residents, he had to make personal sacrifices to make ends meet.
“I gave up my trips to the Caribbean. That’s where I used to go to vacation,” the former mayoral candidate said.
In fact, vacationing hasn’t really been on Melton’s agenda as he’s tried to keep his 14-year-old company afloat.
“I’ve given up a lot of free time to get through this crisis period,” he said.
Though the federal government reports that the nation is on an economic upswing, Madison County continues to struggle with a 10.2 percent unemployment rate as of December, the latest month for which figures are available. That’s one-and-a-half percentage points above the state average and nearly two points above the national average.
The City of Anderson reports personal income averages $30,627, nearly $4,000 below the statewide average.
The loss of jobs and the lower-than-average income has led to a decline in population from 133,358 in 2000 to 131,636 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. That decline is projected to continue through 2015 when the population is expected to be around 125,000.
Melton attributes the county’s slower-than-average economic recovery to the fact that it previously was based on manufacturing and that those jobs have disappeared. But the real estate agent, who recently sold a home with a swimming pool, hot tub and three-car garage, remains optimistic.
“I really feel that there is an economic upswing coming, and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
Though it’s too early to tell for sure, Melton may be right, if the number of people visiting one local food pantry is any indication.
Karen Scott, food pantry coordinator at Park Place Church of God, said the number of families seeking assistance in February 2012 was 1,193, up from 931 a year earlier. However, that figure was down from 1,566 in December 2011 and 1,552 in January 2012.
But Scott and pantry volunteer Joe Womack said they aren’t sure there weren’t factors at play such as the shorter month and holiday in February, and the delivery of tax refund checks.
However, Womack said, one trend has been clear over the nine years he has volunteered at the pantry: The number of people seeking assistance has risen consistently. Though the Nestle plant has picked up some workers, the area has been hit hardest by the closing of General Motors’ plants.
“You can really see the upturn starting in 2008 with the economic collapse,” the Anderson University retiree said. “We get quite a few who say I was employed for 23 years, and I never thought I’d be coming to a food pantry.”
But even those who have managed to hold on to jobs often find themselves only one paycheck away from disaster, Womack noted.
“They are so close to making it, then the car battery goes. A little crisis puts some of them under,” he said.