TOPICS > Economy

In Ohio, How 2 Counties’ Economic Paths Diverged Over 30 Years

March 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
As part of his series on Making Sen$e of financial news, economics correspondent Paul Solman reports from two Ohio counties -- Crawford and Delaware -- that had similar incomes 30 years ago, but their economies and populations have since taken very different paths.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, what’s behind the growing economic divide in America?

Economics correspondent Paul Solman recently traveled to central Ohio to look for some answers.

His story was done in collaboration with “The Atlantic” magazine, which examined the subject of income inequality this month in an article by Dante Chinni, director of our Patchwork Nation project.

PAUL SOLMAN: In Crawford County, Ohio, a factory where they still make copper kettles the old-fashioned way.

MAN: Every time you hammer it, it will make a little bright spot and harden the copper.

PAUL SOLMAN: Oh, that’s what all those little dents in handmade copper kettles…

MAN: Yes, that’s the hardening of the copper.

PAUL SOLMAN: Helen Picking Neff, the founder’s great-granddaughter, still runs the place.

When did this company start?

HELEN PICKING NEFF, D. Picking and Company: Fifty-seven, 1857. We think we’re pretty special here because we’re the oldest.

(LAUGHTER)

HELEN PICKING NEFF: And I’m probably the oldest boss.

PAUL SOLMAN: How old are you?

HELEN PICKING NEFF: Well, I’m 93, 94, 95 — I’m 95. I will be 96.

(LAUGHTER)

HELEN PICKING NEFF: I have to count back to see how old I really am.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Neff was born in the days depicted in this mural in Bucyrus, Crawford’s county seat, when it was at a crossroads between an agricultural past and industrial future.

Just a few miles south sits Delaware County. In 1980, incomes there were roughly the same as in Crawford. Today, Delaware tops Crawford almost two to one. This, then, is a tale of two counties that went different ways.

DANTE CHINNI, Patchwork Nation: The decline of the factory worker and the rise of the Internet coder — that’s what you’re seeing here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dante Chinni runs Patchwork Nation, a project that studies American demographics and what may be the three most important factors in a community’s prosperity: location, location, location.

DANTE CHINNI: The U.S. economy, we think of it as one big thing. And it is. It’s one big thing with national numbers. But so much still goes on at the micro-level.

And you could go to a lot of places around the country, and they’re living in one high-income reality. And just a little, you know, a couple counties away, it’s a whole different world.

PAUL SOLMAN: Crawford County has been in post-industrial decline for decades, not so Delaware County. It never had to choose between farm and factory, thanks to the nearby city of Columbus, which as luck would have it, became Ohio’s capital simply because it was smack-dab in the middle of the state.

RICHARD FUSCH, Ohio Wesleyan University: Later, the Ohio State University is founded in Columbus.

PAUL SOLMAN: Geographer Richard Fusch.

RICHARD FUSCH: Banking, finance, education, state government were the major employers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, industrial Crawford did prosper for most of the 20th century. And some small manufacturing firms are still hanging in there.

Tena Eyster, born in Bucyrus, grew up in nearby Galion, where she is now high school guidance counselor. She recalls that, in the 1970s:

TENA EYSTER, guidance counselor: There were a lot of white-collar jobs, but a lot of parents also worked in the factories and made very good livings as blue-collar workers as well.

PAUL SOLMAN: But just 30 years later, Galion is more ghost town than boomtown, the plants that supported it long gone.

THOMAS PALMER, attorney: This was Peabody Galion. Peabody Galion was one of the world’s largest manufacturers of garbage trucks.

PAUL SOLMAN: Several hundred people used to work here, says Galion lawyer Thomas Palmer, including his father, who helped design the rear loader still in use today. The plant closed for good in 2003.

And that’s the familiar Galion ring, familiar, that is, to those who remember this phone made by North Electric, a telecom pioneer.

THOMAS PALMER: When I was a young boy, the North Electric Company employed probably 2,000 to 2,500 people here in Galion. They moved first to Tennessee, and to Florida, and then eventually to Mexico.

PAUL SOLMAN: As Crawford County bled jobs in manufacturing, Delaware County added them in high-end services.

RICHARD FUSCH: Economic change is not just changes in finance or changes in employment. It is place-based. Places like Crawford County are negatively impacted, and places like Columbus are favored because of the economic base of that community at the time of the change.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, what is this place?

RICHARD FUSCH: This building is the McCoy Center of J.P. Morgan Chase.

PAUL SOLMAN: With 10,000 workers, this is Chase’s largest facility and has helped make Delaware Ohio’s fastest-growing county, with cities like Powell, home to the accoutrements of the upper-middle class and knowledge workers like geographer Richard Fusch.

RICHARD FUSCH: The people who live in this neighborhood are doctors and engineers and lawyers and computer scientists, well-educated, well-trained.

PAUL SOLMAN: Powell’s median household income: $126,000 a year, nearly triple the income in nearby Crawford.

DAVE WILLIAMSON, director of economic development, Crawford County: At one time, our per capita income was higher than the national average.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dave Williamson has one of the tougher jobs in this part of Ohio: head of economic development for Crawford County.

DAVE WILLIAMSON: Right now, we’re about 70 percent of the national average in per capita income. If — if this county of 43,000 people could just be average in per capita income, that would be an additional half-a-billion dollars a year of wealth in this county.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you’re just looking to be average?

DAVE WILLIAMSON: Just to be average. And nobody wants to be average.

PAUL SOLMAN: But jobs and people have deserted the sinking city.

TENA EYSTER: The graduating classes used to have about 280 kids in them. And this year, we have 124.

PAUL SOLMAN: And short of a miracle here, the most likely to succeed are most likely to move on, like these college bound kids at Galion High.

STUDENT: I would never choose factory as a long-term career for myself.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Why not?

STUDENT: It’s definitely a really insecure industry.

STUDENT: I probably wouldn’t want to work here. A bigger city would definitely be where I would stop and settle down and have a job.

PAUL SOLMAN: But these kids have another reason to want a change of scene.

STUDENT: I have seen drugs everywhere. Like, everyone — everywhere I go, I see someone messed up on something.

PAUL SOLMAN: On drugs like methamphetamines. During our visit, traffic was snarled for hours when cops stopped a suspected mobile meth lab.

But the current drug of choice:

DR. MIKE JOHNSON, Crawford County coroner: We see here, amazing to me, a fair amount of heroin addiction also.

PAUL SOLMAN: Family doctor Mike Johnson is also county coroner.

DR. MIKE JOHNSON: And we have had a number of heroin overdose deaths in the last five, six years, which the first years I was coroner, we just didn’t see any of that.

PAUL SOLMAN: What — what — how — heroin?

DR. MIKE JOHNSON: Yes.

MARY JEAN HENSLEY, Together We Hurt, Together We Heal: I didn’t even know it was in the area until my son told me that he was addicted to it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mary Jean Hensley put her son in faith-based rehab and founded a local support group.

MARY JEAN HENSLEY: Heroin is a huge problem in this community. Crawford County is third in Ohio for unintentional drug overdose deaths. We have gone from seventh to fifth to third in just a matter of a year-and-a-half.

PAUL SOLMAN: By contrast, Delaware ranks 65th in overdose deaths among Ohio’s 88 counties. And, as the heroin habit has grown in Crawford, so has crime.

Sheriff Ronny Shawber.

RONNY SHAWBER, Crawford County sheriff: There was a time three years ago, four years ago that we didn’t have the amount of scrap, for instance, that was stolen, where they will come in and cut live power lines down.

PAUL SOLMAN: Live power lines? Somebody is going to cut a live power line for the scrap?

RONNY SHAWBER: You’re talking thousands of dollars they can — can do in a night taking power lines down and taking the raw copper, and then selling it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like so much around here, pretty depressing.

TENA EYSTER: If your surroundings are bleak, it just doesn’t really give you a whole lot of enthusiasm about what the future may hold.

PAUL SOLMAN: And indeed, says Dr. Johnson, depression is rampant in his Crawford County practice.

DR. MIKE JOHNSON: Depression and suicide, those things have definitely increased over the past, I would say, five years.

RICHARD WILKINSON, epidemiologist: They have less health. They have more violence. They have more drug problems.

PAUL SOLMAN: Co-author of a British bestseller on inequality, epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson says it’s not so much poverty that is to blame.

He says hundreds of studies link problems like Crawford’s to relative privation, when the haves abut the have-less, who feel worse and worse about it.

RICHARD WILKINSON: People trust each other less. Social cohesion is weaker. Mental illness is worse. A whole raft of these problems, typically the ones that tend to be more common at the bottom of the — of society, get worse in more unequal societies, and not just a little bit worse, not just 10 or 20 percent worse. But they’re twice as common or 10 times as common, hugely much worse, in more unequal societies.

PAUL SOLMAN: In unequal societies, like north central Ohio and America as a whole.

Patchwork Nation’s Dante Chinni ends with what might be the moral of the story of two counties.

DANTE CHINNI: It’s not that Galion could have said, well, we’ll build an Ohio State University, too, or we will also become the state capital. It’s not going to happen.

So, what you have is, this economy has evolved around really kind of happenstance, right?

PAUL SOLMAN: And, if that’s right, what do you do with the bad luck of being born at the wrong time in the wrong place?