Steel was the manufacturing base that made possible so many of the other businesses, so when the steel mills closed, the machine shops went out of business. When the machine shops went out of business, the tool suppliers went out of business. When the tool suppliers went out of business, those people lots their jobs, they didn’t shop anymore, they didn’t go out to eat anymore, and school districts suddenly found themselves denuded of pupils. We’ve actually closed high schools in the city of Pittsburgh, because it’s now half the population it once was.
Our depression twenty-five years ago started from here and spread out. Now, it’s nibbling in from the outside on us. It’s still a recession, but it’s not the implosion it was before. We’re not rotting from the center this time.
KB: So it sounds like the newness of the recession that we get from the national narrative isn’t so new in Pennsylvania?
DR: The first person I interviewed had gone through the collapse of steel twenty-years ago. She talked about how it destroyed her marriage and redirected her life. And now, what happened with her a month after I interviewed her? She had landed another job paying just as much in another sector of healthcare administration for the healthcare industry. So, twenty five years ago, you didn’t have steel workers who lost their jobs and later called you up and said, “Hey, I got a job at another steel mill.” They all went out of business. The recession is still affecting lives, but it’s not tearing down any given economic super-structure the way it did twenty-five years ago. I’m at greater risk of being unemployed this time next year than many of the people I’m interviewing.
KB: One thing that we’ve been watching in the national narrative is how the stimulus legislation will affect the folks on the ground. What are you getting from the people you speak with?
DR: At this point, it’s still agencies talking to other agencies. It’s federal agencies talking to city, state, and county departments about where the money is and how to go about getting it. Everyone knows it’s supposed to do something to the economy.
The people I’ve spoken with say they sure hope this stimulus program works, but they’re not sure how it’s supposed to work. Most people understand the concept behind the stimulus, but there’s no bar graph where you can follow the action. There’s not a route map where you can say, “Okay, we’re one third of the way there.”
The people I really hear talk about it are in government and economic development agencies who attend the seminars about how the money is coming from this and that department. I’ve seen forums where people from Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Defense, Small Business Administration, Department of Agriculture, they’ll get up on the stage and talk about the money they have, and what they’re going to be doing with it. If you ask me, OK, what’s this going to do to the unemployment rate in three months? I have no idea. And, mind you, I’ve covered economics before.
I covered the last recession, and back then we were all thrashing about trying to figure out what went wrong, what to do about it, and what other places had done. I went to North Carolina, I went to suburban Philly where tech was growing, I went to Boston. And the lesson that I derived from all of this was, the one thing that we didn’t understand is what it did to individual people. And how that reflected the broader story. So I’m trying to do it completely differently this time.
KB: Is there anything you see missing in the national coverage?