McAllen, Texas, has for a long time been at or near the top of the list of cities hit by unemployment. But the lead story in The Monitor, McAllen’s daily newspaper, reported one day this week that unemployment in October stood at the lowest level since figures began being recorded.
The peak came in 1992, when unemployment stood at 19.9 per cent. But in October 2004 the rate was 9.7 percent, the first time it has ever broken below 10 percent.
The report attributed the decline to the creation of new jobs in the area. Businesses have opened, and they are not all hamburger joints. They are factories, warehouses, and transportation terminals. Some of them are part of the NAFTA activity between this country and Mexico.
The border is only about seven miles south of McAllen.
It seems it has only been days since a presidential candidate was squawking about “job loss” as a major campaign issue. When those who talk this way are confronted with the fact that jobs are being added across the nation at a rate that is exceeding predictions, they complain that the new jobs consist of “flipping hamburgers” at minimum wage.
They continue to state that these new low-paying jobs are replacing high-paying jobs that have been “outsourced” overseas.
The figures don’t back them up. The jobs being created are across the whole range, including very well-paying positions. There are more Americans now employed than ever before in history.
I am reminded of the election year 1960, when another senator from Massachusetts spoke incessantly about a “missile gap” in which America had slipped behind the Soviet Union. John Kennedy blamed the situation on the Eisenhower administration, and branded his opponent Richard Nixon with the “gap.”
But Kennedy had no sooner taken office than he announced that he had been mistaken. There was no gap. In fact, the United States had far more missiles capable of reaching Soviet cities than Moscow possessed for hitting American cities.
So far, I have not heard Mr. Kerry admit his mistake. Jobs are increasing, not decreasing, and the take-home pay of Americans is on the rise. Kerry’s complaints to the contrary were campaign rhetoric and nothing more.
Of course, there are local areas that are not sharing in the prosperity.
McAllen is favorably situated to take advantage of NAFTA arrangements. But just eighty miles or so north is the town of Falfurrias.
This is a town that flourished during the fifties and sixties, when the oil and gas fields nearby were booming. Now, all you can hear is how prosperous things were during those years, and how everything has been going downhill ever since.
The cattle ranches are still here, and there is still much activity on the oil and gas fields, and there is even some new exploration going on. But the churches in town all have big educational buildings that were built some years ago and which now stand empty. There are libraries filled with books that were the latest thing in 1960, to which nothing has been added since. There are empty buildings which used to be automobile dealerships and big-name chain outlets. But apart from a grocery market and a Wal-Mart, retail stores stand abandoned and deteriorating.
Such conditions can be found in rural towns all the way up the Great Plains, to the Canadian border. Young people who graduate from high school leave town and don’t come back, because jobs are to be found elsewhere.
Economically-depressed areas present politicians with opportunities to foment dissatisfaction, to blame incumbents, and to propose all kinds of government programs. But the voters are not so easily taken in.
They can see that the big picture is one of improvement. A chronically-depressed area like McAllen is becoming a showpiece for job creation and prosperity. It is absorbing a continuing tide of immigrants from Mexico, and putting them to work.
This doesn’t do Falfurrias much good. But it does indicate that the renewal of such declining towns will come when some company sees a chance to make a profit here-not when politicians cook up some kind of “plan.”
Of course poverty remains. Of course economic gain is not evenly distributed. There is always the temptation to attack unemployment by shackling businesses with labor contracts, taxes, regulations, and environmental requirements that drive them out. The result is more poverty, not less. McAllen is becoming an example of what happens when private enterprise is allowed to function and government gets out of the way.
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