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Indiana Amish Leaders Make Exceptions for Workers during Recession

By Kalyn Belsha in News on Apr 19, 2009 2:45PM

Known for their stark religious beliefs and refusal to use certain modern conveniences such as electricity, automobiles and insurance, the Amish population in Goshen, Ind. -- a town located 120 miles east of Chicago with population just under 32,000 -- might be making a few exceptions to get by during the recession.

The small town in northern Indiana has been hit hard by recent layoffs, with Amish factory workers hurting especially. While the Amish church usually does not encourage the use of government aid, church leaders are now permitting members to collect on unemployment benefits, if absolutely necessary. Because Amish workers have already paid into the system, leaders feel they can justify this decision.

"No one says go out and do it," Eli Miller, 72, an Amish bishop who also prepares income tax returns told the Tribune. "But when they have to feed their families, we thought it would be OK to accept some of it, even though we would rather not."

More than half of the Amish men in Goshen work in factories, a trend that catapulted over the last 20 years as increasing land prices and a growing population made it difficult to sustain the community by farming. Many of the men work assembling RVs: an industry that first took a hit with rising fuel costs, and is suffering in the credit crisis. Thor Industries Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of RVs, is closing three RV plants in Goshen and nearby Howe this month. Company revenues fell more than 50 percent in the second half of 2008.

The unemployment rate in the two counties where much of Indiana's Amish population is concentrated -- LaGrange and Elkhart -- came in at just under 19 percent for March, a full 10 percentage points higher than the national unemployment rate of 8.5 percent.