03/06/2012 06:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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

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."


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."

He's got some reason to feel heady, given how successfully Youngstown has wrestled down the ghosts of its past. Already known by the 1950s and '60s as a mafia redoubt (see "Youngstown tune-up"), Youngstown and its economy were sideswiped by events that culminated in Black Monday, the day in September 1977 that Youngstowners associate with the beginning of the end of the steel industry. An era of steep and rapid decline followed. By the late 1990s, the city was home to blight, drugs, crime and political corruption (see James Traficant).

That's all changing. By most accounts, Youngstown is now at the leading edge of a Rust Belt Renaissance. The westward creep of shale gas exploration from neighboring Pennsylvania, just 10 miles away, is among the potential drivers, with boosters predicting, in a study published in September, the potential for billions of dollars in state revenues and some 200,000 jobs. V&M Star Steel, a French company, is in the midst of a $650 million expansion in Youngstown, designed to service the burgeoning natural gas industry in the region. A Houston company, Exterran Energy Solutions, is angling for a foothold in the area as well.

The General Motors plant in nearby Lordstown, once on the ropes, is now back to three shifts, and the whole of the Mahoning Valley, where Youngstown sits, saw a 2.5 percent increase in jobs last year, according to data released last month from Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's the first uptick in annual job growth since 1999.

Just how all this good news might affect residents like McClendon, however, is an altogether different question -- and not everyone believes in the miracle. Among the skeptics: John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University, who says the news of the region's comeback has been greatly exaggerated.

"The situation in Youngstown's neighborhoods looks nothing like what's happening downtown," Russo declared in a January blog post titled "A Dispatch From the Poorest City in America."

In a conversation with HuffPost at a cafe near YSU, Russo explained: "The number of area jobs lost in this recession -- something like 20,000 -- is more than any three-year period during the steel crisis of the '70s and '80s," he said. "Now you talk to people at places like the Youngstown Business Incubator. These are good people, they're very nice and they can create 400 or 500 jobs and God bless them, they're fighting like hell to do all that kind of stuff. But the objective condition for this area is still bleak."


On Dec. 31, an earthquake measuring 4.0 in magnitude -- virtually unheard of in this area -- rocked the city of Youngstown. It was the 11th and strongest such temblor of the year, and the widely assumed culprit is a 9,000-foot-deep wastewater injection well, which began receiving millions of gallons of waste liquids arising from the gas drilling boom -- most of it next door in Pennsylvania -- in late 2010.

The well, located somewhat pointedly on a road dubbed Ohio Works Drive, had already been shuttered pending an investigation, but the New Year's Eve quake seemed to underscore the caveats attending Youngstown's -- and the state's -- pending recovery.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Youngstown

residents can visit the "Mission Mall" where

they can get free clothing and other goods.

(Photo by Tom Zeller Jr.)

It also came amid a flurry of studies that highlighted the challenges attending Ohio's poor. A May 2011 analysis from the Ohio Association of Community Action agencies found that from 1999 to 2009, the state's poverty rate increased from 10.6 percent to 15.2 percent. That amounted to an additional half-million people moving into poverty. Another report, from the Ohio Department of Development, recorded steep increases in poverty in all 12 of the state's largest cities between 1999 and 2009. At 32.1 percent, Youngstown had the highest rate of the 12, up from 24.8 percent ten years earlier.

Then came November's analysis from Brookings. All told, according to the Washington, D.C.-based policy research organization, areas of concentrated poverty, defined as neighborhoods where 40 percent of more of residents subsist below the poverty line, nearly doubled in Midwestern metropolitan areas during the 2000s.

Great Lakes metropolitan areas like Toledo, Detroit, Dayton and Youngstown "ranked among those experiencing the largest increases in concentrated poverty rates," the analysis found. Among central cities, Youngstown had the highest rate of concentrated poverty, at 49.7 percent, in the United States.

The news landed like a skunk at a garden party. In a meeting at his office, the city's mayor, Charles P. Sammarone, waved it off.

"I'll be honest with you, I don't pay much attention to what they say," he said of research groups like Brookings. A lifelong Youngstown resident and former educator, Sammarone inherited the mayor's office after his predecessor, Jay Williams, was tapped by President Obama last summer to oversee his new Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, a division of the Department of Labor.

"One day they say you're an A, the next day they say you're an F. You understand what I'm saying?" Sammarone said. "Who did they ask? Over the years, I don't believe any of those, whether it's Brookings or I don't remember some of the other ones that have come out with studies. Some studies say we're in the top 10 of cities for businesses to locate. So you hear different things. The question is, who ran the study, and who did they ask?"

Tim Ryan, who represents the city in Congress, was considerably less dismissive. "It wasn't much of a surprise," he said. "Youngstown has a lot of good things happening, too. It's really a tale of two cities. You've got the V&M steel expansion and the business incubator downtown. But then you have this really high level of concentrated poverty.

"I think it reflects a failure to address this issue from a national level," Ryan continued. "It's really hard to believe that a country as wealthy as ours has communities like Youngstown sprinkled all over the country. It's a failure of our system. The system we have currently in place, the political management of that system, is inhumane. Having senior citizens who are literally cutting pills in half to make ends meet is inhumane. Having children in areas with high levels of violence, abuse, drugs -- having them grow up in those environments without us making it a priority to address these issues -- is inhumane."

Ryan, a Democrat, lays much of the blame on his Republican colleagues in Congress, decrying their attacks on Planned Parenthood and efforts to curtail insurance coverage for birth control while poverty rates climb.

"It is disgusting," he said in a published statement following the Brookings report, "that this level of poverty occurs in a country with a $14.7 trillion economy."


Reflecting on his Bob Evans job, McClendon, who was born into poverty and, owing to his mother's drug addiction, was shuttled through multiple foster homes, says things were manageable when he was on the evening shift on Sundays, despite the lack of buses. A fellow worker who had a car and lived nearby was assigned the same hours, and they drove in together.

"But then they switched my hours to 11 in the morning," McClendon explains, "So I'm like, how am I going to get to work? I walked a few times, but that took one and a half hours each way. I called a taxi a couple times, and I called a couple people I knew. But I knew that depending on somebody isn't really going to get it, and I stopped calling the taxi because I couldn't afford it. My lights had just been turned off."

Like many of the men and women who find themselves at the mission's doorstep with personal demons -- drug and alcohol addictions, criminal records, lack of a high school diploma, multiple out-of-wedlock births -- McClendon's trials could be easily dismissed as self-inflicted. But for most in his situation, simply cleaning up and doing right is no ticket to even a low-income life, much less access to the middle class. Systemic hurdles abound.

Jim Echement of the rescue mission mentions the difficulty of getting volunteer drivers, who might shuttle his homeless clientele to job interviews or temp agencies but for the threat of increased auto insurance rates. Samantha Turner, the business manager and human resources representative at American Maintenance Service, a local, family-owned janitorial enterprise, said that of 60 applicants for a recent job opening, only three had driver's licenses. Most had had their licenses revoked for back-payments in child support.

The Rev. Lewis W. Macklin II, senior pastor of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church here, describes a friend, a barber, who fell behind on his own child support payments amid the grinding recession. The penalty: loss of his barber's license, making it that much harder to get back on track with support payments.

"The perception is somehow that people are getting more help than they ought to," Macklin says, "and those biases then lead to programs that then try to damn the people who are struggling."

He pointed to a recent proposal, favored by state Republicans, to require drug testing for welfare recipients. "If you're going to have one government recipient get tested, well, elected officials are government recipients," Macklin says. "They're getting tax dollars. So let's have every government recipient get a drug test. Let the governor get a pee cup. Then I'd support it."

(The state's governor, Republican John Kasich, recently bucked his party in questioning the wisdom of drug testing.)

Youngstown's mayor, Charles P. Sammarone,

says the city is making a comeback

(Photo by Tom Zeller Jr.)

But transportation is perhaps the highest hurdle for those struggling to rise, particularly in places like Youngstown, where the low-wage service jobs that offer the only real means of earned income for people like McClendon are typically located in far-flung suburbs. A Brookings Institution analysis issued last spring threw a bright light on the problem. Its analysis of data from 371 transit providers in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas determined that public transit connects a typical metropolitan resident to only about 30 percent of the jobs in their area in 90 minutes or less.

Only about one-quarter of jobs in "low- and middle-skill industries" were similarly accessible.

"Transportation is a big factor," says McClendon, who regularly punctuates conversations with assertions that he has only himself to blame for his woes. "I think they should run on Sundays at least, at least until a certain time. But I don't think I'll see that no time soon."


For much of Youngstown, it's a glass half-full, glass half-empty situation. The interest that many companies have begun to show in the area is undeniably a good sign. But the deep legacy of the steel industry's collapse, interwoven with historical discrimination and the city's heritage of crime and political corruption, remains very hard to miss. Burned-out and boarded-up homes -- or the empty, rutted footprints where homes once stood -- populate street after street in the neighborhoods surrounding the tiny, slowly resuscitating downtown.

An ambitious plan, put in motion by then-mayor Jay Williams in 2005, aimed to shore up the city, not least by recognizing that, like many Rust Belt cities, its population was in decline. The plan sought to revitalize the community that remained by razing infrastructure and housing stock that was in disuse, rehabilitating abandoned spaces, and luring businesses to the area. Much was accomplished over the subsequent five years, but Williams concedes that the deepest recesses of poverty in the area will take time to address.

"Realistically, there won't be an immediate, short-term impact on those neighborhoods, which have seen 20 years of disinvestment," Williams said.

But the seeds of recovery, he added, are being planted, and as investment in the city's industrial and manufacturing base gains momentum -- and as it seeks to lure a diverse menu of businesses to the area -- Youngstown can begin to lift more of its citizens out of the morass. "We need to figure out how to take the economic benefits from all that and drive it deeper into these neighborhoods," he says.

Cossler, head of the business incubator, says that will come.

"When we can import net new dollars, that's economic development," he says. "Everything else is just social engineering. Last year in aggregate, our companies had a net importation of about $60 million to Youngstown. Did it lift someone out of poverty? No. But jobs were created, and those jobs created a demand for a new house, a new car, groceries, a restaurant tab -- and that does lift people out of poverty."


At around 8:00 p.m., about a dozen men gather at the side entrance to the rescue mission. Some find their way inside to a small waiting area outfitted with a television high on the wall. An attendant sits behind a glass window. At 8:30 p.m., he will begin handing out numbered tokens, which will buy the men -- four at a time -- access to the second-floor gymnasium, which now serves as a barracks for the down and out. They will be able to take showers, after which they get a milk crate and fresh linens, which they will take to a steel bunk that corresponds to the number on their token. In the morning they'll get a meal, and then they will disperse into the city again, in search of work or family or some other temporary, fleeting leg-up.

Before heading upstairs, McClendon shares that, as a child, he'd always dreamed of working with wildlife, but the crucible of poverty and a succession of foster homes took their toll.

"I was always interested in stuff about the world, turning rocks over and seeing what's under there, and inspecting things and seeing what it does, and finding birds nests and feeding owls, and finding a pond and going fishing," he said. "I loved school, but really, I stopped wanting to go when -- when I was, like, about 10 or 11. I kept transferring. I couldn't make no friends. I couldn't stay in a home for more than two or three months, then I'm gone into another home, another school, just back and forth. And I just got tired of it. I said, 'I can't do this.'"

"There's a lot of other people out there going through the same thing what I'm going through -- probably worse than what I'm going through," he added. "The only thing I can say is that I'm not giving up."