“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back
To your home town
Your home town”
— Bruce Springsteen
I recently found myself on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To be precise, in regions named Beaver Creek and Alquipa.
Places that, on first glance, come across as Smalltown USA. Homes set on large parcels of land, with stacks of recently chopped fire logs packed neatly outside.
Country roads that saw maybe one vehicle every two minutes and diners where everyone was on a first-name basis.
Norman Rockwell would have had multiple subject matters and characters to capture on canvass.
Peeling away the layers of quintessential America revealed a bit more to the character of these towns. Stories of the consequences of global economics and trade deals.
You see, this region’s economy was built on and around the American steel industry.
Nestled on the banks of the Ohio River, one can find rows and rows of railroad tracks that once carried raw iron products to factories to be fashioned into the refined steel that serve as the infrastructure for many buildings in America and many other countries.
Post-1945, America produced 75 per cent of all steel in the world, using the time-tested “open hearth” methods.
Hundreds of thousands of men and women were employed in the steel industry, thus building homes and communities in the areas surrounding Pittsburgh.
Heck, they even named their local gridiron football team after the industry.
Does the name Pittsburgh Steelers ring a bell?
However, along the way, European steel manufacturers experimented with new methods of steel production and came up with a process that converts iron into steel by blasting pure oxygen into the molten metal.
This method, which is known as the “basic oxygen process”, was perfected in Austria by a company by the name of Voest.
Its methodology allowed for steel plants to be built at half the cost of plants that used the “open hearth” technology, and at the same time produce up to four times the volume of steel per hour.
Meanwhile, American manufacturers such as Bethlehem and Republic, continued to use outdated methods of production.
At times, executives of those companies flat out denied that their productivity was low and their cost higher by comparison with the growing European manufacturers.
By the 1960s, factories in Europe and Asia significantly cut into America’s piece of the pie in the global steel industry.
The net result over subsequent decades was the slow but steady decline of not only the American steel industry, but along with it came a decline in the number of jobs available for workers in the industry.
The trickle-down effect enveloped homes, schools, shops and entire communities.
Driving through these areas, one would be hard-pressed not to see entire neighbourhoods that seem to be places that time forgot. Long-abandoned vehicles, main streets on which four out of five stores have long closed up, churches that have not opened their doors in decades.
Perhaps most telling is the human factor of high unemployment and the low wages of those who have found work.
If ever there was an example of the wrong side of economic evolution, these small towns serve as picture-perfect posters.
It is perhaps precisely this reason why many in this region fell under the spell of Donald Trump and voted for his promise of reinvigorating the coal and steel industries that once dominated this region.
In the presidential election of 2016, the state of Pennsylvania converted from a traditional stronghold of the Democratic Party to a key victory for the Republicans, based primarily on the hopes of people in these small towns that they would, via protectionist tariffs, see a revival in employment, income levels and home towns.
Many obviously felt that the Democrats and big-city liberals had forgotten those who lived in Smalltown USA; hence, making them fertile ground for political promises.
Essentially, Trump became king through the support of rural America
Sitting in diners where many openly carry firearms gives a stark reality that the residents proudly defend — not only their right to bear arms, but as importantly their right to pick presidents based on hopes and promises — however false they have turned out to be — that their beloved coal and steel industries will be revived to a level of world dominance.
The key takeaway from my foray into this area was that if an industry and the communities and countries built around that industry fail to adapt to technological and global trends, they will be left behind.
There are lessons to be learnt from the so-called Rust Belt of America
“Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back”.
•Christopher Famous is the government MP for Devonshire East (Constituency 11). You can reach him at WhatsApp on 599-0901 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org