Here is a place not to go: Youngstown, Ohio.
That statement requires qualification. Youngstown is precisely the place to go to witness depression in all its forms, specifically economic and medical. The corporate shills at Youngstown Sheet & Tube shuttered the Campbell Works steel plant 44 years ago next month, sending 5,000 tough-as-nails millhunks to the streets. By 1982, 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in annual manufacturing wages were gone.
Today, the look of Youngstown is apocalyptic. Its median household income once was among the highest in America. Now, 37.9% of the some 61,625 souls who remain live in poverty, according to the census. That’s the second highest rate in the country behind Pharr, Texas, a border town best known for a 1971 police riot.
In the first year of his single-term presidency, Donald Trump declared during a campaign rally at the rusted husk of Campbell Works, “We’re going to get those jobs coming back, and we’re going to fill up those factories.” No jobs came, but in the presidential election last year, a Republican, Trump, won Mahoning County, where Youngstown is the county seat, for the first time since 1972.
Borrowing from that immortal philosopher Rocky Balboa, how did everything that was so good get so bad? How did a town that once boasted one of the country’s highest rates of home ownership get played for a sucker by some fat cat businessman from New York? Only fools believed Trump when he said he’d bring those jobs back. But 40 years of unraveling with nobody in power giving a damn, 40 years of being forgotten, 40 years of sinking into the deep rot of oblivion will make fools of just about anybody.
Dissertations have been written about how it happened. That’s because the answer is, as wise guys might put it, complicated. But here’s the relevant portion of how it happened:
Youngstown ascended in fire, sweat and dirt. Hundreds of thousands of tons of steel rolled out of the mills each year. Workers bled in the streets and on factory floors, in bitter labor disputes and on the job. People born and raised there refer to it as the fighting city of Youngstown, and that’s how the American dream was won there, or moreover seized in clenched fists.
As that happened, corruption became an infection raging through the veins of the place. West Virginia is familiar with being the possessor of superlatives no one wants. So, too, is Youngstown, once labeled the most corrupt city in America and the country’s murder capital. The Saturday Evening Post once called it “Crime Town, U.S.A.”
When the jobs left, the corruption remained and kept the jobs gone. The late Jim Traficant was a slimy symbol of it. After being elected county sheriff in 1980, he was audiotaped accepting bribes from Cleveland and Pittsburgh’s major crime families. He somehow was acquitted two years later and elected to Congress in 1984. He remained in office until 2002, when the House voted to expel him following convictions on federal counts of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion.
What did Traficant accomplish for the people of Youngstown and Mahoning County over the course of 17 years as their elected representative in the United States House? Not a damn thing that truly mattered. Those factories stayed empty. Those jobs stayed gone. Like so many other hucksters who seek higher office and the public’s trust, Traficant served himself first, foremost and always. Yet the voters decided eight times to send him back.
Generations of men poured in and out of places like Campbell Works, working to build better lives for themselves and their families, just as generations of men poured in and out of coal mines across West Virginia seeking to do the same. Bruce Springsteen noted the parallels in a song called “Youngstown:” “From the Monongahela Valley to the Mesabi Iron Range to the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same: Seven-hundred tons of metal a day, now, sir, you tell me the world’s changed, once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name.”
Now, the jobs in the mines like the jobs in the mills are vanishing. A coal baron sits at the head of West Virginia government and others holding higher office here have their ties and their interests. Are those interests their own or West Virginia’s? Whom do they serve?
Don’t be fooled by empty platitudes, bogus boasts or declarations from the bottom of someone’s heart. The proof is in the damn jobs. The proof is in an economy lifted from the floor. The proof is in the full-time commitment to the hard work of breathing life into a battered state. The proof is in parlaying the role of Washington’s primary power broker into putting West Virginians back to work.
If those who hold power now, those who’ve become so rich as the state has become so poor, can’t provide that proof by the time polls open again, their names should be forgotten in favor of others committed to serving the state and her people first. West Virginia will find no better fate than Youngstown so long as her people allow the rot in the system to remain.
Lee Wolverton is vice president of news and executive editor of HD Media.
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