What My First Job Taught Me

by Gerri Willis

I didn't start out wanting to be a business reporter or a commentator on personal finance. Not by a long shot - I wanted to cover politics. And, like a lot of grads today - I hit the job market at a terrible time. A deep recession hit this country in the early 1980s, and in 1981, I was happy to even land a job.

I went to work for a small daily newspaper called The Lima News in Lima, Ohio, which at the time had a population of about 50,000 and a Ford plant. My beat was City Hall - I spent endless hours covering City Hall meetings. I was happy as a clam. But then a funny thing happened.

The local Ford plant began laying off people lots of people. And the layoff packages back then, well, they weren't as good as they are now. After several months, folks started forming informal bartering arrangements, trading toilet paper for light bulbs. The effects began to ripple: Other businesses that were reliant on Ford employee spending had to lay off people as well.

It was horrible to watch. I wrote stories about how people were coping with the situation. And about how the mayor and the city council of that town tried to resurrect their economy -- and lure new business. They set up special economic development zones and romanced scores of corporations. But nothing really worked.

And so, at a fairly young age I learned something fundamentally important: that the private sector - business, not government - had the real power to make a difference in people's lives - to send the kids to school with a full lunch pail - to put food on the table - to provide.

I don't think a lot of Americans have that confidence in companies and the private sector right now - and that's what I worry about.

They think the government can fill the gap ... and it can't.

The government doesn't have the money or the know how to create wealth - it can only disperse other people's money. Today, a lot of people believe that the private sector - companies and businesses - are the problem - that they monopolize the money.

More than three-quarters of people surveyed in a WSJ poll said the nation's economic structure is out of balance and favors the rich over the rest of the country.

For that reason, we need to painstakingly rebuild our faith in the power of the country's private sector. Because it's companies that will hire the jobless, companies that will expand payrolls, and companies that will seed the growth of this economy.

Today Lima is in better shape. It's diversified its economy and grown. It's doing better. And, the rest of us can, too.