The Changing Heartland

An influx of newcomers both buoys and burdens small-town America

It's a typical week in Morganton, N.C. At St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, the Reverend Kenneth Whittington delivers mass in English, Spanish, and Hmong, spoken by the growing Laotian community. At the nearby grocer, stock boys refill the shelves with the tortillas and guava nectar sold alongside the fresh wontons and egg-roll wrappers. Two school buses rumble through poor neighborhoods, loaded with computers and games to teach English to immigrant children.

But like so many melting-pot communities, Morganton is also grappling with a new set of social ills. At the Burke Mission Station, the soup kitchen doles out nearly 90 meals a day, 50% more than two years ago, while the nearby First Baptist Church employs a full-time parish nurse to call on the growing number of elderly in its congregation. And while St. Charles Borromeo has expanded its outreach services to include in-home family counseling, Whittington frets that the community doesn't have a handle on the rise in domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and prostitution he hears about in confession. "A lot of it we're just not dealing with," he sighs.

This isn't a hardscrabble corner of New York or Los Angeles. This is Morganton, population 17,310, a factory town in the same foothills region on which the 1960s TV utopia of Mayberry was based. While the scale of Morganton's problems still pale in comparison with, say, Philadelphia or Chicago's South Side, this rural community finds itself wrestling with the demographic and social forces once more common in America's urban corridors. "What we've viewed as big-city problems are here amongst us," says barber Tommy Sain.

Morganton's struggles are playing out not just across many other parts of North Carolina but also through swaths of the American heartland. One of the most fascinating social trends of recent years is the demographic revolution taking place in such traditionally rural states as Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Nebraska. The booming economy of the 1990s did wonders for these states but also brought in its wake an unforeseen influx of immigrants eager to stake their claim, as well as upheaval in the manufacturing sectors that long buttressed Middle America.

As a result, rural towns such as Morganton that once looked askance at the ills of the big city are confronting a rise in everything from out-of-wedlock births to divorces (charts). "The heartland states are facing the same kind of social changes that urban areas encountered 20 years ago," says Barbara J. Risman, a sociologist at North Carolina State University and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families.

Combined, these changes are transforming this once-insular state at warp speed. On the political front, the influx of immigrants and northern transplants, coupled with a growing professional class, are helping to usher in a new era of government. With the retirement of polarizing politicians such as Jesse A. Helms, more moderate candidates are running, including Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Elizabeth Dole, who are squaring off for Helms's Senate seat. At the same time, the flood of social transformations is taxing North Carolina's ability to provide Medicare and other services for the surging ranks of immigrants, elderly, and single mothers as the economy slows.

In many respects, the newfound problems can be linked to the growth pains that came with rising prosperity in the state, which now boasts the nation's second-largest banking hub, in Charlotte, and a thriving technology center, in Raleigh-Durham. Just as immigrants flocked to Detroit and New York during the first Industrial Revolution, the current wave of immigrants sees greater opportunity in the Sunbelt and the heartland. Thus, the share of immigration flowing into states such as North Carolina has nearly doubled over the past decade, according to the Census Bureau (charts). Nor is the immigration clampdown from last September's terrorist attacks likely to reverse the trend. "Once a shift like this occurs, there's a certain momentum built in," says Urban Institute demographer Jeffrey S. Passel.

For the most part, the transformation has gone smoothly, particularly given North Carolina's relative inexperience in assimilating new groups. In the early 1900s, the state had the nation's lowest percentage of foreign-born residents. The economic boom of the 1990s changed all that. Because the job bonanza nearly dried up the state's pool of workers by the mid-1990s, immigrants provided the reinforcements that kept the good times rolling. State leaders put the welcome mat out by, for example, giving one of the nation's most liberal driver's-license tests, which can be taken in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish.

To be sure, North Carolina's resolve has been tested in the year since last September's attacks. With the feds cracking down on fake IDs, two regional grocery chains, Food Lion and Harris Teeter Inc., let go dozens of Hispanic employees who couldn't produce valid Social Security numbers. Some recent immigrants also complain about growing discrimination. Reyna Chacón, a Guatemalan native living in Morganton, says "Hispanics are being told there are no jobs" even as whites are hired.

Still, recent arrivals say they aren't going home. "Work is slow, but it's still better here than in Mexico," says Victor Castellanos, a Mexican native who quit his $12.50-an-hour job as a house painter last year to open his own five-man painting business in Durham.

State officials also remain mindful of the economic importance of Hispanic workers whether they're here legally or not. While North Carolina tightened its driver's-license policy after September 11, it has since backed off by allowing undocumented workers to apply for an easily obtainable federal tax ID that can be used to get a license. Why? Despite the recession, the state still relies heavily on newcomers. Without immigration, "our economy would shut down," says Chatham County Commissioner Rick Givens. The Realistic Furniture Industries plant in rural Candor says it couldn't run a third shift without newly arrived Hispanics. Despite a local jobless rate near 7%, "we don't get any referrals from the unemployment office," notes human-resources manager Juan Guasque.

Law-enforcement officials are taking a pragmatic view, too. In Chapel Hill, Police Chief Gregg Jarvies says his officers turn illegal residents over to the Immigration & Naturalization Service for serious crimes but not for misdemeanors or traffic stops. "We do not consider ourselves an arm of the INS," he says.

Longer term, the state must figure out how to assimilate largely low-skilled newcomers into an increasingly high-skill economy. Planners estimate that by 2020, the state's elderly will grow from 12% to 17% of the population, mostly due to the aging of baby boomers. These mostly skilled workers will exit the labor force at the same time that the ranks of immigrants and their children grow sharply, combining with other minorities to reach nearly 30% of the population by 2020. "A growing proportion of young workers will be immigrants," says Sarah Rubin, a senior associate at MDC Inc., a regional think tank. "It's important for North Carolina's economy that they [improve their] skills and meet the demands of higher-paying occupations."

As if that weren't enough, North Carolina already finds itself in the midst of other social challenges. Despite its Bible Belt image, the state saw the number of single mothers soar by 35% over the past decade, while nonfamily households rose 38%, and the number of households with unmarried partners more than doubled--all changes that outpaced the national averages. Some attribute the breakdown of traditional family structures in rural states to economic forces, such as the drop in many workers' real income that came with the stagnation of manufacturing jobs. Risman, the sociologist, also cites the spread of media such as cable and the Internet. "There's a decreasing difference between urban and rural cultures," she says.

Church leaders--agonizing over a divorce rate that, like those of other Bible Belt states such as Oklahoma and Arkansas, is higher than the national average--are promoting "Marriage Saver" programs that impose strict counseling requirements on newlyweds.

At the same time, local governments are struggling to fund services for single mothers in a region that despises handouts. With roughly 1 million North Carolinians living in poverty--25% more than in 1990--health officials are scrambling to provide medical care and other social services to the swelling numbers of people who lack the insurance or other means to pay for health care. It's not just undocumented workers, either, since roughly 40% of black families are headed by single mothers, who often rely on social services.

These traditionally rural states will continue to struggle, particularly in today's sputtering economy. In the process, they're likely to learn what much of the U.S. discovered decades ago--that diversity is inevitably a mixed blessing but that it can be an asset on which to build a thriving economy.

By Dean Foust in Durham, N.C., with Brian Grow in Morganton and Aixa M. Pascual in Raleigh

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