HAGERSTOWN, Md. — With its blue-collar jobs vaporizing by the day, this once proud city of airplane builders, pipe organ laborers and ice cream makers has been wrestling unsuccessfully with stubborn and still-high unemployment.
Now it's confronting one of the side effects: Soaring obesity.
A subject long ignored by policymakers, and one that unemployment counselors are too sheepish to raise with job seekers, the link between bulging waistlines and joblessness is now of intense interest to researchers studying the long-term effects of the country's economic malaise.
Recent studies and surveys have shown a distinct relationship between unemployment and obesity, particularly for lower-skilled workers who struggle to find work - a search made more challenging by their weight.
In Hagerstown, where blue-collar jobs have gone overseas or to cheaper parts of the country, 8.4 percent are unemployed - well above Maryland's 5.9 percent rate. Last month, Gallup identified the area as the third-heaviest place in the United States, with almost 37 percent of its residents obese. Local studies put the number even higher.
Sitting outside a local job resource center and looking at his belly, Eric Steiner was a noticeable example of what public health researchers are worried about. His layoff from a dump truck driving job five years ago coincided with him gaining more than 50 pounds.
"You don't even feel like going outside to take a walk around the block," said Steiner, who hasn't worked a full week in more than a year. "You eat more junk food. You're so depressed you just want to put a gun to your head."
Around the country, high unemployment and high obesity rates are converging. In Texas, the McAllen area suffers from a 38 percent obesity rate and about 10 percent unemployment. In Washington state, Yakima struggles with an almost 36 percent obesity rate and more than 10 percent unemployment. In Toledo: 34 percent obesity, near 7 percent unemployment.