STRUGGLING TOWN HASN'T LOST ITS FAITH IN TRUMP
Posted January 3, 2018 4:54 p.m. EST
economy JEWETT - On a warm December morning, a steady stream of men, women and children stepped over the threshold of the Leon County Food Pantry and Clothes Closet, picking up hams, canned goods, and packaged mac and cheese. They included Juanita Gonzales, 76, trying to save on grocery bills, Gloria Diaz, a 32-year-old mother of four whose husband had his hours cut, and Danny Wilson, 60, who last year lost a six-figure job at the nearby power plant and now subsists on $25,000 a year in disability.
Kristy Vandegriff, executive director of Jewett's Chamber of Commerce, which operates the pantry, has kept count. More than 100 people had come in December, following a record November when about 150 people - double the monthly average - sought help. "It seems like times are tougher than ever right now," Vandegriff said.
This is not how this community of 1,200 imagined it would look like nearly a year after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who pledged to revive the forgotten places of rural America and the industries that sustain them. Here in Jewett, which gave Trump 86 percent of its vote, people haven't lost faith in the president, but they admit they see few signs that things are getting better.
Jim Salley, who has owned and operated an apparel store here for nearly a half-century, had hoped that Trump's pledge to boost coal, energy and manufacturing industries would lead to new jobs and trickle down to his business, which sells boots, clothes and gear to men and women who work in the nearby steel mill, oil fields and coal mines. Instead, his sales are down 15 percent from a year ago.
"I'm sure that's part of the reason my store is down some," he said. "People had to go somewhere else to find jobs."
Trump's election in November 2016 spurred high hopes in rural communities like Jewett, which the Houston Chronicle has spotlighted since shortly before the inauguration in January because the local economy features a unique mix of the industries the president promised to aid. Its major employers included a coal-fired power plant and the mine that supplied it, a steel mill, and energy companies that drilled for natural gas in the area.
The Trump administration has taken some steps to support the industries, including scrapping or reducing regulations seen as hindering their growth, but these moves have been offset by market conditions. Oil and natural gas prices remain relatively low, for example, curtailing production in fields, such as the Barnett and Haynesville shale formations to the northwest and east of Jewett, where extraction costs are higher than in the West Texas Permian Basin, where drilling is now concentrated.
The coal mine near Jewett shut down in 2016 and laid off some 250 workers when the power plant, owned by NRG of Houston, turned to lower-cost, cleaner burning coal from Wyoming. More local coal miners will lose jobs when Vistra Energy of Dallas shutters its Big Brown plant 40 miles to the north and associated coal mine because they are hurting profits.
In Leon County, where Jewett is located, the November unemployment rate, 5.5 percent, was more than 1.5 points above the state average of 3.8 percent, and nearly that much above the national rate, 4.1 percent, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. While the county's unemployment rate is down from a year ago, that decline is almost completely the result of a shrinking labor force as workers give up looking for jobs or move to find jobs elsewhere.
Leon County's labor force has declined 5 percent over the past year even as state and national labor forces have grown.
"The mine shut down. And the oil field left," said John Sitton, Jewett's mayor.
But none of this has shaken belief in Trump. Most people here blame Congress and an entrenched bureaucracy for thwarting the president's plans. Last January, Sitton hoped a quick turnaround would follow Trump's inauguration; today, he says it will take time.
'A darn good job'
"He is doing a darn good job," said Sitton. "I think he will eventually drain the swamp."
At CJ's Kountry Cookin', a diner where friends meet to chat and watch Fox News over eggs and a cup of coffee, the president is as popular as ever. Mike Speer, a rancher and chicken farmer and one of the group of older men who meet here regularly, was hard pressed to name specific Trump achievements, but insisted the president was getting things done.
"He tells you what he wants to do, then he tries to accomplish it," said Speer. "How in the world can that be wrong?"
Jewett, once a poor farming and ranching community, has long struggled, hanging onto to an economically precarious position with the support of a few employers. One of them is Nucor of Charlotte, N.C., which in 1975 opened a steel mill, employing about 400 workers.
Three years ago, the mill was running 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide pipe and steel for the energy industry, but the oil bust forced the company to cut employee hours and scale back production. Cheaper foreign steel imports put more pressure on Nucor.
With Trump's election, local managers saw some hope for increasing production and hours: Trump had promised to crack down on foreign imports with higher tariffs and other sanctions.
That promise, however, has yet to materialize. Profits at Nucor, the nation's biggest steel maker, plunged by more than $50 million or 15 percent in the third quarter, compared to the same period a year ago. Executives blamed the declines on imports.
Katherine Miller, a spokeswoman for Nucor, said the Trump administration has taken steps to help the industry, including enforcing trade laws for steel imports, and the company hopes Trump will follow with tougher actions in 2018. With tax reform behind it, Miller added, Congress should focus on Trump's long-promised infrastructure bill, which would help the Jewett mill, a producer of the rebar used in road and bridge construction.
Needing a voice
Despite the high hopes for Trump, presidents can do little to affect the long-term trends squeezing rural America, including the growth of metro areas, the decline in manufacturing employment and the shift from coal to cleaner, cheaper natural gas and renewables, said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas in Austin. Many Trump supporters, however, remain fervent because they may not have wanted help from Washington as much as they need a voice.
"A lot of people feel like they don't have other options, so why not go with the guy who is on their side?" Webber said.
Politics aren't discussed at Jewett's food pantry, in a small blue warehouse on the south end of town. Nucor and NRG have given tens of thousands of dollars to the pantry to fund a planned expansion. Carol Ball, who helps run the pantry with her husband, David, and other volunteers, doesn't ask people why they come. Need is just need.
As people picked through used clothes and claimed cans of tomato soup, sardines, beans, carrots and spaghetti sauce, Ball recognized some of the visitors, but many, she said, were new.
"The strange thing is we get a whole new group of people every few months," she said. "Where did the others go? I guess they had to leave to get jobs."