John McManus Photo: Katherine Lambert

Dalton, Ga., is known as the “Carpet Capital of the World,” home to 150-plus mills, plants, and 100 carpet outlet stores, and is the birthplace of Marla Maples.

Mohawk and Shaw Industries are among the biggest names in floor covering with headquarter operations there. When times are right, the industry employs about 30,000 people in Georgia's Whitfield and Murray counties.

But times aren't right. In the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) unemployment data for metro areas released in mid-September, Dalton stands out ... in a bad way.

In the 12 months since July 2008, Dalton's rising tide of unemployed swelled by 3,500 workers. Its percentage of unemployed is an eye-catching 13.2 percent, which is well above Georgia's 10.4 percent, which itself is higher than the national average of 9.7 percent unemployment.

In January, Dalton's The Daily Citizen reported: “North Georgia is reeling from the slumping floor covering industry. The housing market, which has slowed significantly in both new construction and existing sales, has also hurt floor covering sales. Although the cost of oil has dropped recently, high raw material costs are affecting companies. Those combined factors have led to job losses and cuts in workers' hours.”

Some estimate that for every new home built, it takes 276 jobs in businesses ranging from carpets and carpenters to copper manufacturing and tree nursery workers. Plus, word is that for every $1 spent on direct costs of a new home, an additional $7 goes into the economy on consumer and commercial spending. The BLS notes that the economy has shed 7.4 million jobs since the start of the recession—1.4 million of them in “construction,” many more of them in “construction-related” manufacturing and services.

In early September—as members of both houses of Congress returned from a late-summer recess to address some of the most profoundly transformative policy issues the nation has faced since the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War—Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson puts it more bluntly than The Daily Citizen.

“The carpet mills are basically shut down,” says Isakson as he calls to mind a lurid example of the collateral damage perpetrated by a housing crisis that's rounding the bend into its third painful year.

“No other industry has so many businesses built on top of it as housing does,” says the 64-year-old freshman senator, who was for decades prior a residential real estate maven in the Atlanta area. Isakson since spring 2008 has pursued legislation that would extend buyers of all incomes a $15,000 tax credit on the purchase of any primary residence, a program that would run 12 months from its start. “We're 20-some months into the worst housing economy we've had in our lifetimes,” he says. “That's how long I've been working on this legislation, and I just don't think we're going to come out of the broader downturn without housing getting fixed.”

His most recent play came in July, as Congress put its finishing touches on the Cash for Clunkers stimulus program.

“We reintroduced the bill as an amendment to the Car Allowance Rebate System legislation, and it won support from both Senate Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and chairman of the Budget Committee Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), and that was an achievement,” says Isakson. The amendment didn't get enough support to go with the clunkers program, so it's back to the grind, operating face-to-face with his Capitol Hill colleagues out of his first-floor digs in the Russell Building there.

“They know when they see me on the second floor what I'm coming to talk to them about,” he says, unabashedly. “This issue links to all of the economic and social issues on our agenda right now.”