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Globalization brings a world of hurt to one corner of North Carolina

The expansion of global trade may enrich the U.S., but it has overwhelmed this manufacturing area beside the Blue Ridge Mountains. The region has lost more of its jobs to international competition than just about anywhere else in the nation, according to federal trade assistance statistics.

But like many trade-displaced workers, many of whom are older than 40, Austin is worried about getting a job at all. He worries that employers may prefer their entry-level workers to be young.

"I've got a lot of good left in me," he said.

Theory vs. reality

Economists say that free trade generally promotes U.S. economic growth and a higher standard of living. In addition, proponents of free trade say, the U.S. job losses will be overcome as businesses and workers shift into more profitable industries.

But here in Catawba County, the high unemployment rate has dampened confidence in such notions.

"The people in the think tanks keep saying we are going to become -- what's the term? -- an 'information and services' economy," said Allan Mackie, manager of the North Carolina Employment Security Commission office. "That doesn't seem to be working out too good."

"Ten years ago, every able person who wanted a job had a job," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.). "Our unemployment problem began when China entered the world market full force."

Even though Trade Adjustment Assistance is, as some of its conservative detractors note, a government program, it has the support of many in this conservative-leaning area.

Austin, a fan of conservative talkers Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, put it this way:

"It's the government's way of apologizing for taking our jobs away. I'm not going to turn it down."

Created in 1962, Trade Adjustment Assistance was supposed to compensate workers hurt by the lowering of U.S. trade barriers.

The program, President John F. Kennedy said, "will not be a subsidy program of government paternalism" but rather "a program to afford time for American initiative, American adaptability and American resiliency to assert themselves."

Effects on workers

But while the assistance has been used to win passage for more international trade agreements, its effects on workers have been rarely studied.

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