Economy underscores food, gas cost worries

It was mid-afternoon on a Gastonia nature trail, far away from Wall Street. But walking on a gravel path beneath the trees, Michael Moss spoke of the financial crisis unspooling hundreds of miles away. “It's horrible,” he said. “Everything bad rolls downhill. It'll hit the blue-collar people first and foremost.”

The 22-year-old Gastonia resident knows because he fits that description himself. A high school graduate, he's looking for work and aiming to support his family, hoping for a better future but unsure of whether he can achieve it.

Whether over breakfast in Hickory, at lunchtime in Lincolnton or in the afternoon breeze in Freedom Park, area residents interviewed last week expressed similar worries, and a sense of deep concern over the state of the economy.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers, the abrupt sale of Merrill Lynch and the government bailout of insurance giant AIG have largely helped confirm a general sense that things are bad, they said. But nearly all could point to specific ways that rising gas and food prices, stagnant incomes and stock market declines have affected their lives for weeks and months now, even if many also said they had faith in the future.

Moss and Teran Hamrick, 23, visited the trail and neighboring Schiele Museum with daughter Cloey, 2, in part because it was affordable, they said. Moss said he lost his job earlier this year because his employer, a home improvement installation company, went out of business. Now, he's working part time as an exotic dancer to pay the bills. Hamrick was laid off from a Wal-Mart photo studio because business was down there, too.

The couple want jobs that would help them start careers, but for now, they'd settle for something that would help put money in their pockets. They buy items only for their daughter, not themselves, and worry about winter clothes and bills. They shop for food exclusively at discount grocer Aldi.

“There's no planning (for the future),” Moss said. “It's a day-to-day thing. … We know we won't find something that's better for us until something gets better on the news.”

At the library nearby, nurse Nancy Jones, 51, a married mother of three who attends college, said she judges the economy by the way her life has been going financially. Lately, the signs have troubled her.

Gas prices have crimped her budget to the point that, though she's always paid her bills on time, she's slipped lately. She's begun using her credit card more and her retirement account has been down in her last three quarterly statements. She planted a small garden to grow vegetables, clips coupons more and looks for more sales. She likes her work and is hoping for a raise, but this month, she said, she began considering getting a second job.

“There's a degree of fear, and I'm scared, because I want to see change and I don't think it's going to happen right now,” she said.

Also at the library, Cynthia Reid-Whitworth, 39, a Mount Holly resident who works for a community-based organization that assists children, said she was not worried, even though things are getting hard in the world. She's trying to be cautious with her spending, but doesn't look to the president or government for solace, but draws strength from her faith.

“God always provides for his people,” she said as twin sons Isaac and RJ, 3, scampered around. “As long as I spend wisely, cut coupons, do what I can to live using common sense, I'm OK. I may have to hold back on the wants, but not the needs.”

Wendy Thomas, 33, and her husband Aaron, 32, live in Caldwell County, which has been dealing with economic struggles most of this decade. But even so, the current downturn has especially affected them, they said after eating breakfast at the Snack Bar in Hickory.

Aaron, a machine operator at a Lenoir bubble wrap plant, has been working reduced hours since mid-summer. Business is down, he said, because fewer people are ordering goods that need to be shipped, which means there's less need for packaging material.

High gas prices mean they don't go out as much as they used to. What have they cut back on as a result? “It'd be a long list,” Aaron Thomas said.

They've held off going on vacation and buying toys for their two daughters, said Wendy Thomas, who is on medical leave from her job as a bank teller. “It's not going to be a great Christmas,” she said.

“I think it'll get better,” Aaron Thomas said. “But it'll be a while.”

Across the restaurant, retired salesman Wade Stephens, 71, of Taylorsville, finished up what he called “a healthy breakfast” of three eggs, three pancakes, sausage and plenty of syrup. A retired salesman who owns stock in Lowe's and Duke Energy, he has the bulk of his investments in 401(k)s. Lately, he's been combining trips to save gas, though he says he and his wife live frugally and have not really changed their spending habits otherwise.

“I don't think anybody can feel good about (the economy),” he said. “The Dow has lost 800 points. … That's where my investment money is.”

“But I'm not worried about it. Well – I'll show you, because there's my investment banker,” he said, pulling a Bible from the seat next to him. “I put my faith in the Lord, not in the stock market, not in politicians. A good recession may be good for us morally.”

Bill Day, 61, president of B&L Formal Wear in downtown Lincolnton, is less accepting, though still hopeful the economy will improve. “Everything in life has its ups and downs,” said Day, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran. “But at this point in life, the wealthy capitalists are taking advantage of the lower and middle class. I'm not happy with the way this country's going.”

Around the corner at North State Books, Richard Jones, 58, and his nephew Matthew work surrounded by thousands of books, from bestsellers to obscure volumes. Their sales have been about the same this year compared with last, Richard Jones said from behind the counter, but they're having to work longer hours for the same result.

He worries about what the nation's financial straits mean for his future. “When the government is dumping so much money into AIG, there's not going to be any left for Social Security and Medicare,” he said, checking Yahoo Finance on his computer. “But, we're still working, we're still eating. I think we'll pull out of it, but it may be a lot longer than I expect.”