Free back-to-school shoe lines reminiscent of the 30’s

It was just a short story in the newspaper and on TV in St. Joseph, Mo. on Aug. 6. It told how hundreds of people lined up in front of the AFL-CIO’s Community Services Agency building in the northwest Missouri city to get free shoes for their kids before the start of the school year.  That’s “kids” all the way through 12th grade.

Some families had been waiting since midnight. When one mother got there at 5:30 a.m., the line was already long. Those are the families that can’t afford shoes, a scene straight out of the 1930s.  The local Catholic Church that runs the program – the AFL-CIO lent its building for the giveaway – needs even more shoes.

And it’s a scene, we’re sure, that is duplicated elsewhere around the country. It also got us thinking: How and why did we descend to a point where so many families in a typical U.S. city can’t afford shoes?

The first-draft answer we came up with is an amalgamation of economic policies brought to you by Corporate America: Globalization and the Great Recession.

The annual jobless rate in St. Joseph and surrounding Andrew and Buchanan Counties was 7.24 percent in 2011, below the national jobless rate of 8 percent or so. But in 2007, before the start of the Great Recession, also known as the Bush Crash, the rate in the U.S. was below six percent, and it was 4.32 percent in those two Missouri counties in the St. Joseph area, calculations from federal data show.

Let us not forget what and who drove the jobless rate up sky high and sent the residents of St. Joseph, and everywhere else, to those shoe giveaway lines.

It was the corporate greed of the Wall Street financiers, the one percent preying off the rest of us, that brought the economy down around our ears. Meanwhile, the average weekly wage in Andrew County was $509 in 2011. In Buchanan, it was $724. In Missouri, it was $804. In the U.S., it was $916.

Unfortunately, 2007 average wage data for those counties were unavailable, but if they’re like the rest of the U.S., wages were higher in 2007 than in 2011.

St. Joseph used to be a factory town. Its residents worked in meatpacking plants or on the railroads. A city history said it had 170 factories – in 1886. History buffs know St. Joseph as the starting point of the Pony Express. Now, the city’s big employers are hospitals, the local university – and a new casino riverboat.

What jobs entered St. Joseph since the factories left have been in government or the service sector. Now, nationwide, the state and local government jobs are going, thanks to budget cuts and right-wing politicians. And the service sector jobs are in firms like McDonald’s and Walmart, paying the minimum wage and often not employing people for full-time 40-hour weeks. That includes that riverboat casino, we would bet.

Second, where have those factory jobs migrated? Try Mexico. Try China. Try India. Try Vietnam. From 1999-2010, the U.S. lost one-third of its factory jobs, thanks to globalization.  Venal and vicious corporate owners, chasing the chances for ever-bigger profits to satisfy their Wall Street backers, decamped overseas – with our tax dollars subsidizing them through deductions for foreign (as well as domestic) workers’ pay – leaving U.S. workers jobless. They had held mostly high-paying family-supporting jobs.

Shoes are as good an example as any. We don’t know if the grandfathers or grandmothers of any of those people standing in line in St. Joseph worked at the shoe factories of New England. But look where those factories went. In their owners’ pursuit of higher profits for their own pockets, first they fled to the low-paying anti-union South, leaving New England’s workers behind.

Then they fled the South for overseas, stranding those workers, too. Some 99 percent of shoes sold in the U.S. are imported, the industry’s trade group says. It still claims footwear supports U.S. jobs, but they’re not factory jobs.

Think Nike: none of its shoes are manufactured in the U.S.

The story behind the shoe line in St. Joseph is a story repeated everywhere, from Gary, Ind., to Youngstown, Ohio, to Flint, Mich., to Chico, Calif., to Milton, Mass.

It is a story of corporate greed – aided and abetted by policy created by politicians who took their financial donors’ campaign dollars and looked the other way, at best, as those donors shipped our jobs abroad.

And it is a story to remember as we swing into the homestretch of the election season, because we should know to whom and where to place the blame for the loss of U.S. jobs – and for that shoe line in St. Joseph.

Photo: Flickr


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.