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Familiar with Unemployment, Edgecombe County Weathers Recession

June 3, 2009

Unemployment rates of 8 percent and higher are uncharted territory for most communities across the nation, but in Edgecombe County, N.C., those sorts of numbers are familiar ground.

Downtown Tarboro, N.C. Even in the height of robust economic years like 2005 and 2006, the ranks of the unemployed in Edgecombe County never dipped below 7 percent. You need to go back to 1990 to find an unemployment rate less than 5 percent.

In Patchwork Nation, Edgecombe County represents a Minority Central community, a type characterized by lower-income counties with high unemployment that are home to large black populations.

County leaders connect Edgecombe's chronically high unemployment with the closure of several factories in the 1990s, similar to the decline in manufacturing that has created economic problems across the nation. Edgecombe County has been able to recruit new industries, but they don't employ nearly the same numbers of people companies like Black & Decker once did.

Since the recession began, Edgecombe's already high unemployment rate has nearly doubled, reaching almost 17 percent in February. In April, it was down to just over 15 percent. When Lowe's Home Improvement opened a new store a few months back, 2,000 people applied for 100 positions.

High unemployment has become an unfortunate piece of Edgecombe County's economic fabric, but in many ways it's giving the roughly 56,000 people who live here an advantage in weathering this economic storm. Edgecombe County never experienced the boom that so many other communities did.

As a result, county leaders say, Edgecombe doesn't have to go through the very painful "back-to-reality" contractions that are common across the country. Edgecombe's home values never soared into the stratosphere and its coffers were never filled with building permit fees and sales tax revenues. County leaders don't expect to make major cuts in this year's budget because revenues are in line with past years.

Even in the midst of double-digit unemployment, the people of Edgecombe County have optimism and a strength that comes from years of fighting through economic struggles. Many of the county's largest private employers, including QVC and Sara Lee, have been able to move through this recession without making significant job cuts.

It was 10 years ago this September that flooding from Hurricane Floyd devastated the county and nearly wiped the town of Princeville off the map. Whether the challenges are coming from rising flood waters or financial woes, the people of Edgecombe County have proved resilient in the face of adversity.

By Rob Holliday, UNC-TV

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