The Forgotten Workers of the Rust Belt (Part 1 of 2)

The archetypal nuclear family – that which we have come to know as the “American Dream” – consisting of a single breadwinner; with a good-paying union job, and a sustainable neighborhood is few and far between in today’s America. The part of America where you were most likely to find this lifestyle, the “Industrial Heartland”, fails so badly to live up to this that we now even call it the “Rust Belt”. This region spanning from Minnesota and Iowa in the west, to Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the east, has been drained of work and economic opportunity – due primarily to the transferring of American manufacturing overseas. For almost 30 years, this working-class demographic went without any major representation. The Republican agenda was focused uniquely on free trade and maximizing GDP, the unemployed either needed to shift their careers or try harder. Democrats, although giving occasional lip service, was not much help either. Naturally, they assumed the industrial working class would be voting for them eternally – after all, they had the union money. The Republican neoliberal agenda, in conjunction with even some sympathetic Democrats, was ultimately successful, destroying the union membership and manufacturing jobs that upheld the Midwestern way of life. Suddenly, the union money began to dissipate, and so to it, their political capital in even the Democratic party. As President Obama said famously, “you will need a magic wand to bring these jobs back.” Unfortunately for both party establishments, a certain candidate in 2016 promised that magic wand. A shockwave was delivered to this aforementioned elite on November 8th, 2016, when Donald Trump was elected the President of the United States. Fueled by Trump’s verbose promises of industrial renaissance, this oft-overlooked Midwestern working-class became the centerpiece in a political realignment rivaling Nixon’s southern strategy.    

But why did the once-booming American heartland collapse so spectacularly? After World War II it is estimated that half of all American manufacturing took place in the industrial Midwest, however by the year 2000 that share shrunk to a third (Simeon Alder et al.). This massive loss of jobs unsurprisingly caused a mass exodus. In Danville, Illinois it is estimated that the town lost a net of 5455 people due to migration from 2010 to 2018, nearly 7% of its total population (Kiersz). A similar retreat occurred in the once robust city of Saginaw, Michigan – where a whopping 10,863 people left from 2010 to 2018 – over 5% of its total population (Kiersz). These are but two examples of the nearly twenty shown by Andy Kiersz in “The 20 cities in the Midwest that Americans are escaping in droves” via Business Insider. Yet still, there are hundreds more towns and cities bleeding residents just like Danville and Saginaw scattered across the Rust Belt. A simple drive around Michigan or Ohio will put on display countless empty factories surrounded by barbed wire and caution tape, almost like a modern art exhibit. In all of these cities, we can see a similar pattern: those lucky enough to have the money left. Those less fortunate are stuck watching the city and community they grew up in fall into urban blight, opioid addiction, and general disrepair.

Deaths of despair have accelerated since industrial companies have begun to collapse. A seemingly broad term, it generally encompasses two types of deaths; one of these being suicide. Suicide has risen 35% from 10.4 per 100,000 to over 14 per 100,000 in the years 1999 to 2018 (Hedegaard). Similarly, we also find an increase in drug overdoses. In the year 1999, there were just over 6 per 100,000. In the year 2017, it hit an all-time high of 21.7 per 100,000 (Hedegaard). Even more striking is that men had a drug overdose rate nearing 30 per 100,000 in the year 2017 – according to Holly Hedegaard at the Centers for disease control. Further, with data from Anne Case and Angus Deaton from the Brookings Institute, we can see something astonishing. “the turnaround in mortality for white non-Hispanics was driven primarily by increasing death rates for those with a high school degree or less. All-cause mortality for this group increased by 134 per 100,000 between 1999 and 2013. Those with a college education less than a BA saw little change in all-cause mortality over this period; those with a BA or more education saw death rates fall by 57 per 100,000. Although all three educational groups saw increases in mortality from suicide and poisonings, and an overall increase in external cause mortality, increases were largest for those with the least education”. Shockingly, the death rate for middle-aged white Americans has increased drastically. This was driven by those without a four-year degree. As you can suspect, the industrial working class, largely white and without a college degree, is being hit the hardest. From the same study from the Brookings Institute, we can see that from 2000-2014, white, middle-aged deaths of despair increased in every county within states that could be considered part of the “Rust Belt”. Even more shocking, is that there are multiple counties with a death rate of over 100 per 100,000, including population centers such as Milwaukee County Wisconsin. We have connected how these deaths can be traced back to the loss of steady work and decline of Rust Belt cities, but why did those cities fall in the first place?

If you were to break down the decline of the Rust Belt into a single concept, it would be NAFTA, formally known as the North American Free Trade Agreement. “North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) established a free-trade zone in North America; it was signed in 1992 by Canada, Mexico, and the United States and took effect on Jan. 1, 1994. NAFTA immediately lifted tariffs on the majority of goods produced by the signatory nations. It also calls for the gradual elimination, over a period of 15 years, of most remaining barriers to cross-border investment and the movement of goods and services among the three countries” (U.S Customs and Border Protection). This groundbreaking trade legislation was brought in with overwhelming support by our elites and elected officials, passing the Senate with a surprising 61 vote majority. It is now estimated that NAFTA cost Americans 700,000 jobs (Faux). The vast majority of these jobs were shipped out of Michigan and the surrounding Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois (Faux). The industrial working class, historically Democratic in voting loyalty, was stabbed in the back by President Clinton. This single event of betrayal of the industrial working class is a direct cause of the years of suffering caused by job loss, urban blight, and deaths of despair within these once boisterous communities.

So there we were in 2016, the industrial working class, albeit slowly dying, was still mostly voting Democrat. The Democratic leadership thought everything was fine, that they were well on their way to cheating Senator Sanders out of the nomination and electing Hillary Clinton the 45th President of the United States. But little did they know that the industrial working class remembered the name “Clinton” from when NAFTA was signed yesteryear. The first cracks in Hillary’s plan began to show when outsider Bernie Sanders began to pick up steam in the Rust Belt, winning an upset victory in Michigan, along with blow-out victories in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and West Virginia (CNN). What exactly was Senator Sanders doing to attract these big wins in the Rust Belt? A speech on the Senate floor from Senator Sanders could give us some insight: “… have told us over and over again that unfettered free trade will increase American jobs and increase American wages but they have been proven dead wrong every time we have a trade agreement.” As you can see, Senator Sanders was not the typical post-NAFTA Democrat on many issues that were integral to the survival of the Rust Belt – famously claiming in an interview during the 2016 primary season that open borders were a “Koch brothers proposal.” This kind of talk was why the industrial working class chose Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 primary. There is a real threat to immigration leading to Americans losing their jobs, especially those jobs that are seen as low-skilled. “When the supply of workers goes up, the price that firms have to pay to hire workers goes down. Wage trends over the past half-century suggest that a 10 percent increase in the number of workers with a particular set of skills probably lowers the wage of that group by at least 3 percent. Even after the economy has fully adjusted, those skill groups that received the most immigrants will still offer lower pay relative to those that received fewer immigrants” (Borjas). George Borjas, who is a leading economist at Harvard, is not sugar coat what he is saying. He is simply explaining the law of supply and demand: the more you have of something, the cheaper it is. Borjas goes on to explain in this article that a highly disproportionate number of immigrants are low-skilled themselves. Naturally, lower-skilled American workers are affected by this. The effect is not small, either. Borjas says it could be to the tune of $1,500 in lost wages per worker each year. 

It was foolish to assume that these same workers who ran from Hillary in the primary, would then roll over and vote for her anyway – when there was a man in the opposite party saying economically adjacent ideas to Bernie Sanders. Trump is quoted by Borjas as saying, “Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens”. This is very in line with the views of Senator Sanders, and what the industrial working class perceived as happening in their community. Donald Trump also held similar views to Senator Sanders on NAFTA, leading to his famous line, “this has been the worst trade deal in the history of trade deals, maybe ever” from the first presidential debate. 

A man named Chuck Dennison from Cleveland, Ohio was interviewed on an MSNBC article, and he said a few statements that express what many industrial working-class voters were feeling at the time. “My job did not become obsolete. My job did not get overtaken by robots. My job still exists. It just does not exist in the United States of America”. Chuck is a prime example of the industrial working class. His job was not made obsolete, his labor was because he demanded too much. Unfortunately, Chuck no longer can do his job, through no fault of his own. Free trade agreements, that the government assured workers like Chuck would help him, did exactly the opposite. In return, the government provided nothing. An entire class was betrayed.

To quote Peter Finch as Howard Beale from “NETWORK”, “I’m as mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”. Helpless about the increasing crime, helpless about their economic situation, helpless about politics, but clear about one thing – they were pissed off. That rage led to the shock of election day in 2016. Donald Trump was the winner because of surprise victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania as well as impressive margins in Iowa and Ohio of nearing 10 points (New York Times). The Industrial working class of the rustbelt tipped the favor of the election to Donald Trump because of immigration and trade issues, the very things neglected before him. The media quickly started referring to the industrial working class as the “Obama-Trump voters”, and tried to understand why exactly they flipped in such a monumental way to the Republican Party. In a transcript from NPR, Don Gonyea speaks to a few people from Erie, Pennsylvania, a county that flipped for Donald Trump. One of those interviewed explained that the Clinton campaign felt foreign to them. The organizers were never from Erie and they didn’t know their way around the city. “It did not take much prodding to get him to look back and start complaining about the campaign that the Democrats ran here in 2016. He said they felt ignored by the Hillary Clinton campaign” (NPR). The Clinton Campaign was too ambitious, and it seemed to take for granted the Democrat’s support for the white working class. Because of this Clinton spent less time in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (National popular vote). 

To put this working-class realignment into perspective, let’s go back to the small city of Saginaw, Michigan we mentioned before. Saginaw county, where Saginaw City is, voted for President Barack Obama by 11.9 points in the 2012 Presidential election according to the Saginaw county website. Fast forward to 2016 where Donald Trump took Saginaw County by 1.2 points. That’s a swing away from Hillary by over 10 points. The small working-class county with about 80,000 voters shows the Rust Belt in a microcosm. Anywhere where former industrial centers like Saginaw were located, they showed massive swings away from the Democrats. The industrial working class blamed their economic setback on the Democrats, and in a last-ditch attempt to save themselves from destruction, voted for Donald Trump. 

In 1992, James Carville, former advisor to President Bill Clinton coined the term “It’s the economy, stupid” to show why Bill Clinton would go on to beat President Bush. That Phrase was once again used by Tom Steyer during the 2020 Democratic presidential debates, and as it turns out they were both right. The industrial working class was left behind by free trade deals and the lack of immigration reforms, so it began to suffer in post-war America. This slow economic death led to mass strife in the communities that these workers live. This strife manifested in the hollowing out of once great manufacturing centers, urban blight, and deaths of despair. The industrial working class felt they had to stick up for themselves because the political class who led them for generations refused to. However, in 2020, this realignment was set back immensely.