Thursday, December 2, 2010

Steel town now an economic ghost town

Dec 1, 2010

Three years after the United States fell into the worst recession since World War II, many workers and families are still struggling with the fallout. In a three-part series, The Straits Times US Bureau examines how the economic anxieties have affected ordinary Americans and the way they vote. In Part 1, we look at why some residents of a declining steel town are rebelling against their political roots.

By Tracy Quek

BRADDOCK (PENNSYLVANIA): Since she moved here 14 years ago, Mrs Carmella Mullen has watched the economic lifeblood drain out of this historic steel-making town with a mixture of disappointment and despair.

But when the town's hospital - and last remaining economic lifeline - announced it was closing in October last year, her frustration boiled over.

The 61-year-old blamed the local Democratic officials for failing to prevent the closure of the town's biggest employer.

Not just jobs were lost. Gone with the hospital were the town's only restaurant - the hospital cafeteria - and its only ATM.

Months later, Mrs Mullen quit a leadership position she had held since 2006 in the local Democratic Party committee.

She did not stop there. When the midterm legislative polls opened on Nov 2, she further rebelled against the party she had actively supported for most of her life by voting for the Republican candidate in the Pennsylvania governor race.

'The hospital was just the last straw,' said Mrs Mullen, a housewife. 'I'm voting for people and principles and I refuse to reward someone for making this town worse off.'

Her story is one that has echoes around the country. Similar feelings of disillusionment, particularly over the economy, prompted many Americans to sour on the promise of change made by President Barack Obama, and turned on his Democratic Party at the recent midterm elections.

Even a staunchly Democratic town like Braddock, with its working-class population and strong union history, was not immune to the voter revolt. Across the nation, whether in towns like this one - once home to the standard-bearers of the American steel industry - or in Michigan, the state where the modern auto industry was born, voters made plain that they want more attention - and results - on the economic front.

Downward spiral

ONCE a thriving industrial town with some 21,000 inhabitants, Braddock was hit hard by the collapse of the American steel industry in the 1980s.

Steel mills which once employed more than 10,000 workers drastically cut production. People and businesses left for opportunities elsewhere.

Today, Braddock is a 'distressed municipality' and home to less than 3,000 people - an 86 per cent drop from its peak population in the 1940s.

Jobs are scarce. The local unemployment rate is above 30 per cent, three times the national level.

The average household income here is about US$20,000 (S$26,500) a year, hovering below the official poverty line of US$22,050 for a family of four. Many cannot afford to buy their own homes.

Residents like Mr Mike Nash and his wife Jennifer consider themselves the working poor.
'I work my ass off for very little, and I stretch it for as far as I can. Just doing what I have to do to survive, and there ain't much,' said Mr Nash, a 35-year-old truck driver and father of four teenagers.

Like many here, Mr Nash has long struggled to imagine anything other than a bleak future for his hometown after decades of decline. But three years ago, a junior senator from Illinois running for president stirred up feelings of hope and renewal.

A registered Republican, Mr Nash said he took a chance and voted for Mr Obama in 2008. But barely a year later, he regretted his decision.

'I realised everything he said he was going to do - the bailouts, the economic stimulus - was a mistake,' he told The Straits Times.

Early in his presidency, Mr Obama pushed through a US$814 billion stimulus package aimed at creating jobs and restoring economic growth at a time when the country was at the precipice of what has been described as the worst downturn since the Great Depression. While recent figures appear to suggest that the stimulus did help, in towns like Braddock, residents feel there has been little appreciable impact.

'I mean, where are the jobs, darn it? I don't see them in the construction sites I'm on,' said Mr Nash.

In truth, Braddock did receive some stimulus funds - US$250,000 last year to upgrade its sewer system and an additional US$30,000 for a community programme aimed at providing employment for youth in the area, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman told CNN in January.
But a walk around town makes it easy to see why many might think that Braddock has not benefited at all.

Braddock Avenue, the town's once-bustling main commercial street, is now a forlorn stretch of boarded-up store fronts and crumbling buildings. There remain only a handful of local businesses, including two small grocers, an optician and a couple of used-furniture shops.
Once-handsome brick houses now stand vacant, their front yards overgrown with weeds. Drug abuse and crime are rampant enough to make locals nervous about venturing outside after dark.
Similar scenes can be found in many Rust Belt towns across Pennsylvania.

It was no surprise, then, that in election races in the state and across the nation, Democrats floundered in their attempts to convince voters that the economic stimulus has made a positive impact. Republican rhetoric on fiscal responsibility, on the other hand, resonated with families who had instinctively tightened their belts to weather the recession.

Americans expecting the new administration's priorities to match their own concerns on the economy grew increasingly frustrated as they watched the White House squander legislative opportunities to tackle those problems head-on.

The stinging rebuke they delivered on Nov 2 was the result.

Shifting allegiances

PENNSYLVANIA reflects the national mood. The state, which has backed every Democratic presidential candidate since 1992, including Mr Obama two years ago, this time handed Republicans their biggest state-wide electoral victory since 1994.

Pennsylvania Republicans won a hotly contested Senate race, picked up five congressional seats, and recaptured the governorship and the state House of Representatives from the Democrats.

What was more significant was that the senator and governor-elects both overcame the Democratic Party's big advantage in registered voters: they outnumber Republicans by 1.2 million.

Mrs Mullen, the former Democratic Party official, noted: 'No Republican politician can win in Pennsylvania unless people who are registered Democrat or Independent vote for them.'

But do the results of the Nov 2 election represent the beginnings of a permanent shift in voter loyalty away from the Democrats? Or is this merely a hiccup that Mr Obama and his party can brush aside once stronger job creation and economic recovery resume?

It is too early to make predictions for the next presidential election in 2012. But if the rumblings afoot in towns like Braddock are any indication, the Democrats cannot afford to take any future support for granted.

'There are some who will always vote Democratic because that is what their families have done for generations,' said Mrs Mullen. 'But more and more, people are going to be thinking for themselves.'

The devastating loss of the 123-bed Braddock Hospital, which locals considered the heart of the town, was a wake-up call, many reckoned. Even those who come from a long line of die-hard Democratic voters are re-examining their convictions.

Mr Mike Yezovich grew up hearing kitchen table talk about the party that shaped his political loyalties as a young man.

'People would say Democrats are for the working class, Republicans are for the rich. I guess in my youth, I believed what my parents and grandparents believed,' said the 54-year-old cemetery caretaker.

But his convictions changed over time and he no longer votes a straight Democratic ticket, preferring to support pro-life advocates and political candidates he thinks are best suited for the job.

'My grandmother would roll over in her grave if she found out I was voting Republican,' chuckled the father of 12. But the Democratic Party is not what it once was, he added solemnly.

'It just feels like it's out of touch with the ordinary American, especially those who are struggling like us,' said Mr Yezovich, who mows lawns to supplement his income of US$43,000 a year.
His wife Danette, 50, recently found a job in a day-care centre because the family could no longer live on his pay alone. The couple and six of their children share a three-bedroom apartment they rent for US$336 a month. Mr Yezovich reckons he will never be able to own a home.

'I know it's not just a simple thing for one party to come in and change anything. But you just wonder sometimes, there are a lot of promises, but you don't see it on the ground,' he said.
Asked if there was a possibility of Braddock seeing better days, Mr Yezovich said he continues to hope against hope.

But, he admitted: 'When you see things so bad for so long, you lose your faith in a lot of what's told to you. You don't know what to believe any more.'

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