Driving the Rust Belt to Cleveland

Driving the Rust Belt to Cleveland

By Ken Reid.

On my drive from Leesburg to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I decided to stop in Youngstown, OH – perhaps the nation’s most salient example of the decline of our U.S. industrial base, which has become a central issue in this year’s presidential campaign. 

This community was once the home of thriving steel mills – 2nd after Pittsburgh in steel production.  But on Sept. 19 1977, a date still known here as “Black Monday,” the owners of the venerable Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. announced the furloughing of 5,000 workers and closure of its massive Campbell steel works.

By 1980, four other steel companies closed their plants, furloughing another 20,000 workers. 

Youngstown’s population plummeted from around 115,000 in 1980 to about 65,000 today.  Housing values dropped and today, one local museum operator told me about 500 abandoned homes are bulldozed yearly.  Organized crime, which had been dominant here in the good days, gained more of a toehold and one local congressman went to prison.  The current mayor  was charged with felony and misdemeanors related to his days as a county commissioner.   Downtown was desolate on my visit on a Saturday.  At least there is a thriving university, Youngstown State, plus government offices, and one steel mill.  But the abandoned buildings of Republic Steel, Sheet Tube and traces of U.S. Steel’s Ohio Works are still visible.   Vast pieces of land are lying fallow.

Indeed, foreign competition was only one reason steel making declined in Ohio and across the U.S.  Many of these companies failed to modernize their plants, plus demand for steel dropped.  Unions, OSHA and EPA regulations also played a part.

The cost to communities like Youngstown is significant.  Within a matter of years after the mills closed, the Mahoning Valley region saw a domino effect with other businesses closing.  Wikipedia said the valley lost an estimated 40,000 manufacturing jobs, 400 satellite businesses, $414 million in personal income, and from 33 to 75 percent of the school tax revenues. 

But reading through the local archives one sees that neither the Carter Administration nor Reagan Administration, nor local officials, could do much to keep these facilities open. In fact, the Carter Administration approved mergers of some of these mills, on grounds that if they went bankrupt, it would be worse.  Sounds a lot like the arguments about the GM and Chrysler bailouts.

In the 1980s, Democrats fought for “industrial policy” so the U.S. could link government with corporate interests, which they argued Japan was doing.  Republicans argued against government intervention and “picking winners and losers.”  As a result, nobody came to the rescue of communities like Youngstown.  Both political parties abandoned not only the industrial blue collar communities, but the poor minority populations in the inner cities too.

Is it any wonder today that millions of people are not in the workforce and we spend so much on disability and welfare programs?

In Cleveland, there is much heavy industry.  But according to a recent Pittsburgh Post Gazette article, the total number of people employed in metro Cleveland manufacturing has declined by nearly 50 percent in the last 26 years.  As much as I saw some nice neighborhoods and revived downtown, Cleveland ‘s poverty rate is the second most in the U.S.  Its population is 388,000 – not much bigger than Loudoun County.

Loudoun County residents are among the most generous around.  We not only give a lot to charity, but we raise money for charities and we volunteer.

But when we vote, I am not so sure many of us are thinking about the coal miners losing their jobs in Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and other states, or those in DC struggling to survive, or the loss of manufacturing jobs, which were once the staple of our economy and yielded high wages for millions of Americans.  By and large, people vote based on how their personal lives are affected.

A lot has to do with the media and the failure of members of Congress and several presidents to really see the gravity of losing our manufacturing base and seeing this nation become a net importer of almost every good imaginable.  So, is it any wonder that our focus is on what we see or hear in the news or on social media – gun rights, abortion rights, or the right of the unborn;  LGBT rights;  police shootings, Hillary’s emails and honesty.  Trump’s bluster and tone.

But I am pleased, thanks not just to Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, that the plight of blue collar folks and the urban poor are on the agenda.   After all, these are the folks who make our cars, our homes, and serve our meals at restaurants.  They work at Wal-Mart and Target, where we can buy so many cheap foreign goods;  they drive the trucks that deliver our food and other goods and their sons and daughters are often the first to go in to the military to defend us.

It would be my hope that more of us pay visits to some of these communities.  Visit their museums and look at the economic devastation.  Go to Bethlehem, PA, and see some 1 million square feet of office space, formerly occupied by Bethlehem Steel, just sitting there abandoned.  Visit coal country and see the unemployed and destitute.  Look at the abandoned buildings in Baltimore and DC.  Just drive through some time and show your kids, too.

Hopefully, we will get away from social media and TV to take these trips and perhaps if more of us do, we will not see more “Black Mondays” and the next president and Congress will work together to truly help all of us prosper again.

Ken Reid is a former Leesburg District Supervisor and Virginia alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, which runs July 18 to 21.