By Meghan Barr
Twinsburg, Ohio — The clerk at the candy shop does not want to cry. She is determinedly cheerful, a professional smiler, dressed head to toe in bright turquoise.
But standing next to a display of plastic-wrapped candles and teddy bears, her face crumples at the most basic of questions: Are you doing OK?
“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes with a shirt sleeve, her voice a shaky whisper. “Because at the end of the month, there’s nothing left. I don’t know what to say. It’s almost getting to the point where I don’t know what we’re going to do anymore.”
For four years now, Julie Bittner has rung up customers in this little store on the charming grassy square at the heart of Twinsburg, Ohio. And from her view by the front window, she has watched the fortunes of a ransacked autoworkers’ mecca slowly drain away. Streets once teeming with people are now deserted. Some days, she said, not a soul comes through the door.
She’s seen the headlines. The recession is ending! Unemployment is stabilizing! From Wall Street to Washington, the message comes: America, the worst is over. Let the spending begin. But in places like Twinsburg — where for so many the misery goes on, unabated — people aren’t buying the rhetoric. If brighter days are ahead, they say, they’re still awaiting the dawn.
According to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in early April, many Americans’ impressions of the economy — and their own financial straits — haven’t budged in a long time.
“Who are they trying to kid?” Bittner said. “Are they trying to make you think it’s better so you’ll go out and spend?”
Well, yes. The nation’s fragile consumer confidence, which sank to a record low about a year ago, could keep the fledgling economic recovery stuck in first gear, said Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board, a research group that keeps close tabs on consumers.
“And when you’re stuck in first gear,” he said, “there’s more chance to hit a pothole than if you are cruising over an open stretch of highway.”
In April, just 25 percent of Americans believed the economy was getting better, the exact same percentage as in September, according to the AP poll. An overwhelming 76 percent rated the economy these days as poor, compared with just 21 percent who said the economy was “good” overall.
That kind of good news is especially hard to reconcile in Twinsburg.
The hulking Chrysler stamping plant that once employed thousands will shut down forever in June, and the 400 or so workers left will scatter in search of a paycheck. For a while, people like Doug Rice, president of United Auto Workers union Local 122, still held out hope that a savior might step in and buy the plant, maybe turn it into a new manufacturing hub.
But last month, when word leaked that a Canadian industrial liquidation firm had bought the plant at auction and would likely strip out the equipment and essentially pillage the 165-acre complex, Rice climbed into his vehicle and drove into the rising sun, stopping only when he crossed the Pennsylvania border. It was like a death in the family, he said.
“I never thought I’d cry over my job,” he said. “But I mean, I literally broke down. Cried like a baby. Didn’t want anybody to see me.”
An irrepressible optimist, Rice is not one to lay blame or point fingers. He is quick to praise the president, state lawmakers and the local mayor. He even has kind words for the auto company that sold the plant he loved down the river. But does he believe the recession is ending?
“It ain’t almost over with,” he said. “We have a long ways to go. A very long ways to go.”