Down But Not Out

Aug. 1, 2009
Resisting pessimism is not futile if you've got what it takes to keep fighting.

Material handling is particularly susceptible to economic downturns because, by definition, it relies on actually having some material to handle. Manufacturers, third-party warehouses, regional distribution centers, logistics providers — all of these areas feel the immediate impact of a recession when the amount of goods in the supply chain becomes fewer and fewer. What, then, happens to a community when its main economic activity is severely curtailed, and there is no longer very much material to handle?

Rather than get philosophical about that question, I'll share a recent experience I had in just such a community. I spent a week's vacation this past July in Flint, Michigan. I realize that sounds like the setup to a joke, but in fact, several hundred people — mostly teenagers, including my oldest daughter — from various Midwest cities traveled to Flint as part of an organized mission trip to help people living in cities particularly hit hard by the recession. Although I've been to Michigan many times, I'd never been to Flint before, so in preparing for the trip, I did a little background search on the area.

Flint, the original home of General Motors, is an apt symbol of that once-dominant auto manufacturer. Flint ranks at or near the top in terms of U.S. cities hit the hardest by unemployment and economic turmoil. Just as GM itself filed for bankruptcy, mere months after receiving tens of billions of dollars in bailout funds, Flint's own politicians are suggesting that the entire community be bulldozed and then rebuilt as a group of smaller communities. Quoted in The Telegraph, Genesee County treasurer Dan Kildee recently commented, “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.” He might as well have worn a “Star Trek” T-shirt saying, “Resistance is futile.”

The unemployment rate in Flint had climbed to 28.6% in June, and Michigan's unemployment rate of 15.2% in June led the nation. Earlier this year, Flint's mayor resigned rather than face a voter recall. GM reversed course on plans to build engines for the Chevy Cruze and Volt in a new facility to be located in Flint, opting instead to purchase the engines from an existing European plant. Based on a nationwide study conducted by the Associated Press, which takes into account unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies, Michigan is second only to California for overall economic stress. Needless to say, my expectations for what we would find when we arrived in Flint were pretty low.

However, as I quickly discovered, the people of Flint and nearby communities are absolutely not a forlorn, beaten-down lot. If the folks we met that week are a representative sample of typical Flintonians, then the city is largely made up of optimistic, faith-filled, open-hearted people. Maybe some of that spirit comes from their city being frequently dismissed in the national media as a crumbling ghost town, a symbol of everything that GM did wrong on the road to insolvency. While the Flint economy may be in a depression, I saw no evidence that the people themselves are depressed. They weren't waiting for the government to offer them a handout and empty promises. Instead, I saw a community of people who, when you knock them down, get right back up and ask, “Is that all you got?”

As we left Flint, I was reminded of the closing lines to the classic Simon & Garfunkel tune, “The Boxer”:

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade. And he carries the reminders of ev'ry glove that laid him down and cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame, “I am leaving, I am leaving.” But the fighter still remains.

The fighter still remains in the people of Flint, just as it does in the hearts of the American companies and workers who built our industrial base and have borne the brunt of the economic downturn and layoffs. And I believe it's this same fighting spirit that's responsible for the promising signs we're now seeing of a recovery, and it will be the U.S. supply chain that leads the way.