The North American Free Trade Agreement marked its 20th birthday on Jan. 1 of this year, but there was no celebration in Robeson County, which continues to suffer from the landmark legislation.
In fact, round these parts, NAFTA, as the free-trade pact is better known, is a bit of a dirty word.
When the idea of a free-trade agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico was being floated in the early 1990s, there was plenty of hysteria of what such an agreement would do to fragile, single-dimension economies such as Robeson’s that depended so heavily on textiles. Those predictions, predictably, have proven accurate: Today NAFTA is blamed for the loss of more than 6,000 jobs in Robeson County, about 12 percent of our workforce, and only a shade more than 500 Robesonians continue to work in that industry.
The lost jobs were not, as is conveniently believed, low paying and poorly benefited. While they were essentially dead-end jobs, they provided, shelter, nourishment and comfort to tens of thousands of Robesonians, a disproportionate number of whom were women and of color, people who found other professions and industries less inviting.
Soon after NAFTA was enacted, the companies — Sara Lee, Alamac Knit Fabrics and Converse — began closing their plants in this county and setting up shop elsewhere, where they could enjoy the benefits of cheap labor while selling their goods in the United States without the worry of prohibitive tariffs.
All this was happening as the Clinton Administration was firing the first salvos in the War on Tobacco, an effort that continues today and has turned a $100 million cigar in Robeson County into a $20 million cigarette butt.
Robeson County continues to stagger from the one-two punch.
It will provide little solace locally, but NAFTA has been good for this country, as free trade generally is, creating more jobs than it has collapsed. Additionally, all Americans benefit from the cheaper goods that NAFTA provides, freeing up dollars that can be used for other things.
The benefits of fewer Americans smoking need no more words.
It was said as NAFTA was being debated, approved and then signed into law, that it would plunge Robeson County into a decades-long free-fall — and it has. Today this county is perhaps the poorest in North Carolina, and a third of our population — 40,000 people — depends on food stamps.
While we shoulder much of the blame, it is not ours alone. Our history of denying educational opportunities to two-thirds of our population is the worst kind of karma.
If there is good news, it’s hard to find, except that we are 20 years down a long road that was laid out in front of us on Jan. 1, 1994, when NAFTA took effect. This county will rise again when it better prepares the next generation for the jobs of the future, and we see that happening even it not to the highest degree.
Textiles jobs were always destined to be replaced by jobs that were more technical as this nation’s economy evolved. In Robeson County, however, we didn’t have the benefit of that happening on our own schedule.