A part-time construction job sturdied Orva Fry’s financial foundation after he was laid off from a northern Indiana recreational vehicle factory. It also kept the 41-year-old Amish father of two on steady spiritual ground.
Another way to make ends meet that Fry briefly considered – unemployment checks – went against his faith, which shuns all forms of government assistance.
That Fry even pondered signing up for jobless benefits illustrates a marked shift in the Elkhart-Goshen metropolitan area – the nation’s third-largest Amish settlement – which is suffering steep unemployment following a decades-long shift from farming to factory work. Church and economic leaders say a growing number of the area’s 23,000 Amish are breaking with centuries of tradition and taking government help to stay afloat.
Fry chose not to take jobless benefits and was called back to work at the RV factory in March after working alongside his brother for three months repairing a fire-damaged home. But the community pressure to adhere to this tradition is easing amid the worst recession in decades.
Bishops who once might have censured those who sought public assistance are reluctantly looking the other way.
“We prefer to supply ourselves, but I told people that if they have no other option and no other way to make ends meet then they can take it,” said Paul Hochstetler, bishop of an Amish district east of Goshen.
The unemployment rate in the Elkhart-Goshen area approached 19 percent in March in large part due to the misfortune of recreational vehicle factories that have laid off thousands of workers. It was the country’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and up 13 points from March 2008, the largest increase in the United States.
The Amish’s refusal to take assistance such as unemployment and welfare is shared by like-minded Anabaptist traditions that grew out of 16th century German sects that sought to separate themselves from the world, said John Farina, an associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. That would include Hutterians, the Church of the Brethren and the Church of the United Brethren.
It’s part of a simpler way of life for the Amish, a Christian denomination with about 227,000 members nationwide that uses bicycles or horse-drawn buggies instead of owning cars and avoids hooking up to the electrical grid because of a belief that doing so will lead to a dependence on the outside world.
“We want to be producers, to be an overall good to the community and to the nation, and not be dependent upon the nation for our livelihood or for the federal or state governments to give us our livelihood,” said David Kline, an Amish minister from Mount Hope, Ohio, whose county hosts the nation’s largest Amish population.
For centuries, that has meant taking care of their own, supplying food, shelter and other necessities in times of need. Those who seek outside help can risk being forced to make public confessions in church or told to refrain from taking communion for six months, said Steven Nolt, a Goshen College history professor who has written several books on the Amish.
But tradition has had to bend as northern Indiana’s Amish continue to move away from their roots, becoming heavily reliant on a single industry.
A survey of 3,358 Amish heads of households living in Indiana’s Elkhart-LaGrange settlement in 2007 found that 53.3 percent earned their livings working in factories. In contrast, the economies of the nation’s largest Amish centers – the Holmes County area of Ohio and around Lancaster, Pa. – focus primarily on small shops, construction trades and, to a lesser extent, farming.
“When the RV industry shut down here as well as the mobile home industry, it hit them really hard,” said LeRoy Mast, director of the Menno-Hof, a not-for-profit information center in nearby Shipshewana that teaches visitors about the Amish and Mennonite.
“They can’t handle the 19-percent unemployment rate on their own because the needs are just so great.”
Hochstetler said it is impossible for his church district, where about half the 31 families had people employed in the RV industry, to make up the lost wages. The Amish who work in factories pay into the state unemployment system and are eligible to receive jobless benefits of $50 to $390 a week.
Even so, those benefits remain an uncomfortable subject. Of more than two dozen Amish approached recently in Topeka, a town of 1,100 about 40 miles southeast of South Bend, only six would talk, and all were reluctant to be identified.
But each spoke of tough times. A dairy farmer is struggling with declining milk prices and the rising cost of hay. A father of three who lost his RV factory job in December said he had accepted jobless benefits to provide for his children but hadn’t told anyone outside his family.
“This is a situation that’s very difficult for everyone involved,” Nolt said. “In a society that’s relied so much on tradition, there isn’t a precedent.”
Lester Chupp, 62, an Amish deacon in Nappanee, said those who need unemployment should take it. He did so several times while working in an RV factory for 24 years. He now owns a furniture and crafts shop, where business is down 40 percent.
“Most people say they’re tightening their belts. Well, we don’t use belts, so I guess we can say we’re tightening up our suspenders and rolling up our sleeves and going to work,” Chupp said.
Hochstetler and other Amish leaders hope the area’s joblessness ultimately leads more Amish to return to their roots, opening woodworking shops or raising chickens or livestock to make extra money.
“I think it’s helped that we have slowed down and are not spending so much time at work,” Hochstetler said.