Concepts, Real Life & the Working Class

Man, it’s hard thinking and talking about social class in these United States.  Most of the time since President Obama was elected, there’s nobody out there but “the rich” and “the middle class,” as if both the working class and poverty have been eliminated.  Then along comes a political election, and all of a sudden the mainstream media starts talking about a “working class” that turns out to be all white, all male, and uniformly good at bowling!

A recent spurt of this usage is particularly confusing as it casts Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum as “a working-class hero.”  Santorum, a lawyer who now makes about a million dollars a year, grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb the son of a clinical psychologist and an administrative nurse.  His “working-class roots” derive from one of his grandfathers having been a miner and from Santorum’s having driven past steel mills as a teenager.  Santorum had a 15% AFL-CIO voting record when he was a Senator, and according to the Washington Post, he now earns his living “as a consultant for groups advocating and lobbying for industry interests . . . [including] $142,500 to help advise a Pennsylvania natural gas firm, Consol Energy.”  Nobody mentions his bowling average, but otherwise newspaper articles with titles like “Santorum fits working class bill” (David Brooks in the New York Times) and “Like Rocky Balboa, Rick Santorum is a working class hero” exhibit a broader pattern of class talk among the punditry.

As a Working-Class Studies studier, I am generally grateful for any reference to the existence of a working class in the U.S., and I am on record as arguing that Working-Class Studies does not need a single, univocal definition of the class in order to study it.  I have been sympathetic with the progressive Democratic focus on “white working class” voters since it was first articulated by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers in their 2000 book America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, and I have followed the definitional debate between identifying the working class by education (those without a bachelor’s degree) or by income (those in the bottom third of the income distribution) over the past decade.  The overall result of this debate has been positive, in my judgment, both in blowing up a conception of the electorate that mistakenly saw college-educated voters as a huge majority and in pushing Democrats in a substantially more progressive economic direction in their policies and political appeals.  I also think that Teixeira’s continued cold-eyed social-scientific probing of voter demographics along these lines continues to be both insightful and practically fruitful in informing Democratic Party operatives and politicians.

But the public media discussion of working-classness has so consistently stereotyped and psychologized a resentful, culturally confused, and politically volatile blue-collar white guy that at this point public discussion of white working-class voters not only does more harm than good.  It bewitches any chance we might have of understanding class dynamics in the arena of electoral politics.

First, and most importantly, the term “working class” is often used, as in the headlines above, without the “white” modifier, leading journalists and pundits to sometimes report faulty voting statistics and, worse, to identify working-classness with whiteness.  Many statements are made and facts reported that clearly apply only to the white part of the working class, but without specifying that.  Seldom is it reported that the working class as defined by those without a bachelor’s degree (regardless of race) were a 56% majority of the presidential electorate in 2008, and they gave Obama a 53/46% majority.  So when it is said, as it often is, that Obama has “trouble relating to working-class voters,” someone should ask why they gave him a majority of their votes in 2008.

Likewise, the “working class” is routinely (not always, but often) simply assumed to be all male.  As Michael Zweig points out in his new edition of The Working-Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (p. 32), a majority of working-class jobs are now held by women.  Zweig is using a different definition of the working class than the one used for electoral politics (though there is a large overlap), but by any definition, women are either half or nearly half of the working-class, and the largest-growth occupations in the U.S. include low-wage cleaning, cooking, and caring jobs where women still overwhelmingly predominate.

Finally, even when pundits keep a consistent focus on working-class white men and why they vote so strongly Republican in presidential elections (as do middle-class white men, by the way), they often create social-psychological profiles of these voters as if they were all the same.  Sometimes these profiles resonate with a part of working-class reality as I have experienced it, but more often they are middle-class projections based on the pundit’s own political orientation and all-too-often on a TV sitcom character from more than three decades ago.  As I pointed out in my previous blog, “The Diversity of the White Working Class,” working-class whites vote quite differently from state to state.  But even within the same state and within the same neighborhood and family, it is useful to remember how wildly diverse white working-class voters are.

A couple weeks ago my extended family got together not too far from where Rick Santorum grew up in western Pennsylvania.  About 100 people from five generations were present, and we didn’t talk about politics much.  But if I were to survey this all white and predominately working-class gathering, it would be pretty complicated and politically diverse.  The largest group, across the generations, would either be completely apolitical or Republican, but there are some union and nonunion Democrats as well.  Most do not strongly identify with either political party and try to make up their minds based on the candidates and the circumstances in a given election – that is, they are swing voters who will pay attention once election season arrives, and not before.  Among those who don’t care and don’t vote, some feel guilty about that because they think they should care while others defend themselves with “they’re all crooks anyway.”  Among younger people, there are union members who are antagonistic toward their unions, and nonunion workers (and managers) who very much would like to have a union; both groups are open to Democrats because they associate them with unions, but can’t see how it makes much difference one way or the other.  There are stereotypical GOP hunters and people of faith, but there are also hunters who vote consistently Democratic, and those who are contemptuous of religion but vote consistently Republican.

It makes my head spin to try and think about the politics of my extended family, partly because it is among the least interesting aspects of people I know and love.  But my point is not that any particular set of political categories is reductive or too simple.   All concepts are reductive and simple, and in fact, that’s what’s valuable about them.  The test is whether they help us get a productive handle on the overwhelming complexity of social reality.  The problem is when we mistake the concepts’ ability to insightfully organize that complexity for the reality itself.  In the mainstream media and in public discourse more generally, I fear the concept of “the white working class” has now reached that delusional state.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Working-Class Studies

Icons of the Rich and Famous

Most agree that Newt Gingrich’s win over Mitt Romney in South Carolina had to do with what the pundits are calling “unforced errors” on Romney’s part—a series of gaffs, blunders, and obfuscations relating to Romney’s wealth, his unreleased tax returns, the fortune he amassed at Bain Capital (as well as how he amassed it), and his offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. While in 2008 comedians compared Romney to the Muppet Guy Smiley, in 2012 Romney is looking more like a cartoon cut out of the corporate stereotype—the top-hatted villain in countless American political cartoons of the last 100 years.

While Gingrich is more of a hard scrabble upstart when it comes to his family story, he certainly belongs to the inner circle of the super rich today. And if you have been following Rachel Maddow’s coverage of Gingrich, you know that she has successfully argued that he is little better than a scam artist, using his run for president to sell books written by himself and his wife Calista and using his consulting firms as tax write-offs, for example. But whatever Gingrich’s millions or his ethical problems,  he has been able to paint Romney—with Romney’s considerable assistance—as the only nervous, goofy, out-of-touch super rich guy in the race.

As the Republican primary continues on its strange course, I am convinced that Occupy Wall Street deserves a great deal of credit for our ability to see Romney as a purveyor of “vulture capitalism.” While the idea of the 1% wasn’t even on the radar during the Iowa Straw Poll in August, since then the Occupy movement has shifted the conversation, and the blame for our current economic crisis, to the wealthy.  Even now that the Occupy movement has been forced into hibernation for the winter, it has resurrected the grammar of the iconic rich dude in all of his manifestations—a visual grammar with a rich and complicated history.  That image of the 1% has been applied most effectively in this campaign season to Romney. We’ve seen this hundreds of times, in articles and blog posts, and perhaps most iconically in this disturbing photo taken when Romney was the head of Bain Capital.

Given the pervasive use of the super rich caricature, I thought it might be useful to take a look at its cultural history. One of the oldest negative 20th century stereotypes of the rich is the fat cat. The term in its current usage, as an insult for wealthy businessmen, was first coined by Frank Kent writing for H.L. Menken in The American Mercury. By the 1930s the term was used to insult specifically those wealthy businessmen who bankrolled politicians. The fat cat in political cartoons is usually represented as an obscenely fat orange tabby cat standing on two legs. He is always masculine, humanoid, and he towers over everyone else in the image—all the while wearing a dark suit, a cigar, and a sneer. In recent years the fat cat has been used by political cartoonists and activists in the US and around the world. Wisconsin-based cartoonist Mike Konopacki has a nice fat cat, and here’s a larger-than-life inflatable fat cat strangling a worker at a protest in front the World Bank. The fat cat is not to be confused with the black cat, an image used by Progressive Era IWW cartoonists to symbolize worker sabotage and resistance which has been making a comeback by way of Occupy Wall Street.

The robber baron is a close cousin of the fat cat. He is always male, top-hatted, holding a cigar, usually fat, and often very tall in scale compared to other figures in the image. The modern day iconography dates back to the 1870s era cartoons of Thomas Nast, poking fun at Andrew Carnegie and Jay Rockefeller, but the term is much older. According to Wikipedia the term dates back to Germany in the Middle Ages, when powerful Catholic bishops were allowed to collect tolls from passing ships on the Rhine river, sometimes stringing iron chains across the river. At times they overstepped their boundaries, and were perceived as “robbing” more than their fair share of tolls.

The Monopoly Man got his start as “Milburn Pennybags,” the capitalist icon of the best selling Parker Brothers Monopoly game in the 1930s. Mr. Pennybags is in considerably better shape than his fat cat/robber baron brethren. He is trim, agile, and more benignly comic. Like them, he does wear a top hat and a tux coat, but he usually holds a cane and has a monocle. In recent years Milburn Pennybags has become a counter-revolutionary icon, especially in the hands of LA street artist “Alec.” The New Yorker seemed to be channeling a rioting horde of Milburn Pennybag-types with its cover mocking the 1% last Fall. According to internet rumors, Mitt Romney always chooses to be the top hat when he plays Monopoly.

When it comes to animated comic images of the super rich, we have many figures to choose from, including Scrooge McDuck, Mr. Magoo, and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. But one of more unusual icons is that of the child millionaire Richie Rich. He was born out of the comic series “Little Dot” in 1953, and, according to Wikipedia, he was Harvey Comic’s most popular character for much of the 1960s and 1970s. Richie Rich is usually dressed in blue short pants, an Eton collar, and a large red bow. Unlike his adult counterparts Richie Rich likes to give away his millions. He was turned into an animated television cartoon in the 1980s, and a live action film starring McCauly Caulkin in 1994. In 2011 Ape Entertainment re-licensed Richie Rich, making him into a globe-trotting do-gooder.

There are almost no animated icons of the super rich in feminine form, except perhaps Cruella De Vil. She was created in 1956 by British novelists Dodie Smith (the daughter of a bank manager) whose novel about Dalmations was adapted by Disney in 1961. In the original story Cruella was a London heiress with a 6 million pound fortune (or 1 billion dollars today, according to Forbes Magazine). As a school girl she was expelled for drinking ink. It has been argued that some of De Vil’s extravagances were based on those of the actress Tallulah Bankhead. In the original story, she is married to a furrier who comes off as a hen-pecked husband, but in the Disney version she is definitely a single lady. Her name can be easily parsed. Cruella stands for “cruel,” and “De Vil” is “devil.” She is something of a fashion icon, copied recently by Lady Gaga, and for some inexplicable reason there is a facebook page called “people who think that Nancy Pelosi looks like Cruella De Vil.”

There are many more icons of the rich, of course, and some personal favorites include Thurston Howell, III from Gilligan’s Island, Bruce Wayne (Batman), Willy Wonka and Jed Clampett. But I was surprised to see that the idea of the filthy rich fictional character has become so embedded in our culture that for the last ten years Forbes Magazine has been tracking the fortunes of the 15 wealthiest rich icons. Daddy Warbucks, Santa Claus, Laura Croft, and Jabba the Hut have all appeared on this tongue-in-cheek list.

All this leaves me with more questions than answers. On the one hand I believe that attention must be paid to these burlesques of the super rich, if only to acknowledge that Americans have a penchant for ridiculing both the higher and lower orders in our comedic traditions. It is not just the blue collar bus driver (Ralph Kramden), or the nuclear plant worker (Homer Simpson) that is the butt of the joke in American culture. But for all the laughs we might have at the expense of the super rich, how is that they still have so much power? Is the comedic icon a mere distraction, like everything else in our culture, drawing our attention away from the streets and the voting booth? Or can the representation of the banker as ogre have genuine political impact on the American electorate? If Newt Gingrich becomes the nominee, will his status as a secret member of the “Van Dough” family finally be revealed?

What is your favorite icon of the rich and famous? And what do you think it means?

Kathy M. Newman

The Class Politics of Mass Incarceration

Across the United States today, communities are commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  While many of those observations recount the history of King’s inspiration and leadership in the civil rights movement, many will – like the one here in Youngstown – urge us to be inspired by King’s legacy to fight the continuing problems of poverty and inequality.  Some of that discussion will focus on race, but much of it will, rightly, recognize that race and class often work together.

I spent many hours thinking about that confluence this past summer and fall, as part of a community book group reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The strongest theme in our discussions was the persistence of racism.  Across different races, ages, professional backgrounds, and personal histories, we shared a deep frustration that decades of conversation, activism, policy-making, and education had not eradicated racism.  Instead, we agreed, as Alexander argues, it had become more indirect and therefore even harder to fight.

Alexander traces how the war on drugs established and legalized discriminatory practices that have permanently disenfranchised and economically marginalized tens of thousands of African-Americans, mostly men. According to Alexander, more black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850.  They are targeted, mistreated by the “justice” system, sent to jail in disproportionate numbers, and legally discriminated against when they are released. She explains that it’s now practically impossible to appeal or challenge this discrimination, because the standard of proof is intentional, conscious behavior, and in a world where we’ve all learned that colorblindness is the ideal, most people are convinced that they are not racist.

Her critique of the war on drugs and the mass incarceration of black men is convincing in itself, and the book is well worth reading.  (For a quick take, you can listen to my interview with Alexander on Lincoln Avenue). But as someone who studies social class, I’ve also been thinking about why the problems Alexander lays out are issues of economic justice as well as racial justice.

Both Alexander and Heather Ann Thompson, a historian who has been studying mass incarceration through the lens of the Attica uprising, point out that the war on drugs took aim at African Americans because Republicans were trying to garner support from southern white Democrats, including many in the working class.  Going back as far as the Nixon administration, but especially under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, conservatives used racial imagery to foster a culture of fear and blame, defining African-Americans as criminals (think Willie Horton) and setting more stringent sentencing guidelines for crack than for powder cocaine. As both Alexander and Thompson point out, urban areas and especially African Americans were targeted in the war on drugs even though clear evidence showed that they were not the ones most involved in drug trafficking. Sadly, this strategy worked politically in part because it tapped into the same white working-class racial resentments that Nixon had successfully leveraged in his presidential campaigns.

Though some white working-class voters thought they were protecting their interests by supporting the war on drugs, the effect was quite the opposite.  Thompson argues that the mass incarceration of blacks contributed to the decline of the labor movement over the past four decades.  She writes, “prisons have long been some of the most exploitative workplaces in America, and thus, the fate of American workers and the history of the American justice system are inexorably linked.” As incarceration rates rose, regulations limiting the use of prison labor were overturned in many states, allowing companies to hire prisoners for far less the minimum wage.  So not only were prisoners exploited as workers, but jobs that might have yielded something close to a living wage in the community were moved into prisons.  As Thompson claims, “There was clear evidence that free-world wages had been cut and jobs had been eliminated as a result of prison labor.”

The expansion of prisons did create some jobs, especially for white workers in the largely rural areas where the new prisons were built.  Of course, those jobs were usually not unionized, nor did they pay well.  In Youngstown, the escape of six prisoners from a medium-security Corrections Corporation of America prison on the edge of the city was tied, in part, to the low wages paid to guards, who were easily bribed to look the other way as a hole was cut in the fence.  When guards at that prison organized a union, CCA temporarily shut it down.  Certainly, the Youngstown story shows that the prison economy does not, in the long run, yield significant numbers of good jobs.

Of course, mass incarceration has the most direct, dramatic impact on economic conditions in African-American working-class communities. Blacks have the highest poverty rates in the U.S. – 27.4%, compared with 9.9% for whites, according to 2010 data from the Institute for Research on Poverty. High rates of imprisonment among African-American men, often for relatively minor offenses that would yield little or no prison time for whites, don’t just undercut household economies while someone is in prison.  Being convicted of a felony creates long-term economic marginalization. Once labeled as a felon, an individual’s chances for employment of any kind are severely limited.  Nor do most ex-convicts qualify for any form of public assistance, and in many cases, they cannot even return to their families, because public housing bans residents with criminal records. Alexander notes that with so few economic options, becoming more involved in the drug trade becomes the only reasonable option for many ex-convicts – an option that makes them vulnerable to a return to prison or a violent death.

As many in working-class studies have argued, though, class is not only a matter of economics.  The working class has historically developed and relied upon strong communal ties that help individuals and families get through hard times and that create the conditions for collective action for social and economic change.  Perhaps the most moving part of Alexander’s book is her discussion of how individuals, families, and communities struggle to deal with the shame of imprisonment.  Families don’t speak openly about their relatives who are in prison, she writes, and those who have been in jail often break ties with old friends and relatives. Alexander writes that the stigma associated with criminality “has turned the black community against itself, destroyed networks of mutual support, and created a silence about the new caste system among many of the people most affected by it.”

Alexander closes The New Jim Crow with a call to action: we need a new civil rights movement, she writes, bringing together people of all races and classes, who will fight against mass incarceration on the basis of human rights and justice.  Such a movement will not succeed, she argues, if it involves only African Americans, nor can it succeed if whites and others are encouraged to participate solely on the basis of their self-interest.  Just as with the marches and voter registration drives across the South in the 1950s and 60s, the efforts we commemorate with this week’s MLK holiday, people of conscience must come together to fight injustice simply because it’s wrong.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Industrial Heritage and the Value of Working-Class Memory

A year or so ago, I was helping one of my sociology students get started on an essay.  She wanted to write, she said, “something on coalmining communities.” I suggested she narrow the topic, since coal mining was, until relatively recently, a widespread industry in the UK. She responded by suggesting that she could look at “Somewhere up north, where all the coalmines were.” Though she was Kent born and bred, she was taken aback when I told her that until the 1980s, there had been a thriving coal industry in Kent that had once employed thousands of men.

I thought about that conversation recently at a meeting at the pithead of the long defunct Snowdown Colliery, between Canterbury and Dover in East Kent. I met with a varied set of people interested in saving what remains of the pithead buildings – including the local MP and councillor, a representative of the historic buildings trust, and three former miners. The site offers the last remaining above ground evidence that there was ever a Kent coalfield. When coal extraction was ended in the mid-1980s, the winding gear was destroyed but many of the ancillary buildings were left intact. The passage of time has not been kind to them; saplings have sprung up across the site, birds nest in exposed rafters and brambles, and ivy cling to the walls. However, the plan is to purchase them from the coal authority and create a mixed use development, which would, in part at least, memorialisethe local coal industry.

Industrial heritage projects like this can be controversial; for some they represent ‘smokestack nostalgia’ or even ‘ruin porn’ – the uncritical celebration of traditional industries while ignoring their numerous negative legacies.  During the 1980s, some on the left in the UK lined up to attack the growth of the heritage industry, a Disneyfied version of the nation’s material past.  They argued that  the sentimental, conservative, and largely uncritical preservation of the built environment glossed over more critical aspects of history, including evidence of working-class life.

Lately, this concern has lighted on the contemporary publishing trend of coffee table books that offer beautiful images of on industrial ruins. Shelves in the fine art sections of certain bookshops groan beneath the weight of this deindustrial aesthetic.  While critics don’t always say so, I think the objection is, at least in part, to the absence of labor both substantively and rhetorically in the text. These books celebrate beauty in decay and the grandeur of decline, but most mention little or nothing of the people who once toiled in the buildings or their fate since closure.

When the group was assembled at Snowdown colliery, we set off for a quick tour of the site. The various buildings were pointed out, their original purpose explained, and their projected use outlined. After a time the discussion turned to a rather involved debate about the legal issues which beset the ownership of the site and might still scupper plans for its restoration. As the discussion extended and became more specialised, I felt a tug at my sleeve as George, one of the former miners present, invited me for his own tour of the site.  We walked around the pithead and talked about the mine in its heyday, and about the village and community it had supported. This mine, along with much of the Kent coalfield, had been populated by miners looking for work who travelled down from the north of England after the Great War in 1918. He talked about the way these incomers had been distrusted by the local population and the way that legacy still persists at times, including in the way  the Kent coalfield dialect still carries traces of northern influences, reflecting the relative isolation of coalminers in this area.

As we walked among the decaying buildings, we reflected not so much upon the architecture, impressive though that was, but on the skill of the craftsmen who had rendered material the architect’s plans — a pediment here, a perfectly executed circle of brick there. Towards the end of our informal tour, I asked George why he wanted to see the buildings saved.  It was, he said, because so many of his friends and family members had worked there, been injured or killed in the pit, “good men” he said. He wanted something physical left to invite people to pause and think about one aspect of Kent’s industrial past and the part played by working-class people.  When I told George about my former student, he laughed and agreed this generational amnesia was common even in his own village where children and young adults, who in former times would have themselves made their way into colliery employment, were now almost entirely ignorant of the purpose of the site’s buildings.

This, then, is the real the value of our industrial past. Former factories and other buildings cannot all be saved of course, but some should, and historical sites should include the stories of labor – both in the sense of the work itself and the trade union movement — and of working-class people. Without physical reminders of previous ways of living and being in the world, our ability to read the past is impoverished. Their mere existence elicits memory and debate. Importantly, such remembrance is not simply nostalgic. Rather, I believe, it reflects a more complex desire for recognition for working-class life, the acknowledgement that something important went on here that others should know about now and in the future. The desire to preserve industrial heritage sites does not idealise the past — the deaths and injuries George spoke of surely negate that. Rather,  it speaks to a simple desire for dignity. George and his former workmates became involved in the preservation project due to a sense of debt they feel towards their work and comrades. They seem to feel  a moral responsibility, a custodianship for their industry, even though it is long deceased.

Kent is a county that has seen more than its share of industrial loss. However, traces of this legacy are often difficult to find. The County is known as the ‘Garden of England’ a phrase that highlights the agricultural landscape but masks the once extensive industrial and manufacturing aspect of the region including chemicals, gunpowder production, paper-making, ship and submarine construction, and electrical engineering. This history is sometimes marked, a plaque here or possibly a heritage trail there, but it is all too easy to lose the bigger picture of the rich and vibrant working-class cultures and communities that were created as a by-product of industrialisation. That is why projects like Snowdown should matter to us.

Tim Strangleman

Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods

A Dispatch from the Poorest City in America

Back in November, the Brookings Institution reported that Youngstown has the highest rates of concentrated poverty of any city in the U.S. The report shocked some city officials and local boosters who had been promoting an exaggerated story of Youngstown’s “renaissance” over the last seven years.

They had long bragged about the Youngstown 2010 Plan, which argued that Youngstown could thrive as a smaller city.  The plan called for rezoning, neighborhood stabilization, making the city more attractive to business, and downtown redevelopment.  It drew positive national attention to a community that has been an icon of urban decay ever since the steel mills began closing in the late 70s.  In 2005, the Ohio chapter of the American Planning Association awarded Youngstown its outstanding community planning award. In December 2006, the New York Times Magazine listed the 2010 Plan as one of the 74 best ideas in America in the 6th Annual Year in Ideas awards, and the American Planning Association gave it an Excellence Award for Public Outreach in 2007.

Youngstown has succeeded in revitalizing its downtown and becoming more attractive to business – so much so that it has been named one of the best cities in the country to start a business. The city has been profiled in Inc., Entrepreneur, and the Wall Street Journal. The Youngstown Business Incubator has generated a modest number of high-tech jobs downtown, new restaurants and shops have opened, and several developers are renovating old office buildings into apartments.

But despite these signs of progress and growth, we were troubled by the response of city leaders to the Brookings report.  The director of Youngstown’s Community Development Agency said he was “stunned” by the report and found it “hard to believe we’d be classified as the poorest in the nation.”

Perhaps he needs to get out of downtown.  As the Brookings Institution’s report makes clear, the situation in Youngstown’s neighborhoods looks nothing like what’s happening downtown.  According to Brookings, 49.7% of Youngstown residents live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of at least 40%.  The Ohio Department of Development reports that 32.1% of Youngstown residents live in poverty, and between 1999 and 2009, the poverty rate for the broader metro area increased from 12.5% to 16.7%.

Given the effects of the Great Recession, the rate of poverty here is almost certainly even higher today.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the area lost 20,000 jobs between 2007 and 2010.  In other words, the Mahoning Valley lost as many jobs in that period as in any three years during the late 70s and early 80s as the mills were closing.  Worse, 20,000 jobs today represent a larger proportion of the area’s workforce, which has shrunk over the past three decades.

The Brookings Institution report came as no surprise to most Youngstown residents, who see every day how little has been done to alleviate unemployment and ongoing social problems, evident in high rates of crime, poverty, housing vacancy, and blight.  While the city, with aid from the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce and state economic development funds, has attracted new businesses to downtown and cut a deal with a French corporation to expand one of the remaining local steel mills, it has done little to address the problems in the city’s neighborhoods.  Demolition of abandoned property has increased, although at a rate that struggles to keep up with new vacancies resulting from the recession and foreclosure crisis. The city also working on a new zoning plan, but the bulk of the work of neighborhood development has fallen to volunteers and community organizations.  They have been increasingly vocal in their frustrations with what many see as the city’s inertia when it comes to developing neighborhoods other than downtown.

A major local foundation helped establish two thriving non-profit groups, one focused on community organizing and political activism and another on economic development in the city’s neighborhoods.  Energetic, committed organizers from the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative have helped develop more than a dozen new neighborhood associations, and those groups have funneled their energies into issues such as access to healthy food, the quality of housing, human trafficking, voter registration, and other political issues that resonate both locally and nationally.  The MVOC played a key role in founding a statewide group, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which is starting to leverage neighborhood-level work across the state into effective political action.

The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation takes a different approach, focusing its attention on economic issues in targeted neighborhoods.  Working with the neighborhood association in one of the city’s struggling areas, the YNDC developed an urban farm, invested in improving housing stock, mobilized an array of residents and volunteers in a range of community projects, and rehabilitated homes that are then marketed to low-income residents through an affordable housing program.

These efforts are inspiring, but while they are improving the quality of life in Youngstown’s neighborhoods and empowering residents to take action on their own behalf, they do not address the root problem: the lack of good jobs in the city.  That presents a challenge to city government and the regional chamber.  They need to focus their energies on creating jobs in the city, jobs that suit a population with relatively low levels of education, are accessible via public transportation, and pay a living wage. Most of the new jobs in the Valley are being created on the edge of the metropolitan area, in places that city residents can’t get to without reliable private transportation – one of the resources many lack.

Of course, job creation never comes easy. Industries that promise hundreds of new jobs too often either don’t deliver or bring new problems.  Both seem to be playing out in the latest economic development “opportunity” in the Mahoning Valley: hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of the  Marcellus shale.  While the shale industry has already brought some jobs to the area, it also seems to have brought real problems.  On New Year’s Eve, Youngstown experienced a 4.0 magnitude earthquake that seems to be related to a wastewater injection well, and experts are divided on whether fracking threatens the safety of local water.  15 years ago, Youngstown leaders claimed that private prisons would be the answer to the city’s economic woes, but the Corrections Corporation of America created relatively few jobs and a number of local problems, including deepening the city’s image as a crime center.  We hope that local and state officials will be more cautious about fracking.

The Mahoning Valley needs a broad, diversified approach to economic development and serious efforts to strengthen the city’s neighborhoods. Without secure, well-paid jobs, without stable neighborhoods, and in the absence of any political vision to address these issues, urban redevelopment can never truly succeed.

John Russo,  Center for Working-Class Studies

James Rhodes, University of Manchester