On a warm June day last year, Odessa Gregg watched as nearly 300 people filed into the Marion County Technical Education Center. The center sits midway between the county's two main towns, Marion, the county seat, and Mullins, once known as the “Tobacco Capital of South Carolina.”
Tobacco no longer rules, and nearly one in five workers can't find a job, the highest unemployment rate of any county in the state.
Gregg waved, smiled and offered encouragement to those walking past with hopes of landing a job. They were lured to the tech center by Gov. Nikki Haley's second “community day” to help people in struggling counties tackle problems without relying on government.
“This is getting back to neighbors taking care of neighbors and not using the government to do it, but using compassion to do it,” Haley said.
Haley had begun her Community Day project a few months earlier in Allendale. She is replicating the effort in high-unemployment counties across the state through The Original Six Foundation that she created with a couple hundred thousand dollars in leftover inauguration money and profits from her book, “Can't Is Not an Option, My American Story.”
The idea is to use volunteers with the foundation to put on a combination job, health and self-improvement fair to inspire people and show them the available resources.
Gregg worked in Marion County as a public school counselor until retirement, and she wants nothing more than to see residents get jobs and build for the future.
That's why she ran for and won a vacant seat on Marion City Council last year. “Industry has moved away,” and farming no longer needs as many workers.
Loss of workers creates another problem for stressed counties. Marion, for example, has seen its population drop by almost 7 percent since 2000. Twelve of the 26 counties in the I-95 Corridor and the Mill Crescent also have seen populations fall over the decade.
In addition to a fall in population, 23 of the corridor and crescent counties have seen a fall in the number of children over the past decade, and 24 of the counties experienced a drop in people ages 20 to 49, the young adults and professionals, those building careers, families and businesses — the future.
Marion County lost 19 percent of its prime working-age people, one of the hardest hit in the state.
With those losses, many of the I-95 Corridor and Mill Crescent counties find themselves caught in a self-perpetuating economic trap in which they fall further behind.
The first decade of this century proved a bad one for most Americans, as meager income gains failed to keep pace with inflation.
As a result, the typical family could afford less in 2010 than a decade earlier, and in some struggling South Carolina counties, real incomes fell more than 20 percent.
Creating jobs, especially in Marion and other struggling counties, remains Haley's No. 1 stated goal. But the hurdles faced by those counties remain daunting.
In April last year, The PEW Center on the States issued a report that evaluated the upward or downward economic mobility of workers. It focused on their average earnings over time and placed them on a ladder compared with workers in other states. South Carolina, along with Louisiana and Oklahoma, ranked lowest on that ladder with “consistently lower upward and higher downward mobility than the national average.”
Still, Gregg came to cheer. “We are people who care about each other. I owe something to the people. I'm hoping that some jobs come out of this. I'm hoping the health screening will help people and some will be encouraged that somebody cares about them.”
That's Haley's hope too for Marion and similar communities. “I grew up in a rural town, and rural towns don't always realize what they have,” the governor said. She pointed in the direction of some the businesses and organizations that showed up with booths for her Marion County Day. “These are companies that are hiring today,” she said.
Among those manning job booths were Tiger Mart, Zaxby's, Mohawk, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Perdue Farms, TD Bank, Coker College, the National Guard and the state departments of Motor Vehicles and Juvenile Justice.
Some had a few jobs available. Some had the possibility of future jobs, such as the Mohawk plant in Bennettsville, 40 miles to the west. Juvenile Justice offered just one job opening. The DMV had none. And Coker College's Barbara Jackowski said, “We don't have jobs, but we offer bachelor degrees.”
Tieria Foxworth of Marion just graduated from high school and turned 18. She wants to be a professional dancer and, someday, teach dance, perhaps at her own studio. But she attended Marion County Day to find a job, any job, for the time being. “I'm applying for as many jobs as possible. ... I'm hopeful.”
Jamie Bolt isn't. He graduated from high school in Marion County in 2008 and moved to Greenville to continue his education. He worked as a bartender at a popular downtown Greenville beer hall last summer, and said he planned to move to Charleston because it's closer to home and boasts a thriving economy.
As with so many other young adults from the state's poor rural counties, Bolt plans on never returning to Marion, other than for a visit. His father told him not to come back. “There's nothing here.”
Gov. Nikki Haley (back to camera), with Candyce Brooks (center) and Wendy Homeyer, at the “community day” job and health fair in Marion County last June.×
Last June, when Gov. Nikki Haley brought a team of volunteers to Marion County to conduct a job, self-improvement and health-screening fair, hundreds showed up at the Marion County Technical Education Center, most hoping to get jobs in a county that holds the state’s highest unemployment rate.×