Closing K&W, Widening the Economic Divide

When North Carolina’s John Edwards ran for President in 2004 and 2008, he said there were two Americas: “one for all those people who have lived the American Dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else, who struggle to make ends meet every single day.”

Today, in the wake of Covid and economic collapse, the divide between the two Americas has grown even wider. Like when four K&W cafeterias across North Carolina closed their doors and their serving lines last month. 

For those of us who enjoyed eating at the venerable (since 1968) K&W in Raleigh’s Cameron Village – and the ones in Chapel Hill, Goldsboro and Salisbury that also closed – this is an inconvenience.

We tended to be an older crowd, creatures of habit. We met friends for lunch during the week. Many families ate there after church Sunday.

We’ll miss the place and the food. But we won’t starve. We’ve kept eating through the shutdown. Some of us even put on a few pounds. We’ll find other places to eat.

But what about the people who worked there?

They had become familiar faces and even friends over the years as they piled food on our plates, offered us breads and desserts, filled our drinks and checked us out. They took away our trays, refilled the drinks and wiped the tables clean.

Some of them appeared to have mild intellectual disabilities. It never affected their good cheer and splendid service.

Where are they now? Will they find other jobs? How will they pay their bills and afford their food?

When Covid hit, K&W’s business dropped 80%. The federal Paycheck Protection Program, apparently $5-10 million, kept the company going for a while – and kept 500 people in their jobs. 

But Congress hasn’t passed another economic relief package. House Democrats proposed a $3 trillion relief plan. But Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said, “Half the Republicans are going to vote no to any package. That’s just a fact.”

What did North Carolina legislators, some of whom frequented K&W, do to help? Our state has some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation; the maximum benefit now is $350 a week for up to 12 weeks.

The legislature last week increased unemployment benefits by $50, to $400 a week. 

By comparison, a Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial noted, “Last year members of the North Carolina General Assembly received an average $510 a week in per diem.” 

Gov. Roy Cooper had proposed raising the maximum to $500 and extending benefits to 24 weeks.

What do you think is fair for the folks who worked at K&W? 

Most of K&W’s regulars in Raleigh live in the America that’s doing OK. We can work from home. We can pay the mortgage, buy groceries and get takeout. Our 401k’s are doing well.

The other America would happily trade places with us. Those who are still going to work may be exposed to Covid – in a restaurant, a gym, a hospital, a nursing home or a factory. Many others no longer have a place to go to work.

I think about Tyler, who was always quick to refill my ice water at the K&W.  Will our America be as quick to help him?

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