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

Debating Economic Development: Downtown versus the Neighborhood

Last week, the Center for Working-Class Studies distributed a commentary on how proponents of economic development and local government leaders were ignoring the continuing struggles of Youngstown’s neighborhoods.  “A Renaissance for Whom? Youngstown and Its Neighborhoods” attempted to capture community discontent over the idea that developing downtown would, in and of itself, solve the city’s problems.

What’s happening in Youngstown will, we expect, sound familiar to readers from around the country. Widespread job loss affects not just individuals but also communities, and for deindustrialized areas, the latest economic wounds exacerbate old injuries.  The same can be said for the tension between promoting economic development and addressing the needs of working-class people in urban neighborhoods.

Between us, we have been studying Youngstown for well over a decade.  In preparing our analysis of the current situation, we attended dozens of community meetings and interviewed over 50 local residents and community organizers. We found that long term unemployment (see the CWCS’s discussion of the de facto unemployment rate), the loss of unemployment benefits and savings, the housing crisis, and the reductions in social services were devastating to the area’s already struggling neighborhoods. The Youngstown area has lost over 9000 jobs since the beginning of the ”Great Recession” and has 22,000 vacant parcels of land and another 4000 homes in delinquency or foreclosure.  Yet local leaders have largely ignored problems of unemployment and housing in working-class neighborhoods, choosing to accentuate the so-called “Youngstown Renaissance” that has brought new high-tech jobs and several new restaurants and clubs to downtown.  Yet many economic development staffers and most of those who have moved to the area to work in new downtown businesses live outside of the city.  No wonder they prefer to tout the transformation their work brings to downtown rather than the conditions of neighborhoods they prefer to avoid.

Over the past decade, Youngstown’s media image has changed, as reporters have praised Youngstown’s 2010 plan to adapt to its shrinking population and identified the city as a good place to start a new business.  New business and more efficient local government do contribute to the overall strength of the local economy.  We applaud efforts to bring new businesses to town or support new restaurants and activities downtown.  But in order to thrive, deindustrialized communities need good working-class jobs and neighborhoods, not just professional jobs and nice suburbs.

Unfortunately, Youngstown’s efforts to shrink wisely have been uneven, and city government has too often failed to address local problems effectively.  In response, local neighborhood associations are growing, taking on the roles usually played by city governments.  These neighborhood associations, many formed with assistance from the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, have become the de facto community planning agency.  No doubt, similar moves are happening in communities around the country, especially as the recession decimates state, county, and local budgets.

Organizing around the goals of stabilization and sustainability, neighborhood groups are tackling everything from forming block watches to studying home ownership, the amount and quality of rental property, and vacant housing.  Yet, they have limited economic power.

In our commentary, we made a point of suggesting some strategies for addressing the community’s problems.  For example, small businesses can help stabilize neighborhoods, but community banking and support has been minimal. Local banks and governments could do much more to foster local microeconomies.

The area might also benefit from more efficient, consolidated local governance.  The county’s population has dropped to the point that it is now smaller than many urban centers that have a single local government.  But it is also highly balkanized, and racial and class divides have made even discussion of consolidation impossible.    A few Joint Economic Development Districts (JEDDs) have been negotiated, but those efforts have been hard-fought, and most suburban communities in the Mahoning Valley reject that option, even though it’s been shown to work well in similar areas, such as nearby Akron.

What could happen in Youngstown and cities like it if not just city governments but also the creative, educated, technically sophisticated, and energetic young professionals who advocate for downtown development made neighborhood revitalization a priority?  What role do non-governmental institutions, like local universities, the media, and community groups, have to play?   Urban universities, like Youngstown State, should not just support research that could generate new businesses but must also pursue local community research involving urban blight, crime, and breaking down long-standing barriers of race and class. Local media should investigate neighborhood issues and serve as a watchdog for local development efforts.  Community groups must move beyond blockwatches and research to engage in community actions that hold economic and political leaders accountable.

The response to the article was somewhat predictable. Many called or sent us notes saying how much they appreciated the piece.  A few who generally agreed with the points expressed frustration that their own efforts were not acknowledged.  Some in local government and economic development organizations dismissed the piece.  Youngstown’s Mayor brushed it aside as the work of know-nothing “academics,” for example. This reluctance to engage with the broad arguments about neighborhood deterioration, racism, organizational inefficiency, crime, unemployment, vacancy, and high rates of concentrated poverty is disturbing. It suggests a refusal to recognize, never mind to address, the problems that continue to exist in Youngstown and America. Too many leaders are ignoring the decreasing access of most Americans to prosperity and the “American Dream.”

We see this most dramatically when critics dismiss policies aimed at ensuring equal opportunity and access to resources. The pattern played out in the health care debate and again as Congress delayed extending unemployment benefits.  It isn’t just that critics don’t seem to care what happens to poor and working-class people.  They define any effort to provide support for the have-nots as “socialism.”  So we shouldn’t have been surprised when a member of the Youngstown Office for Economic Development suggested that the idea that the city should force corner stores to carry fresh produce – something we did not advocate — was “Stalinist.”

The working class, and indeed much of the middle class, is erased and ignored every time someone claims that America is “recovering” from the current recession. Companies may be earning record profits, but millions remain unemployed, and the data consistently shows that the poor and working class have suffered most during the recession.

A healthy city demands that wealth, opportunity, and resources are shared as equitably as possible. While any “renaissance” of Youngstown is welcomed, such a rebirth must benefit the majority of people. Until we see declines in crime, poverty, and unemployment and increases in home ownership, education levels, and economic prosperity, then any talk of a renaissance is premature.  The same is true for the nation: until our leaders pay more attention to ordinary families than to the wealthy and privileged, until our economy creates not just profits for investors but also good jobs, until our neighborhoods thrive again, we haven’t recovered from the Great Recession.

John Russo is a professor of Labor Studies at Williamson College of Business Administration and codirector of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

James Rhodes is the Simon Research Fellow at Manchester University (UK) and visiting scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

Fighting for More Than the Past

Between September 2007 and April 2009, while Youngstown’s Kelly Pavlik reigned as the world middleweight boxing champion, journalists consistently presented him not only as being from Youngstown, but as reflecting its essence. Obviously, representing a diverse, multi-racial city through a white working-class male boxer excludes many of those who call Youngstown home. At the same time, these representations reveal not only a continuing media fascination with Youngstown but also troubling ideas about what it means to be working class today.

It’s not unusual for sports writers to attach a single narrative to a boxer.  Thirty years ago, they defined former world champion and Youngstown native Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini through the story of his effort to win a belt for his father, Lenny, who had failed to get a title shot after returning from World War II. As Pavlik rose through the ranks, the media latched onto a traditional rags to riches narrative. This story- not one of his own choosing- defined him as a fighter restoring pride in his ‘down and out’ hometown. Yet even as he’s been cast as representing a comeback for the city, Pavlik has been hailed as a ‘throwback,’ a nostalgic symbol of a previous order, where working-class men, not just fighters, were straightforward, uncomplicated, and tough. Much has been made of his ‘old-school’ training methods: swinging a sledgehammer and flipping truck tires. For the boxing press and for many in Youngstown, Pavlik spoke to the idea of an ‘authentic’ working class that reflected a ‘real America.’

Similarly, the fact that he was the son of a former steelworker, trained by a driveway sealer in an old pizza-parlor on Youngstown’s Southside made his a story about a ‘blue-collar’ guy from a ‘blue-collar place.’  Sportwriters often reserve the term ‘blue-collar” for white fighters in the United States. Prior to his world title victory over Jermain Taylor, Pavlik’s promoter Bob Arum described him as the ‘ultimate blue-collar warrior.’ Similarly, the local newspaper, the Vindicator declared that ‘Pavlik followers have blue-collar fever.’

Of course, Youngstown has long been identified as firmly blue-collar. Writing in Sports Illustrated in 2008, Richard Hoffer described how Youngstown, and industrial America, used to be:

It’s hard to picture the bustle now, but Wilson Avenue…was a row of rowdiness, bar upon bar, open for all but two hours each day, to better service three shifts of thirst. Imagine the scene: Workers from U.S. Steel, Republic, National, Inland disgorged at once, a camaraderie enforced by prosperity…Everybody made a great wage, right out of high school, and nobody’s mother or wife ever had to work. That’s gone of course, not coming back. The postapocalyptic feel — the ruins remain untouched.

As John Russo has argued here, sports are one of the few fields in which blue-collar values and identifications are positively valued. Carlo Rotella, Professor of English at Boston College, has argued that boxing in particular is intimately associated with industrial labor through its emphasis on working with the hands. We see this in representations of Pavlik that draw on Youngstown’s working-class culture and history. Such associations are especially important as blue-collar places and people are being reshaped by the effects of de-industrialization.

Many older Youngstown residents see the city moving away from its blue-collar roots. Mike Pavlik Sr., Kelly’s father, who worked for 19 years at Republic Steel, commented that Youngstown is “a blue-collar town, it’ll always be a blue-collar town, you know, it’ll never be a white-collar town, until all the baby-boomers are gone and then it might turn over to a white-collar town.”

Following a period of inactivity, fights against what were regarded as ‘lesser’ boxers, and a recent defeat, Pavlik’s stock has fallen both locally and nationally. In the wake of this, the tendency to present blue-collar places as outdated has revealed itself more clearly. Media coverage of places such as Youngstown often contrast romanticized and simplified ideas of the ‘past’ with a present in which such cities are portrayed as relics of a bygone era. During 2009, following Pavlik’s withdrawal from a potential fight with Paul Williams due to a serious staph infection, rumors escalated regarding his lifestyle. Within these stories, Youngstown– previously held up as the source of Pavlik’s strength, determination and resilience — was now seen as the problem. In a February 2009 article on the website Boxing Insider asked, ‘Will the poverty-stricken city of Youngstown end up being not only his ultimate inspiration but also, tragically, his inevitable downfall?’

On April 17th in Atlantic City, Pavlik lost his world titles to the Argentinian southpaw Sergio Martinez in a twelve-round decision. Where Pavlik had previously been glorified as a ‘throwback’ due to his come-forward fighting style and his sheer determination and aggression, his style was now described as outmoded.  Pavlik, some suggested, lacked the skills to effectively compete in boxing’s new economy, represented by Martinez, the slick, skilled, ring-technician. David Greisman, writing for Boxing Scene, explained Pavlik’s defeat this way:

Kelly Pavlik, child of the steel city of Youngstown, Ohio, is blue-collar, workmanlike, punching in and punching out, a man with sledgehammers in his hands. Sergio Martinez, product of the Latin America country of Argentina, is machismo in motion, fluid on his feet, confident in conquest, a swashbuckling swordsman whose fists become blades.

Power against speed.

Will against skill.

Pavlik was bigger and stronger. Martinez was smaller but sharper. He cut Pavlik, and then he cut him down to size’

For others, the defeat was evidence that Pavlik must change. Writing for The Sweet Science, Springs Toledo declared that both Pavlik and Youngstown suffered from a failure to ‘diversify.’ He stated that while the ‘laborer’ and his ‘blunt instruments’ had initially been enough to bring Pavlik success now, ‘Pavlik has gone as far as he can go without making fundamental adjustments to his machinery.’ Instead, he must ‘realign his equipment to meet styles more sophisticated than simple punchers and over-eager athletes’, in much the same way that Youngstown too must adapt; ‘new initiatives are developing technology-based companies with some success. Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik wants to become a part of the renewal plan.’

Stories about Youngstown and Kelly Pavlik reveal the extent to which working-class bodies and places are seen as outmoded and outdated. In her study of the closure of the auto industry in Kenosha, Wisconsin, The End of the Line, Kathryn Dudley notes that the loss of industry marked a shift from the ‘culture of the hands’ to the ‘culture of the mind.’ Within this new order, white collar values and education are now prized at the expense of physical strength and toughness. The value shift was written on the landscape of cities such as Youngstown as abandoned factories were torn down or refurbished as offices or museums.  And it’s reinforced by the emphasis on universities, like Youngstown State, as the keys to revitalizing deindustrialized cities and on higher education as ensuring a better economic future for both the community and its residents.

All of this highlights a growing ambivalence about what it means to be working class.  Like the working class itself, the boxer and his city are romanticized through the lens of the past and marginalized in the present. While recognized for their past prosperity and accomplishments, they are increasingly presented as peripheral, occupying a position on the margins of national culture, unable or often unwilling to adapt to the demands of the new, ‘post-industrial’ economy.

But both Pavlik and Youngstown, like the working class itself, exist in the present.  They are not simply relics from a previous time. They are individuals and communities that continue to fight for a more prominent position in America’s economy and its imagination. Kelly Pavlik’s story is not just local, nor is the story of Youngstown itself.  They are stories about America today.

James Rhodes

James Rhodes is a Simon Research Fellow and sociologist from the University of Manchester.  He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies.

Working-Class Journalism: A Model for Teaching

Among seemingly endless reports, studies and speculations that have almost unanimously heralded the death of the newspaper, the Columbia Journalism Review’s recent study stands out as both incisive and constructive for its detailed summation of the conditions that have caused our current media “crisis,” and also for its outlining of possible solutions.

In the report, aptly titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson, endorse a claim that we have made in previous blogs, that while some of the implications for the future of American journalism in the current financial and technological storm are downright scary, emerging energies and fresh ideas about news and news practice offer significant hope. As Downie and Schudson find,

Reporting is becoming more participatory and collaborative. The ranks of news gatherers now include not only newsroom staffers, but freelancers, university faculty members, students, and citizens. Financial support for reporting now comes not only from advertisers and subscribers, but also from foundations, individual philanthropists, academic and government budgets, special interests, and voluntary contributions from readers and viewers. There is increased competition among the different kinds of news gatherers, but there also is more cooperation, a willingness to share resources and reporting with former competitors. That increases the value and impact of the news they produce, and creates new identities for reporting while keeping old, familiar ones alive.

Around the same time that we began contributing to this blog, we were beginning a project here at Youngstown State centered on a collaborative news gathering model, a news service that partnered a public “working-class” university and its journalism students with a commercial newspaper and a public radio station.

Our goals for the project are ambitious:

* To provide students guided practical experience with reporting and producing news stories

* To provide students who might not be able to afford non-paid internships a chance to earn internship-level experience

* To help media organizations acquire content that they would not ordinarily be compelled to obtain and to act as an intermediary resource for collaboration amongst competing media

* To produce research to study media collaboration and content decisions.

We started with the idea that journalism students need both theory and guided practice.  Unlike traditional internships where students often leave their communities, our students gain hands-on experience in the local area.  Because they becme immersed in the urban community that surrounds the university—a relationship that is rarely cultivated by our largely suburban commuter student population—student reporters learned that the plight of the city so often reviled by suburbanites and slighted by the profit-driven media is an inextricable part of the region they call home.

Media professionals from our two partner organizations, The Vindicator and WYSU-FM, joined us in the classrooms frequently during the semester and worked one-on-one with students. In class sessions in The Vindicator newsroom, news service students presented their work, talking with us and newspaper editors about possible story directions and generally immersing themselves in the newsroom and city culture. A WYSU-FM manager spent several hours each week working with students in the radio production lab, helping them to produce their stories and gain a deeper understanding of what makes good public radio.  With one semester completed, it is still too soon to judge the overall success of the endeavor, but based on what we’ve seen so far, we think the news service model has merit.

Most of the stories that our students are reporting deal with issues of importance to those who live in or precariously close to urban poverty — the scarcity of fresh, healthy food in most neighborhood stores,  or the challenges of public transportation in a city where many of the most basic goods and services have migrated beyond the walkable core neighborhoods into the sprawling suburbs.

Many of these issues have been slighted by the local mainstream media as they increasingly cater content toward their suburban clientele, and we believe that this news project, while small in scope, may yield results that will be of interest to media managers who make content decisions. Our operating premise is that traditional media may actually benefit by running such stories, which may attract new readers, and that with collaboration comes a unique opportunity to inform, enlighten, and ultimately encourage social responsibility.

In addition, our students are learning how to draw upon one another’s strengths. For example, by working with a grandmother with deep roots in the city community, a young male student who commutes from the suburbs gained access to people and resources that might otherwise have remained untapped and under-represented; two other students got  clearer perspectives on the complexities of school funding and performance by visiting and comparing a drastically under-achieving city school with a high performing suburban one located only a few miles away, while still another pair of students chronicled a neighborhood’s efforts to reverse the crime and economic despair that has been plaguing it for decades.  These stories address important issues and trends in the community that entrenched local media, suffering from the same economic challenges plaguing all traditional media, might not have covered.

Even when the story “hook” is not specifically about a problem or an issue, we are encouraging students to be curious about and attuned to the lives and stories of the members of our predominantly working-class community. For example, a recent radio report builds on our earlier Worker Portraits project with a profile of a man who has spent most of his working life as a gravedigger.

We are excited about the long-range possibilities of the news service, because it strengthens our students’ reporting abilities, helps bolster local media, and most of all, gives all of us a chance to experiment with media collaboration and different types of content. These values are essential to the mission of a strong university journalism program, and they encourage the local media be more responsive to the information needs of those who are not well-served by traditional media, including the working class.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

Politics is Personal: How Our Taxes Subsidize Walmart and Hurt Local Workers

We talk a lot about workers in this space— at the Center for Working-Class Studies and in our  Working-Class Perspectives blog—but for the most part we do it on the macro level: massive job losses precipitated by NAFTA and other foreign trade agreements; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; the Walmartization of  America; a stimulus package that pours too much money into the financial institutions that caused the economic meltdown and far too little into job producing infrastructure projects; weak unions; falling wages; vanishing pensions; disappearing health care; fading opportunity.

Sometimes, we’re too focused on the big picture to see how these macro issues affect people in our community.  We have a sense that government’s coddling of business is problematic, but do we really understand why?  We feel in our gut that a neutered union movement leaves working families vulnerable, but can we truly identify with the moms and dads who lie awake at 3:00 A.M. worried that their jobs may evaporate in a week, a month, a year?

Probably not, and that’s too bad, because if we can personalize the devastation caused when the economy stops working for the working class we may actually be able to solve some of the problems that are steadily eroding the American Dream.

For example, I firmly believe that health care reform would have been easier to achieve if, instead of talking about the 47 million people who don’t have health insurance, we gave the problem a face by talking about the 60 year-old woman living down the street who nearly died of colon cancer because she had no health insurance and could not afford to get the follow-up colonoscopies she needed after her first bout with the disease.

That woman, by the way, is my now 75 year-old mother.  She’s a walking, talking advertisement for reform: she had insurance when she first contracted cancer, had it cancelled shortly thereafter, was repeatedly denied coverage because of her pre-existing condition, could not afford the $3,000 per month premium for the only policy she could get, and finally made it to age 65—the point at which she qualified for the government-run health care system that has saved her life repeatedly: Medicare.

If we put my mother and the millions like her who live in every community in the nation out front in the health care debate, would Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck really be able to call reform advocates commies?  Would the health insurance industry have any credibility at all after callously attempting to kill my mother and thousands like her every year?  The answer to both questions is no.

It’s also way past time to personalize the discussion about the many ways in which working-class taxpayers are subsidizing gargantuan multi-national corporations like Walmart. We’re all familiar with the storyline: state and local governments roll out tax abatements and other incentives to attract the chain.  The Bentonville, Arkansas behemoth comes to town and builds a store that devastates the competition.  Shortly thereafter the store owners and employees who paid the taxes that funded the abatements are out on the street.  Meanwhile, many of the giant retailer’s employees are eligible for food stamps and qualify for Medicaid.  Walmart may save us money at the check-out, but we pay for it in taxes and lost jobs. Even though we all know the story, it is for some inexplicable reason, repeated year after year in community after community.  Why?  Perhaps because the government officials who work so hard to entice Walmart and the residents who breathlessly anticipate its arrival don’t know or have any connection to the people whose lives will be changed forever once the store opens its doors.

So let’s personalize the situation and talk about the new Walmart in Liberty Township, one small business owner who operates in its shadow, and the response of the union that represents his workers.

I’ve known Sandy Zander for a long time. He was my boss when I worked for the grocery chain he helped run. He was a fair-minded and able negotiator when we sat on opposite sides of the table during contract talks, and he’s been a successful small businessman since 1988 when he bought a few stores from the company that employed us until it went of business in the wake of a strike neither of us wanted but couldn’t avoid.  He’s genuinely a good guy.

Today, he and his family own two stores: a Giant Eagle in an upscale township east of Youngstown and Union Square Sparkle, one of the few full-service markets still operating in the distressed city.  Sandy’s stores are unionized, so his workers earn a decent wage and have health care and pension benefits.  For two decades he’s managed to survive despite the fact that he’s competing with non-union operators whose wage cost is much lower than his.

In Poland his main competitor is Henry Nemenz.  Henry’s been in the grocery business a long time.  He’s always been a non-union, low-wage, no benefits operator who profits by exploiting his employees.  His owns only a handful of stores, and the Zanders clean his clock every week.  When you drive by the two markets, which are located across the street from each other, you notice two things.  First, there are ten times more cars in the Giant Eagle lot and, second, the UFCW is conducting informational picketing at Nemenz.  The union is spending a lot of money to let people know that Henry’s non-union.  Good for them.

In Youngstown, Sandy’s main competitor is the new Walmart that Liberty Township officials begged for on bended knee.  When you drive by the two stores, which are located less than a half mile apart, you’ll notice two things: first, there are a lot of cars at Walmart and far fewer at Sandy’s than there used to be and, second, there is no UFCW picket line even though Walmart is every bit as bad an employer as Nemenz.

Picket line or no picket line, Sandy will continue to dominate the market in Poland.  But in Youngstown the prospects are not quite as bright.  If people continue to flock to Walmart, Sandy, his store, his workers, and the neighborhood he’s served for two decades could be in trouble.  His employees will lose their good jobs, their health care benefits, and their pensions.  Youngstown will lose the income taxes they pay, and 30 or 40 more city residents will be added to the unemployment rolls.  All because Liberty Township went out and bought themselves a Walmart.

Maybe, just maybe, if the UFCW decided to stand in front of the new store and make sure that people knew that every dollar they spent was putting a neighbor or friend in jeopardy they’d think twice about going in.  Maybe, just maybe, if the union decided to air some ads that highlighted the importance of good-paying retail jobs to the community customers would make different decisions about where they shop.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start fighting back — one township and one worker at a time.

Leo Jennings

Growing Food, Growing a Movement

Until recently, I’ve been largely ignoring the movement to change how we eat.  Too much of the movement focuses on upper-middle class denizens of big coastal cities, people sipping on soy lattes as they drive their Volvo stations wagons out to do a shift of sweat equity on a small community-supported farm and who pay twice what I’d be willing to spend for organically-raised free-range buffalo meat.  Of course, I sort of belong to that group.  I love to cook, I grow my own poblano peppers and Japanese eggplant, and I can be as much of a snob as Alice Waters when it comes to what I eat.  But I just couldn’t embrace a movement to improve the eating habits of wealthy white people, even though I’m one of them, because it mostly ignored the fact that thousands of people eat poorly or go hungry in this country every day because they either can’t afford good food or don’t have access to a decent grocery store, much less an organic farm.

But lately I’ve been hearing about a different version of the good food movement, a version that explicitly addresses the needs of poor and working-class people of color in urban communities.   And clearly I’m not alone: the September 21 issue of The Nation focuses on food, with a cover headline promising to tell us “how to grow democracy.” The food movement, it seems, has discovered the working class.

In the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with two men who are part of the working-class wing of the good food movement, men whose work goes far beyond feeding people.  They also foster cross-class coalitions in support of good wages, fighting crime, and improving the environment.  Their work reminds us that some of the most promising organizing in working-class communities these days is happening on street corners, in food pantries and shelters, at schools, in churches, and on empty lots transformed into community gardens.

Joel Berg is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.  When I interviewed him in July, he told me that more than 36 million Americans can’t afford to buy enough food, and about a third of them are children.  Food banks help, but he says the real problem is low wages.  Most of those who don’t have enough food live in families where at least one person works.  The problem is that too many working-class jobs won’t support a family.  His answer to hunger in America:  livable wages.  In All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?, he describes the problem, explains why so many people are going hungry, and challenges President Obama and other political leaders to eradicate hunger by ensuring that workers are paid enough to afford to feed themselves and their families.

Will Allen runs Growing Power, Inc., a multifaceted urban agriculture project that not only raises thousands of pounds of good food in the heart of urban Milwaukee and Chicago every year but also provides good jobs for 35 full-time workers and summer jobs for hundreds of urban teenagers.  Allen “grows soil” through a massive composting program, but he also grows community by teaching young people from schools and juvenile justice centers how to plant and raise their own food.  His farm provides fresh organic vegetables, honey, and even meat and fish to low-income families.  Best of all, Growing Power has designed a sustainable non-profit organization, supporting most of its programs by selling the food and gardening supplies that it produces.  Urban agriculture expands on the model of community gardens, demonstrating that feeding the hungry can also provide jobs and contribute to local economies.  Allen has been spreading this model around the US and around the world.  He’s helped local groups start urban farms in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, Kenya, and the Ukraine.

Allen was in Youngstown earlier this month, in part to help a local organization, Grow Youngstown, develop its urban agriculture program.  Grow Youngstown is just one part of an emerging movement to stop complaining about how economic change has battered us and start finding creative ways to transform the local economy and the local landscape.  In Youngstown, as in other cities built around the steel and auto industries, neighborhoods are full of abandoned houses and empty lots.  When their laid-off owners could no longer make payments, the houses fell to decay, arson, and demolition.  While many have noted the ways that these vacant properties undermine community agency as well as property values – indeed, John Russo and I have made that argument ourselves –, organizations like Grow Youngstown view them as resources.  In a low-income neighborhood near my house, amidst too many trash-strewn empty lots, a small plot is being transformed.  For now, it’s mostly about growing soil – composting, bringing in worms, preparing the ground for planting – and planting a few trees and small gardens.  Neighbors, community organizations, and a summer day camp have all been involved.  And the organization will soon hire its first employees.

One more urban farm won’t, of course, revive our national economy, nor will it soon solve the problems of hunger among poor and working-class residents of the city, or even of this one neighborhood.  But livable wage campaigns and sustainable urban agriculture programs offer good models for how to improve the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods.  Together, they combine advocating for policy change with grassroots economic development, working from both sides of the economic system to foster concrete, realistic changes.  And that I can embrace.

Sherry Linkon

Examining Literacy: A Class Approach

In the suburban community of Poland, Ohio, students at one elementary school participated in a “word parade” in observance of “Read Across America Day.”  Dressed in clothing that conveyed the meanings of words, students learned new words through this event. News accounts of the parade suggest that it was a collaborative effort, involving students, parents, school officials, and community residents. Collaborations like this are common in Poland and the community’s demographics help explain this:

Because research finds that parental involvement at school is generally higher among middle-income, college-educated parents, one might expect parental involvement at school to be high in Poland. Families in this middle-class community have the resources that facilitate parental involvement at school.

Research also finds that increased parental involvement at school is associated with higher levels of reading proficiency, literacy, and student achievement (Ibid). The most recent “report card” for the Poland local school district seems to reflect this:

  • Ninety-nine percent of students in Poland’s local school district graduated from high school in 2007. More than 98% of students in the district scored at or above the proficient level in reading, mathematics, and writing.  Satisfying all but one performance measure in 2007-2008, the Poland school district was rated “excellent” in performance last year.

Unfortunately, not all local school districts in Mahoning County can boast of an “excellent” performance rating. Like elsewhere, high performing schools, high levels of parent-school involvement, high income and high literacy are unevenly distributed in Mahoning County, and vary by social class. The Youngstown local school district was placed on “academic watch” last year.

But one can easily argue that Youngstown faces harsher conditions than surroundings suburbs like Poland face. Chronic job loss, population decline, poverty, high crime, and limited access to reliable transportation characterize many Youngstown neighborhoods. These problems tax family and community resources and operate as barriers to increased reading proficiency, literacy, and student achievement.

So, while family and community characteristics in middle-class communities seem to facilitate high literacy and student achievement, family and community characteristics in working-class and poor communities seem to impede such things.  Social inequality is reproduced and, for some groups, illiteracy is passed from one generation to the next.

For the illiterate, illiteracy often means humiliation, poverty, low-wage employment, and an inability to participate fully in society. For American businesses illiteracy has meant lower productivity, more on-the job accidents, and poor product quality, at a reported cost of $30 billion a year.

In an effort to promote increased literacy in Youngstown, the city and county library system recently opened its Newport library branch. The library offers an Early Literacy Center that addresses literacy at “the starting gate”. Complete with books, toys and literacy activities, the Center is designed to help babies learn pre-literacy skills and become successful readers. Located at an intersection that divides Youngstown from surrounding suburbs, the library also has the potential to bring people from Youngstown and surrounding suburbs together.

However, the fight against illiteracy must not end with the development of single early literacy center, or even with the development of two or three centers.  Steps must also be taken to eliminate the poverty, joblessness, crime, neighborhood segregation, the home-school disconnects, and other systemic factors that generate illiteracy in many poor and working-class neighborhoods through our nation.

Denise Narcisse