For decades, work provided more than income for Mahoning Valley communities: It provided identity. People from the area were proud that its steel helped win World Wars I and II and contributed to the postwar booms. People were proud that the work they did provided a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for their families.
The area is still reeling from the decline of the steel industry that began on September 19th, 1977—Black Monday, as it is known in the region—when Youngstown Sheet and Tube furloughed 5,000 workers. Within a decade of these initial job losses, the Mahoning Valley lost roughly 40,000 jobs and 50,000 people left the area. The losses have only compounded over the following decades, making the Mahoning Valley a symbol of deindustrialization and its associated social challenges.
What was lost was not just jobs, but the opportunity to join the middle class through hard work. A good job in the area now pays $15 an hour, less than half of what it once did, and there are fewer such good jobs. As economic conditions have continued to worsen, the plight of the region is visible, most clearly, in its boarded-up shops; today, there is hardly a fully functioning supermarket within the Youngstown and Warren city limits. Many of the people left in these urban centers are from minority communities, and with population decline in the Valley’s center cities, political power has moved to its suburbs, leading to increased racial inequities.
Yet many in the Mahoning Valley are working on a way forward. For example, the Mahoning Valley has two significant community development corporations, the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership (TNP) and the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC). Both agencies are working to help communities address growing vacancies and ever-diminishing services. The TNP’s Building A Better Warren (BABW) program is one such initiative, providing training and job opportunities for local residents by teaching demolition, renovation, and construction skills while paying a living wage with benefits.
Initiatives like this show a desire in the Valley to create economic opportunities that focus on local needs and are less susceptible to the kinds of large closures and disruptions seen in the steel and car industries. This desire is coupled with an increased interest in collaborative and cooperative economic models such as employee-ownership. What has been lost may not be coming back, but projects like BABW are beginning to show an economic path forward for this community.
In the interview below, we take a closer look at BABW and the future of work prospects in the region. —Quilian Riano, In the Mahoning Valley chief editor
Explore these related features: Hear how the philanthropic sector is working to create an equitable and just economic system for the Mahoning Valley, in an interview with Jennifer Roller, President of the Wean Foundation. Read an essay by Roy Messing from the Kent State University Ohio Employee-Ownership Center describing efforts to create employee-owned cooperatives in the Mahoning Valley in response to the loss of manufacturing jobs.