Erie longs for its manufacturing past, but what’s the future?

Erie County, Pennsylvania, has long been a manufacturing center, but jobs have been declining since the 1970s. In collaboration with the NewsHour and Marketplace, Frontline offers a look at the hopes and hardships in regions that voted for President Trump. Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Douglas Holtz-Eakin of American Action Forum talk more with Jeffrey Brown.

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    Now to our series on the economic concerns of Trump voters in a few hard-hit areas of the country.

    This week, we're listening to them describe their hopes for Mr. Trump now that he is president.

    Jeffrey Brown is here with more.


    Our colleagues at Frontline traveled to regions that once voted Democratic, but voted for Donald Trump in this election. Last night, we heard from miners in West Virginia coal country.

    Tonight, a profile of a couple in Erie County, Pennsylvania. It's part of How the Deck Is Stacked, the NewsHour's collaboration with Frontline and marketplace, in conjunction with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

  • JOE ORENGIA, Owner, Joe’s Gym:

    OK. I'm Joe Orengia, and this is my business, Joe's Gym, Erie, Pennsylvania, current world champion.

    I'm a veteran, I'm on Social Security, and I'm a businessman. I have been undefeated world champion since 1993.

    I teach people how to get their life back. The only way you're going to get your life back is to get your strength back.

    I want to see Erie the way it used to be. We have got to get our manufacturing back. For the sake of my children and grandchildren, I hope something happens.


    So, Erie has lost nearly one in three manufacturing jobs. You know that. All you do. I flew over. You're looking at the plants, but you see them. They're falling over, the rain, the sleet, the snow, the wind. These are great buildings that are falling apart.

    I promise, we can fix it so fast. We're going to bring it back. We're going to bring back our jobs. We're going to bring back our companies.


    Fifties and '60s, when I was a kid, it was awesome. My dad raised seven of us kids, as a coal miner, worked his butt off. They moved up here when I was 1 years-old to go to work at G.E.

    My brothers and my nephews, they all worked at G.E. They wanted me to go down to G.E., but I said, I like this physical stuff, because I was a bridge builder, ironworker and bridge builder, at Local 348 union. I was one of their best climbers, so I always got the job of putting the buildings together, which was fun.

    You climb up the column, big piece of steel comes up. You bolt it up. You walk out, unhook the cable and stand there and wait for the next piece. Everybody had good jobs. Everybody had good-paying jobs. I need a car, I had the money to go buy one. I was making my house payments, feeding the family.

    Even when I when I retired from the ironwork, I didn't have to retire. They didn't want me to retire. I says, I want to run a gym. I want to get my gym going.

    I put up the big buildings for the Hammermill Paper Company, 10-story buildings in Erie. I put them up. I was a connector. I put these — ah, I would have fun. I loved it.

    They're gone. And the people are gone.

    It seems like, about the last 15 years, things have really sucked, because a lot of people are leaving the area because the manufacturing jobs have left. There's no work. And I used to see all these guys walking down the street with their lunch bucket in their hand going to work. Now you see them walking down the street with food stamps.

    I had a lot of members here from G.E. I don't anymore. I think I have two. A lot of them left Erie. They're not even around Erie anymore.

    My wife runs a business. She owns Custom Audio, right up the road here.

    The minimum I put in here is eight hours a day. Last night, I was here 14 hours. My wife puts in a minimum of 60 hours a week, and sometimes 80. We have to.

  • SONDRALEE ORENGIA, Owner, Custom Audio:

    So, I'm Sondralee Orengia. I have owned an electronics store for 33 years. And a couple of years ago, I really cut back on the staff.

    And we're just — we're really lean right now, and I think a lot of business owners are treating their businesses that way.

    What's happening to Erie is, G.E. is transitioning down to Texas and Mexico. So those really good-paying jobs will be leaving. Some of the other shops can't afford those higher-paying jobs. They can pay well, but not as well as what some of the other workers, you know, at G.E. are used to.


    I love people, all kinds of people.

    I want to see the American patriots, the American people that love this country, be happy and healthy. When your health goes, this goes. I have been knocked down thousands of times in my life in everything I have done, and I came back stronger than ever.

    I was actually a Democrat way back, because my family was, back when Democrats made more sense to me.


    The Democratic Party's so strong here, and then you get someone like Donald Trump who is really a very different candidate.

    I mean, we have never seen anything like him before, and I think that scares people. But I think the people who voted for him, they are hopeful.


    So that night, during the election, I sat up until the local news came on. He won Erie, which has not been won by a Republican since the '80s.

    If things get a little even just a little bit better, OK, let's give him another four years, because maybe they will get a little bit more better. If things get worse, no. I have got to give him a chance.

    But I'm still probably going to go back to independent because I don't — still don't agree with a lot of either one of them. And I have my own ideas, and I try to go with the best person, not the best party.


    We asked two economists who've served in past administrations to watch these reports.

    Douglas Holtz-Eakin served in the George W. Bush administration. He's now with the American Action Forum. And Jared Bernstein worked for Vice President Biden. He's now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Jared, let me start with you.

    There's no denying the problem that we just saw. What struck you watching these videos?

    JARED BERNSTEIN, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: I saw considerable despair, but I also heard a great deal of hope there.

    And it was a kind of hope that has been very much amped up by Donald Trump's rhetoric around the campaign, the kind of jobs and sectors he's arguing that he can bring back to those communities. And, man, they really need those jobs and sectors.

    My concern, my fear, really, is that he can't deliver on that hope. And despair met with hope that doesn't end up being delivered, that's a problem.


    All right, let get a first impression from Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

    What did you see? What did you hear?

  • DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN, American Action Forum:

    Well, I think a lot of the things Jared heard.

    Number one, this is — these are stories of great distress. That's real. It's palpable, and unmistakable. There is also a longing for a past that it's not realistic to expect to return. Erie, Pennsylvania, is close to my hometown.

    It's no longer the transportation hub it was when we had the Erie Canal and water transportation as the central part of the U.S. economy. And coal is not the same in the presence of Western coal that competes with it or natural gas that competes with it.

    So, a realistic assessment talks about, what can their future be, not what was their past?


    Well, that — so, Doug, start with that. Help us think about what a president can do and look at some of the things Donald Trump is talking about, at least, tax reform, for example, tax cuts.


    I think there is an enormous amount that the president can do on tax reform.

    We have a tax code that, broadly speaking, favors foreign production over domestic production. A good reform would neutralize that and shift things back to the U.S. when they're driven offshore by taxes. That would a great step.

    That doesn't mean they will land in Erie or that doesn't mean they will land in coal country, but it's something that should be done.


    Well, Jared, would those kinds of things have an impact on the workers we saw?


    Perhaps at the margin, but I think we put way too much weight on tax reform as economists.

    We have had very different tax regimes while globalization has been ongoing, and you have seen what's happened in these communities. So I don't think we can count on tweaks in the tax code — and Doug and I could probably agree on some very good ones, because the tax code is pretty messed up — and hope that this globalization toothpaste will somehow go back in the tube, which is what I hear Donald Trump promising.

    And I agree with Doug. What needs to happen is that these communities have to adapt to globalization, which doesn't mean you can get back jobs that aren't coming back. But it does mean that you can make a play for advanced manufacturing, for new industries, for new types of energy.

    I don't hear that coming out of this administration.


    What about — one thing you do here is pushing individual companies to stay, right, to not move jobs offshore.


    Yes. Well, that's mostly public relations. That's not a systematic economic plan.

    Now, frankly, I kind of like when the president takes the bully pulpit and says, we want you to keep jobs here. That's kind of old-school.

    But it resonates with me. But it's not …


    That could be old-school liberal, right?


    Yes, but it's not an economic plan. It's not a systematic strategy that will help deliver the goods to the kinds of communities we're talking about.


    Doug, Doug Holtz-Eakin, what do you think about that kind of move and — that kind of move? And then there's also the deregulation that he talks about.


    I think the bully pulpit is fine, but businesses follow economic incentives.

    And once you give them a good chastising, the economic incentives are still the same. And unless you change them, over the long haul, the results will be the same.

    So, the bully pulpit is great, but following through and actually changing the incentives they have and the kinds of things that get produced in these communities is the key.

    And I think that taking a good, hard look at the regulatory state makes sense. We have seen a dramatic decline in the startup of new businesses in the United States. It's something that's happened across sectors. It's not just in manufacturing or just in retail.

    And so there's something going on there. And we know that, when you start new businesses, that's when you get the job growth, that's when you get the new opportunities. And that's something that I think any administration should look closely at.


    What is the — I think, Jared, you brought up the word hope, which you heard from these people.

    We heard the woman in Erie say people who voted for him, Donald Trump, they're hopeful. How important is the psychological factor?


    Well, I think it's important, but I also think it's omnipresent.

    I have been to places like this. And you constantly run into folks like that who really have hope for the future. And what it is, is that they want to participate in the economy.

    Structural changes, globalization, these kinds of — the loss of the unions, the kind of labor standards kind of eroding, they have really hurt these folks. And what they would like is a chance to ply their trade.

    Like the guy who says, I'm a hard worker and hard work is good, that — again, that resonated with me, but he doesn't have the employment opportunity.




    So, what we really ought to be talking about is how he's going to get that.

    One idea is infrastructure. You can look at those films, and you see these places really need some infrastructure. Now, this is something that the Trump administration has talked about, but it doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. And that's a concern of mine.


    What's a particular thing that, if you could wave your magic wand, Doug, that you would like to see?


    Well, look, the reality is this.

    You can only have the infrastructure if you have businesses that are going to use it. And so that becomes an issue. The reality is that, in the manufacturing sector, it's been automation. It takes 10 percent of the workers that it used to, to create the same things in the U.S. and export them.

    And so there are fewer opportunities. So, you need to be the worker who can take advantage of those opportunities. It is unsurprising that people with a college degree have an unemployment rate of 2.5 percent. That's the magic elixir in this economy. And these communities have too many people who have not had the educational foundation to take advantage of that.

    And we're missing the programs that get people who want to work hard, but do not have the skills up to speed.



    Yes, go ahead, Jared.


    So, here I have — kind of flip the politics a bit.

    I'm completely for people being able to get all the skills they can. But if you — you can get be all educated and still not have a job that will suffice for you in your community.

    And so here is where I think Donald Trump has said something important and useful. And it's not just about education or infrastructure. It's about trade. It's actually the case. He's right that these communities have been hurt by our large and persistent trade deficits.

    And so we need to take steps to reduce those as well. Again, I don't hear them really talking about it, other than some tariffs, which are bad ideas. But there are good ways to do that also.


    OK, Doug Holtz-Eakin, a last word here from you?


    I think the trade piece is vastly overblown. I don't think that's the source of their problems.

    If you look at the — even the tape on Erie, their problems began in the '70s, well before we saw NAFTA, well before we saw the famed entry of China into the WTO.

    These are deep, structural trends in the economy. These are places that had valuable resources, coal and transportation access, that no longer have those as their economic playing card. They need to create a new one, or the people who stay there simply aren't going to have an opportunity.


    All right, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Jared Bernstein, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.


    And for a look at the extended-length videos in this series, Betting on Trump, go to the NewsHour Web site. That's at

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