It was the beginning of another workweek in a town with too little work, and all around Murdock, the South Carolina economy of 2012 stirred to life. Forty people formed a line outside the downtown food bank, carrying empty plastic bags they hoped would be filled. Dozens more waited for sunrise at the unemployment office. A sign at the Department of Social Services directed all comers to an overflow parking lot, built to accommodate the 25 percent of Conway’s population that now survived primarily on government support.
Murdock was no longer among them. In the 14 months since he lost his $11-an-hour construction job, his options had been whittled down to this morning routine of cold calls to friends and neighbors. His weekly unemployment benefits had expired. His food stamps had been trimmed to less than $50 a week. His bank account was in the red, his hot water was turned off, and he no longer had health insurance to treat a pinched nerve or bouts of depression. Lately, his only medication was the pep talks he gave himself between phone calls.
“Nobody else is going to turn this around for you,” he said as he readied to dial again. “Get off your ass. Make something happen. Sink or swim.”
As South Carolina prepares to hold its Republican primary Saturday, the economically depressed state already has revealed a definitive issue of the 2012 presidential campaign: How can government best serve a record number of jobless and poor? What should happen to the Steven Murdocks?
There is President Obama’s vision, which Republican opponents call “a European welfare state”: People like Murdock are entitled to government help during a time of extreme hardship, no matter the cost.
And there is the Republican vision, which Obama calls “you’re-on-your-own economics”: A government burdened by debt must encourage self-sufficiency, even when it seems harsh.
Does cutting government support programs leave people to fail or free them to succeed?
Sink or swim?
Murdock believed he could swim. He had worked six days a week ever since he dropped out of high school at 16, moving out of his parents’ house to take a job in construction. In the years since, he had made his living as a plumber, a manager at a Pizza Hut, a beer distributor, a tobacco picker, a truck driver, a mover, a framer and a landscaper. He had never been married; his friends had been work friends, and his free time had gone to overtime.
He picked up the phone and tried another neighbor. “Need some yardwork done? Some raking? Maybe a power wash?”