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In Super Tuesday's Shadow, Ohio's Poorest Struggle To Rise

Posted: 03/06/12 06:40 AM ET  |  Updated: 03/06/12 05:46 PM ET

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Exit the Madison Avenue Expressway onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, just beyond a road sign advertising the Museum of Industry and Labor, and an elegant, pre-war building, red brick and multi-gabled, rises on your right. Built in 1931 and the former home of the West Federal YMCA branch, it is now owned by the Rescue Mission of Mahoning Valley, which houses dozens of this town's homeless residents.

Cleavon McClendon, who recently lost his job working at a Bob Evans restaurant, is among them.

"I lost Bob Evans due to Sundays," says McClendon, 36. "Sundays are their best days, busiest days, and they needed me there on Sundays as much as possible, but I couldn't be there because I don't have transportation and the bus don't run on Sundays. The bus don't run on Sundays, period."

Unable to pay his bills, he then lost his apartment and soon washed up at the side door of the mission. It was not his first time here, and his story is not unusual in a city, and a region, struggling to re-invent itself after the steel industry largely vanished.

As Republican presidential candidates jockey to win the vote in the Buckeye State and elsewhere as part of today's Super Tuesday primaries, the message will, as a matter of political expedience, be carefully tuned to middle-class voters -- and it's little wonder. Ohio lost nearly 34 percent of its high-wage manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2010, according to one analysis published last spring. More than two-thirds of the state's 88 counties saw losses of such jobs at rates of 20 percent or higher. And as a state endowed with 66 delegates, the allegiance of middle-class voters here is required for anyone hoping to capture the White House in November.

Cleavon McClendon says he lost his job at a
Bob Evans restaurant because the bus doesn't
run on Sundays. (Photo by Tom Zeller Jr.)

But for McClendon and other unskilled workers subsisting at the bottom of the economic ladder -- and for those activists and community leaders who strive to better the lot of the worst off -- such statistics can seem hopelessly distant. A more telling metric, they say, would be a Brookings Institution figure published in November, which found the Youngstown metropolitan area to have one of the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the nation. Among core cities, it ranked number one.

With campaign chatter now focused on issues like separation of church and state and the proper place for contraception, the realities of life for the poorest Americans, and the cost to them and society as they continue to founder, hasn't yet been a significant part of the presidential candidates' — or the White House's — stump speeches.

In response to a query on the topic from The Huffington Post on Monday, R.C. Hammond, lead spokesman for Newt Gingrich's campaign, said the problem was partly a function of onerous regulations and stifling tax codes inhibiting businesses from taking root and flourishing. That, in turn, limits good jobs and real opportunities for those at the lowest end of the ladder. "There's a lot of working poor in the United States," Hammond said. "But having everyone working is not enough. People need to be working at jobs that support their families and their dreams."

Representatives of Rick Santorum's campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but Jesse Benton, a spokesman for the Ron Paul campaign, blamed the nation's growing poverty rates in the United States on inflation. "The Federal Reserve is systematically debasing the dollar and squeezing the lower middle class, the poor and Americans on fixed incomes," Benton said. "Unless we sure up our monetary system, we will see more and of our people slip into poverty."

Andrea Saul, a campaign spokeswoman for Mitt Romney, blamed rising poverty rates on the White House. "Under this President, Americans have seen more job losses and more economic devastation than under any President in modern history," Saul said. "The only real solution to the economic crisis is to get Barack Obama out of the White House, undo the damage he has done, and replace him with a true leader."

Representatives of the White House and President Obama's re-election campaign declined to discuss the issue on the record, though a campaign spokesman pointed to the extension of unemployment benefits and investments in job training and homelessness prevention as evidence of the president's commitment to addressing poverty.

For residents of Youngstown's many decaying neighborhoods, however, hard times are measured in decades, and even some of the city's most dedicated boosters concede that lifting the city's poorest out of their plight will continue to be an uphill battle. For the most part, they remain ignored and, as such, invisible.

"It's out of sight, out of mind," says Jim Echement, a former business executive who is the director of development at the faith-based Rescue Mission. Echement has high praise for Youngstown's recent efforts to turn itself around, but he says the poverty he sees at the mission is too-often unnoticed. "People think, 'Well, somebody else will take care of that' -- and I speak from personal experience," he says. "I had no idea this place was here at all until one night a homeless guy showed up at our church, looking for help in one of the elite suburbs. The pastor said we should take him to the mission, so we dropped this fellow off. It was the first time I'd ever been here.

"It's kind of an indictment," Echement adds. "Why didn't I know about this before? I didn't care. That's the way that it was."

BOUNCING BACK

In a huge yellow font, set against a black background, the cover of the August 2009 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine declared it had compiled a list of the 10 best cities in which to start a business. "Youngstown, Ohio, Anyone?" was the underline. Inside, the magazine profiled one of several budding technology companies being nurtured at the Youngstown Business Incubator, a campus of four previously empty buildings in the heart of downtown.

Jim Cossler, the founder of the incubator, says the success of his enterprise is a bellwether of more good things to come.

"From the perspective of someone who has lived here almost all his life," he says "I've never been more optimistic about the community."

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