“The Grasshopper Generation,” explained Dalton City Mayor David Pennington, “was described by The New York Times as the generation that eats everything, and leaves nothing behind.”
That certainly sounds like the Great Recession, which hit Georgia harder than most states, especially Pennington’s hometown of Dalton, where manufacturing took it on the chin. In fact, the city was listed as the area hardest hit by the recent economic downturn. Pennington was elected just as the brunt hit his town, often described as “the Carpet Capital of the World.”
But Pennington and others in Dalton have turned things around. The secret is one that could help other places equally buffeted by the Great Recession, in New England and the Industrial Heartland in the Midwest.
“I ran for office because I didn’t like where the community was,” Pennington told his audience of college students and local residents. “We had a good hospital and school system, and excellent utilities, but the manufacturing laid off a lot of people. We were a high tax city, the kids were leaving, and we weren’t ‘hungry’ any more for success.” And of course, there was the unemployment, which skyrocketed as he was taking office in 2008.
Pennington, a Republican, touted his tax cut. With that, it may well have helped bring back the carpet makers. “We’re the last manufacturing center in Georgia, and we can’t lose that. Carpet is very capital-intensive, which is why it was never outsourced to Southeast Asia. That region prefers textiles that are more labor intensive.”
But it’s more than just taxes and business for Dalton, and the whole state of Georgia. It’s about taking advantage of assets, including a smart bunch of teachers. “We wish our folks in business were as well-educated as the teachers,” Pennington announced, breaking with other GOP candidates nationwide who take a dimmer view of educators.
What does Pennington recommend be done with this talent? First of all, he recommends getting rid of “No Child Left Behind” Act. “If it has a cute name, run from it…Patriot Act, Affordable Care Act,” he said in the talk. “There’s too much centralization in education, taking power from teachers and parents. We used to have the best school systems when both groups were involved.”
Pennington fielded a question from a student about the Common Core. “I don’t support it. I’m not opposed to standards,” he admitted. “I am interested in who sets them. We’ve turned it all over to the education bureaucracy and the for-profits. You need to get the community involved by writing the standards. In a top-down system, we’re not taking advantage of our teacher assets.”
What can be done for the Peach State? “Georgia led in per capita income growth years ago, but we lost our economic momentum,” Pennington claimed. “We’ve lost the most manufacturing jobs per capita in the last 15 years.”
As for education, Pennington pointed out that the Georgia Governor promised that more kids would be able to go to college, but that hasn’t happened. “The Hope Scholarship was eaten up by administrative capital, and those who it was designed to go to aren’t getting it.”
Nationwide, Pennington sees problems. “We’re losing our freedoms,” he told the students, faculty and other locals. “We’ve gone from first to 11th in political freedoms since 2000, and from second to 16th in economic freedoms. We need someone like Ronald Reagan, who knew how to lead. People followed him, even the Democratic Congress did at times.”
Is there something non-politicians can do? “What we need is a ‘snap back’ generation that will help us overcome these problems, and bring us back,” Pennington concluded. “I hope this generation can do that, because they’re going to have to lead when I retire.”
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.