Unmade in America: Industrial Flight and the Decline of Black Communities

New report explores high black joblessness causes, impact, solutions; Reversal rests in infrastructure, workforce training and trade rules

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new report coinciding with the release of the October monthly employment data explores the wide gaps in white and black joblessness and identifies the roots of the problem to industrial flight in once thriving manufacturing centers that gave African Americans a path to the middle class.

The report, Unmade in America: Industrial Flight and the Decline of Black Communities, goes beyond current statistics that show national black youth jobless rates at 27 percent—nearly double that of white youths. The report examines the multi-generational impact of plant closings, outsourcing and housing discrimination in trapping black communities in concentrated poverty. While high joblessness is the obvious outcome of deindustrialization, other casualties include crime, educational inequity and fractured neighborhoods.    

“Unmade in America touches on an array of issues that surface a story hiding in plain sight,” said report author Gerald Taylor, a research fellow with the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM). “The story began with the post-World War II manufacturing boom that created the world’s greatest economic power for white and black American working families. But when manufacturing began to decline, industrial flight snatched the livelihoods of these workers — and black workers suffered the most.”

The spiral down in the 1970s continued into the 21st Century. More than 63,000 factories have closed since 2001. Over a 15-year period alone (between 1998 and 2013), an estimated 5.7 million manufacturing jobs were lost.

The report spotlights a tale of many cities, the long-term impact in large industrial hubs like St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Birmingham. What they share in common is a once thriving industrial sector and the depleted remains of industrial flight in search of cheap labor overseas and unfair trade policies. 

The report points to the author’s hometown, Youngstown, Ohio as a microcosm of how black communities have been unmade. A steel industry mecca in the post-World War II era, Youngstown enjoyed full employment until the drumbeat of plant closings and massive job lost signaled by the shuttering of a major steel plant in 1971. Without prior notice, that closing instantly threw nearly 5,000 workers into unemployment. What followed was the rippling failure of other businesses, decline of the city’s tax base and flight of the white middle class. Many black residents, saddled by housing discrimination that limited their mobility, remained trapped in perpetual joblessness, poverty, crime and neighborhood decay. Today, demographers describe Youngstown, reduced from a population of 170,000 to 64,000, as America’s fastest shrinking city with the highest level of concentrated black poverty.

Despite the plummeting economic status of black communities, AAM President Scott Paul said the problems can be reversed with a three-prong approach that includes infrastructure investment, innovative workforce development and fully enforced trade laws that are fair and ensure U.S. workers benefit.

“Manufacturing job loss consumes communities, not just workers. At the same time, manufacturing jobs represent new opportunities and hope.” Paul said. “The key is getting policy right. We must invest in workforce development and America's crumbling infrastructure programs, and vigorously fight against unfair trade practices if we're to stop industrial flight and build up our middle-class. Now is the time for our lawmakers to invest, invest, invest.”

For more information on Unmade in America, visit AmericanManufacturing.org.