What the President Can Learn About Jobs From A Rust Belter

"Bring back our jobs” is little more than empty rhetoric.
02/08/2017 11:42 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2017

Ever since campaigning for the 2016 presidential elections began in earnest, the spotlight has been on my home state of Michigan. First as a battleground state, then as a rabble-rouser leading the recount effort, and now as the home of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Although my home state has lately found itself at the center of campaign rhetoric and media narratives, Michigan has been relevant to the development of this country for a long time. We were the Westernmost outpost as a territory, we were a logging mecca, and we were the arsenal of democracy. We were also an industrial state, with Detroit as its center.

Manufacturing jobs are not going to save our state. The attempts to “re-shore,” “import from Detroit” and invest in “smart manufacturing” have not brought close to enough jobs back. If anything, they have only made us hold on to what ought to become a celebrated part of our history.

In its heyday, Detroit used to be the Brooklyn, the San Francisco and the Atlanta in terms of vibrancy and cultural influence. We were the Paris of the Midwest. You could show up in Detroit on Monday morning, have a job by Tuesday, quit that job and have another before close of business Wednesday. Now Michigan is filled with those still standing, emaciated from what we have come to call our state’s “lost decade.” We are a state of de-industrialization, the chronically unemployed and the few, like Betsy DeVos, who have thrived.

Ours is a stratified state. Our biggest city, Detroit has seen its schools fall from being some of the best in the country in the mid-twentieth century, to the perpetual limbo of bankruptcy and teacher turnover of the last two decades. Meanwhile, the surrounding suburbs are home to some of the best performing public schools in America including the 9th best high school according to US News. CBS News says Detroit is the poorest city in the United States. Just the other side of 8 mile lies Oakland County, the 24th richest county in our country. Other statistics point to systematic segregation: Metro-Detroit, which holds half of the State of Michigan’s population, is second only to Cleveland as the most segregated city in the union These figures only begin to point to what has become our new normal in the void left in the wake of not adapting to the changing economic landscape.

With the often mentioned side-effects of treaties like NAFTA, factories were shuttered, workers were displaced and impotent government response created a vacuum. Our control of our own narrative, in Detroit and Michigan, began to slip.

This messaging and economic void was filled by those able to weather the storm. Rapid change in lifestyle ensued for millions across the region. In our state in particular 171,000 people who worked for the Big 3 (GM, Ford, Chrysler), in addition to the other 18% of the Michigan workforce that gained an income through contracts with the Big 3. Twenty years later those employed directly by the big 3 had dwindled to 82,000. In the span of a single person’s professional career, over half the jobs previously taken for granted evaporated. Today, 27 years later, the national economic rebound has created a ceiling of Big 3 employment; holding steady at 105,000―only 60% of what it was when I was a child.

This is not just the change we all have heard about. This is about the speed with which a way of life was discarded and the hole left in millions of family, friends and neighbors lives that has yet to be filled by another economic model. We are no longer the masters of our fate and we, the victims of two successive waves of change have yet to get our voice back. First it was the stab in the back from NAFTA. Now it is the twisting of the knife we in the rust belt feel from the President’s doubling down on the bygone era of domestic manufacturing.

Take it from me as a proud Detroiter, a lifelong Michigander, and a patriotic American, I am convinced that manufacturing is not the answer. The President’s promises to bring factories back is farcical to anyone in the rust belt who reads the paper. Even though we narrowly voted for him, we should understand that the world has changed over the last 25 years and it cannot go back to the way it was; we in Michigan and Detroit know that in our heart of hearts but have yet to accept it.

In addition to jobs in plants, our unions―once the bastion of political power and a unified voice have hemorrhaged members, money and relevance. We as a state and region voted for the President because we saw no other alternative.

With such swiftness, a way of life for the past three generations was exported. While recoiling from this burn we still have to pay bills. With no other skills, no other opportunities, we are left yearning for a dream of the past: stable manufacturing jobs. I am convinced that it is time to move on.

The stratified state I have grown up in didn’t always exist. They were born out of this generation’s plight. Marginalized Michigan is a result of massive, systemic change and the salivation-worthy opportunities that came with it.

My Michigan is the shadow of what once made America the envy of the world. What will ensure progress and make America desirable is to cast aside old models of industrial growth and stability and start working towards a new economic reality.

Of course more help over the last quarter century would have been appreciated, but as unpleasant a lesson as it has been, we in Michigan know intimately the trap of looking backwards. We learned a decade before the rest of the country that a desperate plea to “bring back our jobs” is little more than empty rhetoric.

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