The success of the American middle class is linked in no small part to the availability of well-paying industrial jobs. “Manufacturing jobs are better jobs,” says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. “They’re higher-productivity jobs than those in the service sector or in agriculture, and the combination of that and strong unions really enabled people to have good jobs and upward social mobility for themselves and their kids.”
But in the last three decades, the nation’s once proud Steel Belt became the Rust Belt, as countless manufacturing companies foundered. A loss of nearly 8 million manufacturing jobs, from a peak of 20 million in 1979, has led to a historic decline for middle-class families and towns.
Co-author of “The State of Working West Virginia”
Weirton, W.Va., is one such town. Located about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, it was once home to one of the world’s largest steel producers, Weirton Steel. The company employed nearly 14,000 workers and was part of a flourishing industrial sector in the post–World War II era that brought economic security to families nationwide. At its peak in the 1960s, about 30,000 people lived in Weirton. Back then, millworkers just out of high school could count on a wage of $16 an hour until they decided to retire, which was typically after 30 years on the job.
But Weirton Steel was dealt a devastating blow in the 1970s as automation increased efficiency and steel production moved overseas. Today the mill employs fewer than 1,000 workers. The impact is apparent in empty storefronts, run-down businesses and a bus terminal where buses no longer stop. A third of Weirton’s residents have moved away, leaving behind an aging town.
Rick Wilson, a co-author of “The State of Working West Virginia,” drives around the state to monitor economic trends. He has seen middle-class wages stagnate as household costs have risen over the last three decades. “The largest employer in West Virginia was once Weirton Steel, and now it’s Walmart,” he says. In fact, Weirton’s Walmart now stands in place of the mill’s former headquarters. “The wages of a steelworker in Weirton in 1979 were higher than the wages of a Walmart worker today.”
Still, some of the youngest generation in Weirton refuse to give up hope. Sean Brown, a 26-year-old National Guardsman, lives in town with this wife, Danielle, and their 6-month-old daughter, Maggie May. A few years ago, Brown managed to snag one of the rare job openings at the mill. “I always told my mom and dad, if I could make good money here, I’d stay here,” he says.