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13 Nov, 2009 19:38

Pembroke: the most broke town in Obama’s home state

Pembroke: the most broke town in Obama’s home state

There’s broke and then there’s Pembroke (Illinois, that is). Located in the northern county of Kankakee, the township of Pembroke is now suffering a crushing 46% unemployment rate.

With nearly half the employment-eligible adult men and women out of work, its already low population of 3,000 is sure to diminish significantly during the coming years, if not months.

How is it possible for a once-thriving small town located in the heart of President Barack Obama’s home state to undergo a collapse not of recession proportions, but more like Depression-era magnitude?

The recent pullout of the Nestle Corporation most definitely left a bitter taste in the mouths of local residents and a gaping cavity in the local economy. It also had a snowball effect, resulting in the spiraling loss of jobs and business opportunities.

Just how broke is this town?

Not only does unemployment stand at near 50%, it’s also deeply in the hole in unpaid taxes and government revenues. So bad is the economic situation that the entire police force has been laid off and two out of its three existing elementary schools have been shut down, forcing teachers and staff to line up for unemployment benefits. The only places of employment now are a snack shop and a few gas stations. But even the paycheck from these jobs remains far below the median average wage of a typical Illinois resident, including the nation’s President.

“I’d say we’re the forgotten community,” said Mayor Sam Payton. His goal, he says, is to create jobs, but that’s like trying to create an ivory tower out of the ashes and embers of a bombed-out city. With young people wanting to get out of town as soon as possible, it’s not likely that anything short of an economic miracle will save Pembroke from almost certainly becoming a Midwest ghost town.

Snack shop/gas station owner Issac Lewis closed down his business because he couldn’t afford to keep it open.

“Used to be it was hard to make ends meet,” he attests. “But now we don’t consider trying to meet them.”

Not long ago, talk was in the air of constructing a woman’s maximum security prison inside the township, but plans were scrapped due to the recession. Talk about an economic Catch-22. As it stands now, there are no plans for any new business enterprises coming to town. No Lowes, no Walmart, no Home Depot, no K-Mart. Not even a Target. However, the town is applying for several million dollars in federal grant money which would make it eligible to construct up to 60 low-income homes. But in the desperate case of Pembroke, low-income homes will almost certainly translate into no-income homes.

HousingWire, a mortgage market report website, reported yesterday that the nation’s unemployment rate is now over 10%. That is, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics U-6 calculations. But at 46% unemployment, Pembroke can only pray to be included in that relatively meager percentage. “However,” writes HousingWire reporter, Jon Prior, “folks in Pembroke… don’t care about the U-6 figure.”

If the town isn’t hit hard enough, there’re even signs that its citizens are losing their religion. According to Rev. Jon Dyson, the pastor who presides over the Church of the Cross, “You’re looking at a person who’s praying and praying and praying, but yet it doesn’t look like their prayers are being answered.”

While the local sheriff has been placed in charge of the town’s law and order, the future of Pembroke seems dismal at best. Perhaps Illinois’ much-loved, miracle-making son, President Barack Obama, can lend some kind of moral, spiritual or even emergency economic support for a town that has existed on the Indiana border since 1877. Or perhaps even the nation’s Commander in Chief is powerless to do anything at all under the weight of an American recession that is looking more and more like a depression everyday.

Vincent Zandri for RT