RALEIGH-DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA — In two small, unassuming offices here, Bob Robinson and Eric Buckland are quietly making heroic efforts to help the American middle class. But American capitalism — and the American government — serve them both poorly.
The two men, the small businesses they painstakingly nurture and the difficulties they encounter are on-the-ground examples of the broad economic challenges the United States faces. Their stories do not present easy answers. Instead, they put the lie to Republican and Democratic orthodoxies regarding economic growth.
Start with Robinson. He is the executive director of the Raleigh Business & Technology Center, a primarily government-funded effort to help the poor and middle-class residents of southeast Raleigh start small businesses. The center — and the neighborhood it calls home — shows how a high-tech boom that has made Raleigh-Durham the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the U.S. nonetheless misses large segments of the population.
Southeast Raleigh has an unemployment rate of roughly 14 percent, three times that of Chapel Hill and other nearby affluent communities. Many local residents lack the education and skill levels needed to obtain high-tech jobs. Instead of trying to launch Internet startups, Robinson helps local entrepreneurs open flower shops, auto repair garages and bakeries. Over the last two years, he has also trained and placed 30 people in construction jobs. His new goal is to train people for entry-level jobs at Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo.
“It’s not all about technology,” he said. “We need jobs immediately.”
Just down the street from Robinson’s center, the South Wilmington Street Center for the homeless is filled to capacity. Frank Lawrence, the shelter’s director, said a decline in the construction industry hit local lower-middle-class and poor households hardest. At the same time, residents of other cities have flocked here after hearing of Raleigh-Durham’s boom.