The bar is set pretty low regarding what we expect from CNN at this point, but even by their Wolf Blitzery standards this "Voices from the Rust Belt" thing is delusional. It's little more than a variant on the Hard Working Americans / Salt of the Earth Blue Collar Types (read: white people who live in shitty places) theme that the mainstream media simply can't let go, probably on account of the fact that their average viewer is 65 and thus able to remember a time when Erie, PA mattered.


Having ruminated over the causes and consequences for decades, the present reality is that there is no real economic reason for these places to exist anymore. They once serviced geographically-bound industries that either have ceased to be relevant or have been brutalized by free trade agreements. As I tell every single half-sentient adult I meet in rural Central Illinois, the solution to the problem is to leave. Get out. Move somewhere with jobs and something to do. The good times are never coming back to Buffalo and Flint.

As the CNN piece itself notes, most mobile individuals do leave, and in fact have already left. So, one might ask their producers, what is the point of focusing on these places? Why do we care about the Voices of the people left behind, the vast majority of whom are just too old to let go of the place psychologically. Anything that could be done to "save" these places is never going to be done; the country is too all-in on globalization and the inerrant wisdom of the free market to countenance sentimental arguments about saving some massively polluted shit hole in rural Ohio.

They can call it whatever they want, but we can spot "Let's tell our old, sad, white viewers in Scranton or some other place we wouldn't live on a bet that they're still really important" when we see it.

45 thoughts on “A REAL PUZZLE”

  • Maybe because if you're going to be poor and jobless no matter where you go, may as well stay put? At least then you're not poor and jobless and homeless?

    I dunno.

    If everyone in these places were re-located (to where, btw? more Sun City, Arizonas?) would we bomb everything to rubble and leave it to the wild animals, like Chernobyl?

  • Eventually, people will stop moving to Austin because there won't be any water left. Then all these places will be cool again, because there's water there.

    Please stop telling people to move to Austin. Please.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    As someone smarter than me said, Americans let their cities die. This is what it looks like. Either pay the money to do something about it or get the hell over it.

    As Kmtberry said, though, in a decade or two when the Colorado has finally been drunk dry, Pennsylvania is going to start looking awfully good.

  • You know, Buffalo's actually not that bad, if you don't mind getting literally 7 feet of snow sometimes in one day. But… waterfront sunsets!

  • So, we should all just give up and become the rootless interchangeable labor resource units that the oligarchs see us as?

  • I have never understood why Americans, whose ancestors crossed oceans and continents, get so wrapped up in this hometown, dying city nonsense. Move! Yes, you'll leave your friends behind. Yes, it's scary. Yes, it's expensive. You think your great-great-whatever was thrilled to load all their earthly possessions in a boat and spend a month crossing the Atlantic? You think that was cheap or fun or anything less than completely terrifying? Our ancestors would slap the shit out of us for this nostalgic nonsense. I have no sympathy.

  • "So, we should all just give up and become the rootless interchangeable labor resource units that the oligarchs see us as?"

    The alternative is what? Bernie Sanders' political revolution? Still not enough people voting for it.

  • I'd love to read CUND Gulag's view of this.

    Telling people to move is not the answer. I live in an area where two major cities plus the state capital (which thinks it's important, but is really just self-important) are all merging into one impassable mess. I leave home shortly after 5 am and sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. That morning "rush hour" continues on through nearly 10 am, then picks up again around 2 pm until roughly around 7 pm. The 4 pm news starts off with a recital of all the major highways and minor go-arounds that are impassable due to accidents. Yet they're still building, and people are still flooding in because we have jobs in this area.

    A 1-bedroom apartment in a not-so-good area goes for around $1500/month, and they're building apartments, condos, and townhouses by the score, right up to the one-lane roads that haven't been upgraded in 20 years. Still more people flood in. An afternoon meeting at the company headquarters 10 miles away means an hour on the road in each direction. I dream of living in a place where a half-hour drive means you're 20 miles or more away from something.

  • You know why a lot of people don't move? They can't afford to. It costs money to move from one place to another. That's why we used to have hobos riding the rods and living in "jungles." You go to a new city, what's the first thing you need? A place to sleep and a place to eat. Neither is free, although if you're in a town you already know you might know of a mission where the Sallies will give you a bowl of stew in exchange for listening to their sermon and singing a couple of hymns for an hour or so. The good places to sleep are already taken by the homeless people already living there. So you can't really go unless you've got enough money to pay for a place to stay plus a stake for food for at least a month. If you're moving because you need to you aren't going to be buying a house. If you want to rent a place you've got to put up at the very least two months rent in advance and maybe an additional "security" deposit. About twenty years ago I had a guy, a very smart systems analyst, trying to convince me that poor people actually do that, move from a place with low welfare benefits to places with higher benefits. It's not feasible economically. The people who offer this kind of advice are completely unaware of the realities the lowest down and outers face.

  • It is too expensive to leave. The only thing these places have going for them is that shitty housing is really inexpensive–like you can buy a house for $10,000 inexpensive. Nowhere else in the country can you survive on so little, at least in terms of housing costs, which are probably the biggest expense people have.

  • Burning River says:

    As an honest-to-blog native of Erie, PA who now resides across the border in Northeast OH, I'd like to weigh in here a bit. One of the biggest things keeping folks in places like this is that, for the preceding 2-3 generations, real industry (GE being one of the big ones, in the case of Erie) kept our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. there up to and through retirement, where they remain to this day with what's left of pensions and social security maintaining them.

    Many of the folks that I know who stay there are trapped in the middle. They're helping, on some level, to care for an older relative who isn't going to move to Austin, or Arizona, or any other new-economy haven that will be without water in 20 years. And, because the jobs situation is so dire, those who aren't caring for older relatives are relying on older relatives for child care so they can try to scrap together a living.

    What's telling is that when I scan around the social networks is that the overwhelming majority of the top 10% of my graduating class got out of there and never looked back. That's not good for the prospects of rebuilding the city, either.

  • @Burning River; I've noticed that in my husband's hometown. It used to be that big, nationally-recognized companies offered jobs-for-life with pensions, but they started leaving in the 1980s. People he went to high school with are hopping from job to job like polar bears on shrinking ice floes. Their kids are all scattered. While it's stunningly beautiful up there and we could buy a perfectly fine family home for about $40k, there are no jobs and jobs-with-pensions are a Baby Boomer thing; not available to my generation.

  • Is there such a thing as "the world is going to Hell in a handbasket" porn? 'Cause what other reason is there for this? It's to allow older people to indulge their feeling that the world is all shitty now that they're not the generation in charge of everything. While I understand that every generation indulges in "goddamned kids today and their clothes and their music" grousing, I don't see what CNN (or anyone else) has to gain by stoking that.

  • At least my older son's debilitating psychosis spares us the anxiety about what he's going to do for a living.

    (That came out a little dark)

    Here in Oakland California, we have actual businesses, some regional, some local, and the influx of talented, creative and hard-working people who can no longer afford to live in San Francisco. It's like Brooklyn with fewer Chasidim and more Black people. We even have a functioning public library system! Everyone elected to municipal offices seems to come down with bovine spongiform encelopathy, but a lot of cities have that problem.

  • One thing that could help, looking hard at externalized expenses, such as the additional carbon emission implicit in outsourced manufacturing. I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for the .01% to develop much empathy.

  • Burning River says:

    @Katydid And that's the thing- Erie is in many ways a very nice little city, with the waterfront and the state park and all that. The cost of living (at least for housing) has gotten a bit out of whack, which is odd. If I thought we could manage the same standard of living and some stability, I'd almost consider moving back, too. But, for the folks who are retired, still have that pension, and a house that is or nearly is paid in full, what's the motivation? And if those same folks are my parents or relatives that can watch my kid(s) on the cheap, why would I move?

    But, Cleveland has a lot of good things going for it, at least, for college and beyond-educated folks.

  • @SeaTea; don't forget,CNN is also stoking the "Rill 'Murkuh" crap that Sarah Pallin and her ilk made so popular–the meme that says that people living in stable communities with economic opportunities are not really Americans and shouldn't have a say in politics because they're all godless commie heathens who don't lub them some Jebus. Or something.

    @Burning River; I would have given just about anything to have had a good support network when my kids were young enough to need childcare. If I'd lived in a town with people who could provide it–especially on short notice–I wouldn't have moved from there, either. Agreed, "People should just move" is not always the answer.

  • Here in Lincoln, NE there are refugees from virtually every country that has people fleeing oppression or bad economies or both. There are several organizations that help them get settled, arrange benefits, help with job searches, teach English as a second language, etc.

    My question is, why are there no programs in place for what, essentially, are our own internal refugees? Or am I missing something?

  • Lots of good responses above. I will chime in with the "Please don't move to our crowded Dustbowl" (California). Living in Peoria is it easy to forget how EXPENSIVE the booming areas are. Even if one can find an apartment in a market with well under 5% vacancy rates.

    Still, being an ex-Hoosier (and I attended Bradley for a few years!) I have no real love for the inland Midwest and would hate to move back. Fort Wayne is not nearly as bleak as Peoria, but I just don't really love the landscape or climate. But, there is water. Plenty of water (until climate change kills them).

    I think Cleveland is pretty neat, actually. But the climate. And Buffalo is not the lost cause you think it is. And water. Lots of water!

  • "Let's tell our old, sad, white viewers in Scranton or some other place we wouldn't live on a bet that they're still really important"

    Let's tell them that, and also "see how godforsaken these lives are and yours'll seem a lot better."

  • This interesting Blogger is also promoting the meme that the low cost Midwest may be the real locus of opportunity in the future.

    Note that he is probably not talking about Massilon, Ohio, Saginaw, Michigan, or Anderson, Indiana, but Columbus and Cincinnati and possibly an Erie might be. The insane costs, and regulatory regime (NIMBYism) in the coastal hot spots is an ongoing theme at his blog.


  • blahedo: The case of the New York writer was discussed in some length at Alicublog. One important point is that the centralization of the economy in fewer hands means that it is necessary for many people to live in central places like the expensive coastal cities. The connections, the companies, the people are concentrated there. Take that argument for what it is worth.

  • these places have one great resource… desperate people.. let's create a reality show that allows rich people to hunt and kill poor people in a dystopian hellhole such as flint. All televised with go-pros and drones..

    If the prey is killed, the designated beneficiary gets $50,000. If it survives, it wins $100,000. We can allow other residents to take ambush shots on the players for cash and valuable prizes. No napalm or 50cal machine guns, or rockets.

  • Left Scranton 2.5 years ago. I can confirm, the vast majority of people still there are old, racist or old racists.

  • @Robert: sorry to hear about your son. As a taxpayer, I want my money used to actually help the people-people, not the corporation-people.

    @Amaryllis; I stopped in Scranton for lunch on a road trip last summer and it seemed like a town that had given up.

  • Burning River says:

    @Brian M

    Once you've grown up in Erie, then spent near on 20 years in Cleveland, 'the climate' is merely a fact of life that one thinks little of. Sure, we complain about it to each other, but, if an outsider says anything, we get terribly defensive.

  • I feel a little more like Chief Dan George's character in "The Outlaw Josie Wakes" with every passing day. Every day looks like a pretty good day to die–but I keep putting it off.

  • Once you've bought a house in one of these places, you're nailed down there forever.

    You spent $50K on a house that's now worth $35K (because the kids are bailing out and the old people are dying and the Walmart closed down the factory and shipped the call center jobs to Indonesia, or something like that).

    You owe the bank $47K on that $35K house. You're not going anywhere. You're certainly not going to a city where one-bedroom apartments rent for $3K per month.

    Huge numbers of people are going to be punished/left destitute by climate-change-induced internal migrations.

  • Deborah:

    I am a big fan. Except that unlike Johnny, I am an utter failure at doing what he says we should be doing, so there is a bit of cognitive dissonance going on.

    Burning River: I am from Fort Wayne, Indiana, originally. Not Cleveland or Buffalo (or Erie), but certainly not the Banana Belt either.

    It's the landscape. That's why I will stay in California. People can find poetic attachment to all kinds of landscapes, but outside some cute lakes surrounded by crappy cottages, I don't miss the northern Indiana landscape at all. Coastal towns and cities have at least some charm. Heck, even Peoria has the river and a few bluffs.

  • @BrianM: I agree with you about the landscape; some people prefer coastal views *and there is nothing wrong with that*. Some people prefer to live in a place that offers not only jobs, but also interesting things to do when you're not working, *and there's nothing wrong with that*. Those places are every bit as much "America" as the dusty one-horse towns with no prospects and nothing for anyone to do but sit around and gossip about their neighbors.

  • Full disclosure, I myself loaded all my early possessions in a truck and moved five states for a better job.

    As for cities dying, regarding my earlier comments about testing for lead in poor neighborhoods, the time to save Baltimore was 20 years ago. The city still has this hope that developers will swoop in and flip all the empty houses, or develop the waterfront. It's not pretty, but the best we can do now is just knock down the empty blocks now and save Mother Nature the bother.

  • @SafetyMan; the waterfront is pretty darned developed out, from HarborPlace which opened in (1980? 1981?) to the Aquarium to the Science Center to the bazillion-dollar condos and upscale hotels. There was a lead abatement program 20 years ago; my spouse worked on it. Thank the current gov of MD for rolling back environmental protections and public transportation funds first-thing. Also, one thing downtown did NOT need was the stupid-ass mega-luxury stadium plopped down in the middle of downtown, completely ruining traffic and any pleasure anyone might seek from the beautiful downtown as it's overrun with drunken brawling idiots.

    P.S. 30 years ago, there was a program that allowed people to buy decrepit row homes for $1 so long as they renovated them. I was in college then and rented very cheaply from a man who was doing just that–I paid him $50/month plus utilities, he reno'd the space around me, got it up-to-code, then sold it. Win-win.

  • Having ruminated over the causes and consequences for decades, the present reality is that there is no real economic reason for these places to exist anymore.

    Excuse me? Have you been to Erie, PA, or Buffalo, NY, recently? Have you actually Gaia-forbid spoken to a citizen? Yeah, I get it, big steel went to China decades ago, and most shit worth having is made elsewhere. If that's the mark of a place, what the hell is in Charlotte, NC, or Phoenix, AZ, or Gaia slay me FLORIDA except a lot of people and an expensive, unsustainable lifestyle?

    No, thanks. When Houston, Denver, Tuscon, and Los Angeles become the new ghost towns because no one can live there anymore, perhaps we can rag on CNN for airing sympathy pieces for those shit holes.

  • Additional costs are worth it, invest in yourself and your family, even if you have to live off PB&J and Ramen for a while. Paying for education, healthcare, and a safe environment through higher costs of living and taxes is always cheaper than trying to budget for those 'goods' from your tiny amount of discretionary dollars in a shitty place with no services. Make the move if you're not happy, or do something to change your hometown, but complaining never solved anything in this corporate/capitalist society.

  • Hey Katydid,

    Specifically I meant the area by O'Donnell Heights, i.e. the far side of the bay across the Hanover St bridge.

    As far as I know the city still does those programs for renovators. One of the problems I saw was that with a five-house block, if two of them are missing roofs you can't help the other three, they're going to have a slew of problems from water intrusion and mold, probably insurance as well. In any case, way too many of those homes are still vacant shells.

  • @SafetyMan; I couldn't tell you the state of housing in Baltimore right now except I saw a lot of blight on the tv after the riots last year. I agree with you that if you've got a row of attached homes built in the 1800s (not a typo) and some of them are missing roofs, then the row is probably unsaveable. OTOH, there are also a number of absolutely stunning showplaces up by the zoo and "the Avenue", and I remember going to see the Christmas decorations in Hampden; the whole neighborhood got in on it and it was quite beautiful.

    @Bruce; I can only speak for the Buffalo area, not Ohio or Pennsylvania, but one thing that struck me about my spouse's hometown was how educated and up on current events the local population is. I wouldn't write that area off just yet–the schools are still good (much better than in my southern hellhole), the area is surrounded by natural beauty and abundant water (which is getting cleaner as time goes on–no more rivers on fire), and transportation. My husband's hometown has train tracks and the Erie Canal which used to move goods, and a great bus system to move people, in addition to the trains (which now just carry freight, not people).

  • The whole upper mid-west manufacturing belt was put together by bankers in New York and elsewhere on the east coast to exploit the iron mines, coal and natural gas in the region. The Hudson is the only river through the Appalachians, so the Erie Canal opened a water link from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. Detroit and its automotive business was located centrally to exploit the iron mines and water transport. Gary and the other steelmakers used to set the prices at his famous breakfasts. When the railroads came in, the area was known as the "trunk" and they set tariffs to keep industry in its place. The whole region was one big industrial plantation. (Further west were the grain belts which were run out of Chicago where the Mississippi River system met the Great Lakes. That was the big agricultural plantation.)

    The coal country got the shaft first. Read 'Night Comes to the Cumberlands'. Everything was owned and operated out of the big east coast cities. The miners got nothing except work place injuries and black lung. The natural gas ran out pretty quickly, but it left some industry in its wake. (For example, Ball is still a major container manufacturer, but it started as a glass company in the energy boom town of Muncie.)

    US industry ruled the world after World War II. I remember learning about all the manufacturing centers, but by the late 1960s the rest of the world was crawling out of its bomb craters and modernizing. By the mid-1970s American car companies were in decline. Hunter Thompson joked about American cars "made by junkies in Detroit to teach the rest of us a lesson". By the 1980s I lived in a coastal area and was constantly meeting new hires who hailed from those industrial cities I had learned about. "So how is Akron?" I asked our new technical writer. "All the tire factories are gone and downtown is all empty lots." "So, not so good."

    Blue collar workers were never hired for being clever or imaginative. They were hired to work hard and when they hit 50 and their bodies gave out, they would take easier, lower paying jobs. I can see their kids moving out and doing better, but I'm not sure it would work for most of the older folks. Even if we closed off all trade with China, we'd still only have a handful of manufacturing jobs. Hell, if the latest issue of MIT's Technology Review is correct, China is moving to robots, and in 20-30 years Shenzen will be the new Detroit. How do you say "salt of the earth" in Mandarin?

    I'm a softy liberal, so I don't think we should let these people starve, but its hard to help people who think that they can make it on their own when they can't. Worse, they never could, but they liked to pretend.

  • Matthew Clark says:

    I was born and raised in Flint. I live and work here now. While your solution to just leave makes sense, for a lot of us that is not a realistic option. There are 95,000 people still here and most cannot just pick up and leave. So, we need better solutions for the near 100,000 people who live here. Just pick up and leave is elitist, snobby, and solves nothing.

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