Trickle-down unemployment has saturated this industrial town, located at the mouth of the Black River on the shore of Lake Erie.
Because the huge Ford Motor Co. plant here can't sell enough of its Thunderbirds and Cougar XR-7s, auto worker Ronnie Chambers, 34, is jobless.
Because oil prices have dropped and oil companies no longer need as many of the seamless pipes made by the Lorain-Cuyahoga Works of U.S. Steel Corp., steel hands William Socotch, 58, and George McKenzie, 59, are out of work.
Because Chambers and Socotch and McKenzie and about 20,000 others in this once booming manufacturing center can't find jobs, Bonnie North, 26, an unemployed billing clerk, can't find one, either.
"Where do you go for work? Anyplace except Lorain, that's for certain," said Bob Zelina, director of Lorain County Labor Agency, Inc., a union-run outfit that provides credit counseling, job searches and other services for union and nonunion workers.
Lorain is one of many places in this state hit by the high unemployment that also has hit towns and counties in Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other places where heavy industry, once robust, has been weakened by high interest rates, falling sales and a continuing shift to a more service-oriented economy.
Where do you go for work in a time and place like this--where the new cars are being turned out more slowly and the steel blast furnaces are cooling and the people down at the AmShip Division of the American Shipbuilding Co. aren't building many ships anymore?
Bonnie North went to local stores and shopping centers, to doctors' and lawyers' offices and to other places where people normally spend money. But not many are spending much in this town of 74,000 people, nor elsewhere in Lorain County, which has a population of about 273,000. So no one hired her.
North remembers President Reagan's recent recommendation that people stuck in jobless regions "vote with their feet." She would like to do that, move someplace where there are more jobs than job hunters, she said. But that would mean leaving her 62-year-old mother, Alice, who has been in the Lorain Community Hospital for a month with a serious intestinal illness.
"My mother is not well. She can't move away from here, and I'm not leaving her," said North, who is a devout Jehovah's Witness.
Many people in this city and county believe they're in a depression, and they say they have the figures to prove it.
The official unemployment rate for the Lorain area was 17 1/2 percent last December. It dropped to 15.2 percent in January. But the area's municipal and civic leaders say the drop is deceptive.
"A basic reason for the rate decline is that about 3,000 people in the area dropped out of the work force between December and January," said Reid Kollins, director of the Greater Lorain Chamber of Commerce.
"Nobody really knows where they went. But I'm sure a lot of them must still be around. I know they didn't all pack up to go back to West Virginia or someplace."
Lorain is a proud community, its residents accustomed to rising early and working late. Even now, with jobs scarce, predawn traffic moves briskly along state Route 57, an artery through the center of town.
Ronnie Chambers and his 32-year-old wife, Wilma, usually are in the early morning traffic. He drives their 1978 Ford LTD 29 miles east to Cleveland, where Wilma Chambers earns $125 a week working in a nursing home. Chambers drops off his wife and then drives to his parents' home in Cleveland, where he leaves his youngest of three daughters, 5-year-old Rhonda, for the day.
Chambers then goes to "work"--looking for a job. He might go to the nearby towns of Sandusky or Medina, or Avon or Elyria. But he is a spot welder in a land of unemployed or robotic spot welders, and no one is hiring.
"I was thinking about leaving here altogether and going down to the Sun Belt. But everybody I know of who did that came back saying it wasn't much different there, and that if you found a job, you most likely couldn't find a house you could afford. I don't know if I want to take that chance with my wife and girls," Chambers said.
Meanwhile, the job search continues. "Maybe I'll find something," Chambers said, forcing a smile and rubbing his bad hand, which was mashed in a steel mill accident back in Detroit. But he couldn't hide the worry.
Chambers has been irregularly employed since 1979, when the domestic auto industry began running on empty. At first, he got $115 a week in state unemployment benefits, and matched that with $164 in weekly federal trade readjustment assistance (TRA). The aid was given to U.S. workers whose jobs the government judged to be imperiled by foreign competition.
Chambers said he "could care less" about politics. He didn't care "one way or the other" when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. "I didn't vote. I never vote," he said.
The Reagan administration virtually eliminated TRA, and Chambers' benefits from that fund dropped to $2 a week before disappearing altogether. He will exhaust his extended unemployment benefits in April, leaving Mrs. Chambers' weekly check to take care of the family's needs.
The couple has taken some steps to soften that expected blow. They have sold their pickup truck and moved to a small house here that rents for $210 a month, $30 dollars less than their previous house. Because of a $50-a-week gasoline bill, they stay home when Ronnie Chambers is not looking for a job or driving his wife, who can't drive, back and forth to her job in Cleveland.
Chambers has a sister and brother-in-law who work for General Motors in Detroit. He used to get loans from them. But they have been hearing rumors that they, too, will be laid off. Understandably, their willingness to make additional loans has diminished, Chambers said.
"I don't know how we're going to survive if the jobs don't come back," he said.
Chambers is not angry with Reagan, though. "I don't blame anybody for this situation. I don't know who to blame. All I want to do is find a job," he said.
Chambers said he has heard "the talk that the economy is going to come around," maybe by summer. "But I wonder how in the hell we're going to survive while we're waiting," he said.
Some of those who have survived have suffered grave psychic wounds. They are among those who show up at the Lorain County Community Action Agency, an independently run social aid organization located in a gray building at 3553 Broadway here. The reception room is small and crowded with people, black and white; men and women, young and old.
It is a curious crowd. Some have been in the room before, many times, and have become experts at filling out aid request forms and working the system. Others are what agency Director Charles Hopkins calls "the new poor"--people, often white, who have tumbled from the assembly lines, the steady, good-paying jobs and the comfortable homes in some of Lorain's nicer neighborhoods.
The "new poor" don't talk much, not in crowded rooms, anyway. Hopkins is their spokesman.
"I've been in the poverty movement for 17 years, and I haven't seen it this bad," he said. "Traditionally, we saw the chronic poor, the people who have been on welfare for generations.
"But, now, we're seeing people who have been making at least $25,000 a year . . . It's a real strain on them to have to come in here," Hopkins said. He said many of the "new poor" are so ashamed of their status, they actually wait until foreclosure or eviction, or until their utilities have been shut off, before coming to the agency.
"I've seen people cry in here. I've seen men and women cry . . . I've seen them go into rages because they had to fill out forms and answer the kinds of personal questions they've never had to answer before . . . They're ashamed of being on public assistance. They're in shock. They're just not used to it," Hopkins said.
Statistic: Since Jan. 1, the agency has granted emergency heating assistance to 1,300 applicants. Fifty percent of those were members of the "new poor," Hopkins said.
"People ask you how you feel about this," said William Socotch, the laid-off steelworker, preparing to go to the local unemployment office to file a claim. "Well, how would you feel? How is a man supposed to feel?
"You invest a lot of time in a job. You're a good worker. But yet, you're out. They lay you off or they close the plant down.
"I'll tell you how I feel about going to stand in that damned unemployment line. I don't want to be there. I don't like it one damned bit. It's a slam against my ego."
To George McKenzie, working at the steel plant was just a way to supplement his real job--"my work for the Lord." McKenzie is an assistant pastor at the Third Baptist Church of Lorain. "And the Lord will take care of it," he said about his current jobless plight.
But a devilish smile crept across his face when he said this. "You know," he began, "not even the Lord wants me to sit here and try to make it on unemployment. If I don't get my job back at the plant, or if I can't find another job around here, I'm going to move.
"I've been in Lorain most of my life. I'm 59. But I'll move if I have to. I have a family. They got to eat.
"The Lord is going to take care of it. But I can't just sit around here on my little skinny butt and wait for Him to do that," McKenzie said.
It is nearly 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. Joseph F. Koziura, Lorain's elected city auditor, has just gotten the news. U.S. Steel is going to lay off another 600 workers, bringing to 1,800 the number laid off since the start of the year. The plant normally has over 5,000 employes. The latest layoffs mean Lorain will lose an additional $125,000 in annual payroll taxes. Altogether, with nearly 2,000 furloughed from the plant, the city will lose $425,000 a year.
"We could lose triple that amount with the ripple effect, with reduced commercial sales and that sort of thing," Koziura said. Partly for that reason, and because the city is in need of major capital improvements, Koziura, a Democrat, is proposing a local income tax increase and several new public service fees.
"Crazy? No, I'm not crazy," Koziura said. "This city has an A-1 credit rating with Moody's. We're not going to default on any obligations and lose that. That would be throwing away the future."
Koziura, a dapper man of 36, has been in office 11 years. He candidly admits higher political ambition, to preside over Lorain as mayor, bringing it back to industrial greatness.
He said he wants to do this by diversifying Lorain's economic base, by bringing in small, high-tech firms that would employ no more than 300 people in a given shop. There also is the promise of Lake Erie, a major waterway that Koziura believes has not been fully exploited.
"We'll get through this," he said, referring to the latest news from the steel company. "This town is still very much alive."