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When Things Change

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Salena Zito’s latest Rust Belt portrait, in this case of the host’s home territory, is quite poignant. It describes the day the steel plants started closing and the aftermath:

The events of Black Monday forever changed not only the Steel Valley, but her people and eventually American culture and politics. Just last year the reverberations were felt in the presidential election when many hard-core Democrats from this area broke from their party to vote for Donald Trump, a Republican who promised to bring jobs back to the Heartland.

Even today, after the election, the Washington establishment still hasn’t processed or properly dissected its effects. Economic experts predicted that the service industry would be the employment of the future. Steel workers were retrained to fill jobs in that sector, which was expected to sustain the middle class in the same way that manufacturing did.

It did not. According to a study done by the Midwest Center for Research the average salary of a steel worker in the late 1970s was $24,772.80. Today, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor statistics, the medium household income in the Mahoning Valley is $24,133.

There was also a push for Americans to be more mobile. Lose your job in Youngstown? Fine, move to Raleigh or Texas. No one calculated that the tight-knit people of Youngstown didn’t want to leave their town.

They liked Youngstown. To Washington and New York that seemed odd.

When I read this story I had two visceral reactions.  On the one hand I too am from the Rust Belt, though in my case I come from the lovely state of Indiana, not the host’s lesser Ohio.  My first “real, serious” job post-college was at a consumer electronics factory.  When I worked there it employed 2500 people – larger than the town my father grew up in.  At its height in WWII the factory employed nearly 15,000 and built the then super-secret radar sets for the military.  When I worked there we built television sets, and not just any television.  At the time it was the proudest brand name in consumer electronics – RCA. There are now several generations that have never heard of it.  The factory is as long gone as the company.  Less than a mile away the once monstrous Western Electric plant, employing 10,000 even in my day, now sits on the near east side of Indianapolis as a massive presence too big for anybody to use any more and too expensive to demolish.

There was a pride working in such places….

For example, at the time every TV remote had a pad on it on which the buttons landed to close the switch to create the signal to the TV.  That pad was made of a very expensive and very hard to control material.  As the person responsible for the quality of all chemical materials used in the plant it was my job to make sure that material was safely stored and maintained.  Thus for a period of about 4 years something like 30-50% of the TVs sold in America, and a significant portion of those sold world-wide, contained a material that had been personally formulated by my two hands.  I was known on a couple of occasions to walk into someone’s house, check the manufacture date on the TV, grab a screwdriver and take apart their remote control just to show them my handiwork.

On the other hand, now a resident of California, I have owned my own business for about 30 years.  I know the difficult decisions that come with operating a business.  I understand why the steel plants closed.  Moreover I saw the handwriting on the wall for RCA and knew I needed to change before I ended up like the proud but suffering people of the Mahoning Valley, not to mention so many of my friends from RCA.  My father was an occasionally wise man and one of the maxims he raised me on was, “The only constant in the world is change.”  Not only was this a maxim, he gave object lessons.  He climbed the corporate ladder relentlessly and until my sister and I reached Junior High, we moved many times in pursuit of better opportunity.  Even when we settled in Indianapolis, he changed jobs several times.  Change was in fact a constant in my young life.

But there is change and then there is change.  My wife and I find ourselves in our now senior years complaining to each other about the massive change that has occurred in our neighborhood.  Our once quiet, suburban lifestyle is now just a tick away from completely urban.  What was once a wholly white collar upper-middle class neighborhood is now, despite the excessive real estate prices, a very middle middle class neighborhood with as many blue collars as white.  Our retirement dream is no longer to stay here, but to once again find the quiet tranquility in which we originally established ourselves.

Again, there is change and then there is change.  If you read the Zito piece fully you find that the issue is not the loss of jobs to the region, but that the loss of those jobs changed the entire culture of the Mahoning Valley.  Likewise the changes of my youth were changes of jobs and money for the family, but our moves were all between remarkably similar places culturally.  Even when, as an adult, I moved from Indiana to California, the culture change was far less that what has occurred in CA in my residency here.  Indiana had been the place of growth in the nation with the electronics and auto industries, but in the early 80’s those industries were waning and California was where all the opportunity resided.  (Unlike now where the only opportunity in California is as a tax collector.)

People do not have a problem with changes in business and jobs, they have a problem with changes in culture.  In the Mahoning Valley the business and the culture were too deeply entwined and change could not happen in one without the other.  In my area the cultural changes are largely a matter of immigration and government policy.  I do not begrudge the immigrants, but I sure do begrudge government policy.  And there is the problem – the government now is not satisfied with dealing just with the business issues – they want to meddle in the culture too.  They do not want to help the Mahoning Valley be something like it used to be – they want to “transform” it in some Utopian, if unwanted, fashion.  Which, as Zito points out, accounts for our current administration.

Through my life I have coped with all the changes in no small measure by building my personal culture around my church.  No matter where I went there was a place where the culture was constant, the values never changed, and the smiles were always wide.  But now even that seems to be changing.  Many churches are changing values as rapidly as the general culture.  Church growth consultants are all about transforming a church’s culture to be more “inclusive.”  (Which in my opinion means “look more like the world around you does” – we’re not talking about race or national origin here.)  “Innovation” is a key word for many churches today.  That always causes me to wonder why an institution the sole purpose of which is to preserve and spread eternal truth needs to innovate.  If the church holds eternal truth the world should bend to it, not the other way around.

If I were a church growth consultant I might look at election 2016 and start to wonder if maintaining culture instead of adapting to it might not be the next big thing in churches.


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