For 130 years, the hulking Bethlehem Steel Mill dominated the economy of eastern Pennsylvania’s Northampton County, providing jobs for generations of residents. Today, it’s been replaced by a Sands Casino.
“It was thousands of jobs. The entire south side of Bethlehem was built for the residents, the employees of Bethlehem Steel. Now it’s nothing,” says county resident Keith Hornik, who works at his family’s construction company.
To Hornik and others, there’s a direct line between the closure of the steel mill in 1995 and the fact that the bellwether county swung to Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s election, by a vote of 49.6 to 45.8 percent. Four years ago, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by nearly 5 percentage points.
With its mix of office parks and cement plants, cornfields and superstores, Northampton County has a fairly diverse economy, fueled in part by an influx of commuters from the Greater Philadelphia and New York City areas. New housing developments are popping up in parts of the county. The local unemployment rate was 5.4 percent in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the veneer of mild prosperity masks a lot of economic anxiety that has only grown worse over the past few years, says Mary Barket, who heads a pro-Trump women’s group.
The reality for many county residents is “more bills, less pay, more struggles. They’re paying more for their food but their paychecks are not increasing,” she says.
Barket, who volunteers at a help line operated by her church, says people often call in asking for help because they’re having financial problems.
“I have had people calling in and the conversation is, ‘I never thought we’d find ourselves in this position. But my job was cut, and I’m having a hard time finding another position,’ ” she says.
Democrats lost the county because they’ve left those voters behind, she believes.
Chris Borick, who directs the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College, says Trump won in part because of a huge turnout in the older, rural parts of Northampton County, and he says economic issues appear to have played a part in the vote. Local residents who have participated in focus groups Borick has run have pretty ambivalent views about the economy, he says.
“They don’t say it’s excellent. They don’t say it’s fantastic. Generally, they say it’s good, but in essence it might not be good enough for those voters who have the impression they want something more,” he says.
Michael Hard was laid off from his job at a local paint company in 2008 because automation made his job redundant. He has since rebounded, making more money as a property and casualty insurance agent, but working much longer hours.
Today, he takes a dim view of trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and thinks the United States was too quick to embrace globalization.
“Now we’re seeing sort of the results of that. We have more people taking orders and less people making things these days. And I think that’s something that people are tired of. They want opportunities,” Hard says.
Hornik says he believes a change in trade pacts could help people in the middle class.
“I think fairer trade deals will bring the manufacturing back,” he says. “Raising the tariffs on this stuff we import. We just have to find a way to get the manufacturing back here. There’s just too many double-income families. That’s not how the middle class worked. You used to have the stay-at-home moms. Now it’s paycheck to paycheck for a lot of families.”
Hard, who volunteered for Trump in this year’s election, knows that the president-elect probably can’t accomplish everything he has promised, but he wants Trump to try to push back against the forces of globalization.
“If we don’t see real, measurable progress within the first 18 months, that’s going to spell doom for him the next time he wants to be elected,” Hard says.