The article incorrectly said that Evon Hackett lost her job on Day 20 of the Obama presidency. She lost her job on Day 18.
In South Carolina Town, Economic Calamity Since Obama's Inauguration
Sunday, April 26, 2009
GREENWOOD, S.C. Her cordless phone stores 17 voice messages, and tonight the inbox is full. Edith Childs, 60, grabs a bottle of water, tosses her hat on the living room floor and scowls at the blinking red light. A county councilwoman, she spent the past 12 hours driving rural roads in her 2001 Toyota Camry, trying to solve Greenwood's problems, but only now begins the part of each day that exhausts her. Childs slumps into an armless chair and steels herself for a 13-minute confessional.
"Hi, Ms. Edith, this is Rose, and I'm calling about my light bill. It's $420. . . . There's no way I can pay that."
"Edith, it's Francine. . . . They stopped by my house again today, talking about foreclosure. I don't know what to do. Can you call me?"
Childs leans her head back against the wall and closes her eyes. Her hair is matted down with sweat, and thin-rimmed glasses sink low on her nose. Every few minutes, she stirs to jot notes on a to-do list that fills most of a notebook. She has to remind herself that she ran for county council in 1998 because she coveted this role: unofficial protector, activist and psychologist for her home town. Back then, the hardships of Greenwood -- 22,000 people separated from the nearest interstate by 40 miles -- struck Childs as contained. Now she sometimes wonders aloud to her husband, Charles: "When does it stop?"
"Yes, councilwoman, this is Joe Thompson calling. Uh, I'm having a bit of an emergency."
Across the dark living room, one of Childs's favorite pictures is displayed on a worn coffee table. It shows Childs with her arms wrapped around Barack Obama, his hand on her back, her eyes glowing. They met at a rally attended by 37 supporters on a rainy day in 2007, when Childs responded to Obama's sluggishness on stage with an impromptu chant: "Fired up! Ready to go!" She repeated it, shouting louder each time, until Obama laughed and dipped his shoulders to the rhythm. The chant caught on. "Fired up!" people began saying at rallies. "Ready to go," Obama chanted back. He told audiences about Childs, "a spirited little lady," and invited her onstage at campaign appearances. By the day of his inauguration, when Childs led a busload of strangers bound for the Mall in her now-iconic chant, her transformation was complete. She was Edith Childs, fired up and ready to go.
But now, as Obama nears the 100-day milestone of his presidency, Childs suffers from constant exhaustion. In a conservative Southern state that bolstered Obama's candidacy by supporting him early in the Democratic primaries, she awakens at 2:30 a.m. with stress headaches and remains awake mulling all that's befallen Greenwood since Obama's swearing-in.
On Day 4 of his presidency, the Solutia textile plant laid off 101 workers. On Day 23, the food bank set a record for meals served. On Day 50, the hospital fired 200 employees and warned of further job cuts. On Day 71, the school superintendent called a staff meeting and told his principals: "We're losing 10 percent of our budget. That means some of us won't have jobs next year, and the rest should expect job changes and pay cuts." On Day 78, the town's newly elected Democratic mayor, whose campaign was inspired partly by his admiration for Obama, summarized Greenwood's accelerating fragility. "This is crippling us, and there's no sign of it turning around," Welborn Adams said.
On Day 88, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that South Carolina had set a record for its highest unemployment rate in state history, at 11.4 percent. Greenwood's unemployment is 13 percent -- more than twice what it was when Childs first started chanting.
"We have a lot of people who live in cold houses, with no jobs and no food," Childs says.
Hundreds of them call her, and the most desperate travel to Childs's single-story house on Old Ninety-Six Highway outside of town and knock on her front door. A retired nurse living with her husband on modest savings, she makes $725 a month for serving on the county council and uses that money to pay other people's bills: $240 for her brother's electricity, because he can't find a job; $300 for a young family's rent in a two-bedroom apartment, because they have a 5-year-old boy and no income; $168 for a friend's water bill, because the county threatened to shut it off. When the $725 runs out -- and it always does -- Childs dips into savings and tells Charles she spent the money on a new outfit.
"Always a fighter." That's how Childs describes herself. She disapproved of how her first husband wasted money on liquor, so she called him into the living room and lit a $20 bill on fire to emphasize her point. She disliked Greenwood's plans to build a road between her neighborhood and a new housing project, so she filed a lawsuit and dragged it out for five years until she won. She thought Obama would make a good president, so, she says, "this mouthy black lady knocked on doors in the whitest, most Republican neighborhoods in town and told them what was on my mind."