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'60 Minutes' Misses Point: Detroit is Cautionary Tale for America

  Sarah A. Webster

 

 

 

 


By Sarah A. Webster
Editor in Chief


So, CBS’ “60 Minutes” parachuted into Detroit to tell the story of the city’s bankruptcy, and sadly, it missed the biggest point.

I recognize it’s a challenge to slip into a town and try to tell the story of what it’s like when you don’t actually live there. And even more challenging yet, to tell the story of how it got that way. All in just a few minutes.

But here’s what irks me the most about the segment, as a journalist and a transplant to Detroit, a city that holds vitally important lessons for America.

Contrary to media report after media report, none of these things are unique to Detroit: Abandoned factories. Boarded-up houses. Burned up houses. Deteriorating houses. Drug houses. Graffiti. Crime. Large vacant lots filled with weeds and trash. Depopulation.

Also not unique to Detroit: A government that is challenged to pay its bills and meet its basic obligations to its citizens. (Isn’t our federal government struggling with this very issue right now?)

All of this is what happens – and what has happened – to communities across America when they lose their manufacturing infrastructure.

The only thing unique about Detroit’s situation is how undiversified the economy was here when it started losing its manufacturing foundation, which was particularly focused on building cars and trucks, and so the fallout fell down on this city like an avalanche.

I grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, which has lost most of its manufacturing infrastructure during my lifetime. I have now lived in Metro Detroit for more than a decade. And I can assure you that the landscape in Detroit doesn’t look so very different than it does in the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Falls area.

The only difference is scale.

These same problems challenge Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown, Wilmington, Del., and a host of other towns and cities across America. And, no, this problem is not limited to the Rust Belt either, although it certainly has been more concentrated here.

Towns and cities across America have all been crippled in some way by what has brought Detroit to its knees: A weakened and withered manufacturing sector.

Sure, you could argue that other problems contributed to Detroit’s downfall, such as mismanagement, corruption, lucrative union benefits and even racism.

But here’s the biggest piece of it: The manufacturing jobs went away. The economy deteriorated. People couldn’t pay their bills. If they were lucky enough to find a new job in town, it didn’t pay as well as their old manufacturing job did. If they couldn’t find another job, they left. With a shrinking tax base, the government couldn’t meet its obligations.

Detroit does not own this story. This is, unfortunately, the story of America.

We should all be very familiar with it by now. It’s been playing for 30 years.

In all, our country has lost more than 40,000 factories and 7.5 million direct manufacturing jobs, not to mention the indirect ones.

I write this as somebody who, as editor of one of the nation’s premier manufacturing magazines, is increasingly delighted to be on the frontlines of a growing renaissance in US manufacturing. It’s being driven by a US energy boom, favorable currency exchanges and companies taking a more holistic look at the costs of outsourcing.

Politicians and business leaders who said years ago those jobs are never coming back are being proven wrong every day. The jobs might look different now, of course. There are fewer of them, for starters, and they require far more education than ever before – these are certainly not your grandfather’s manufacturing jobs – but manufacturing is, indeed, beginning to make a comeback. If you’re unconvinced, go watch “The American Made Movie.”

The past year, the organization for which I work, SME, did some deep soul-searching and decided our vision for the future is “to enhance progress, prosperity and strong communities through manufacturing.”

Because, seriously, manufacturing is all about communities – teams of people – building something of value, together. That could be anything from an airplane or car to a piece of furniture, a washing machine or even a cherished little piece of jewelry.

Ultimately, manufacturing is a valuable industry that lifts communities and their economies up, with one of the strongest multiplier effects of any industry.

At SME, we work to attract future generations to a manufacturing industry that is increasingly clean, safe, high-tech and powered by innovation. And we give people the training and knowledge they need to keep our manufacturing sector strong.

Because manufacturing matters – a lot. The proof is evident in the damage wrought all over this country after the factories started closing.

So, the next time you hear about Detroit’s woes, just remember that your town has probably already had a taste of what ails Detroit. Just take a look in your own backyard, probably down by the railroad tracks. Chances are, you'll find your own piece of America's broken old manufacturing industry, your own little piece of Detroit, and all the problems that come with it, too. 


Published Date : 10/15/2013

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