The Harrisons are a family of four and live in Mahoning County, Ohio. A generation ago, the Harrisons were well off. Mr. Harrison’s grandfather and father earned good wages working for a company that manufactured aluminum. Mrs. Harrison grew up five blocks away, and her father was the football coach at the high school. They grew up going to good public schools, excelled in sports and school clubs and looked forward to having those same good, honest jobs their parents had. They got married several years after finishing high school. They never thought much about becoming rich, but saw for themselves a clear path to having a family, coaching Little League and raising their boys in a safe and hard-working community.
This is not a new story, and you can pretty much write the rest on your own. After peaking about 30 years ago, the aluminum business steadily declined, as did Mr. Harrison’s wages and future prospects. Ten years ago, company owners filed for bankruptcy, and overnight everyone lost their jobs. Since then, Mr. Harrison has worked at a home improvement store; he’s working fewer hours, earning about half his old salary. Mrs. Harrison works part time as a nurse in the school system, and they struggle to make ends meet. Their boys are now in high school, but those once proud public schools have been gutted by budget cuts and apathetic teachers. The Little League continues on, but the fields are dustier and the rosters smaller.
In America in 2013, there is not much hope for the Harrisons. With teenage boys and elderly parents, they can’t easily pick up and move, and they feel they are too old for new training and education. College will be a stretch to afford, and they don’t want to load their kids up with debt. There’s little faith the jobs will ever return, and neither will the pride and relative comfort the family once enjoyed. And all around them they see friends and neighbors slip into the cycle of poverty: dependency on welfare, teenage pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse. It’s a cycle now that is entering its second generation.
While the Harrisons are a fictional family, they are like many of the families I met as I traveled the country in my campaign last year. Not only are there harsh economic realities stacked against the Harrisons, but the message they hear from Washington and hear and read in the media doesn’t offer much hope. In communities that once thrived on the strength of the economic base, strong institutions and strong families, our leadership in Washington makes climate change and gay marriage its priority. Our liberal leaders go out of their way to protect teacher unions and environmentalists while stepping up regulation on promising new industries.
Instead of addressing the widely accepted root causes of poverty head on – having out-of-wedlock children and dropping out of high school – we get the message that family structure is unimportant. Promoting marriage and creating incentives through our tax code is now politically incorrect. And encouraging our young people to postpone sex is treated by the mainstream media as right-wing nuttiness. Hollywood doesn’t help, of course, and seemingly celebrates the rejection of the American family and the once strong communities of the heartland.
President Obama introduced us to Julia, his fictional female and very liberal voter. And in the last election, not only did Obama convince the “Julias” he cared more about them than Mitt Romney, but he won Ohio largely because he was able to convince the Harrisons that he cared more about them, too. Granted, Romney did himself no favors by telling 47 percent of Americans that he didn’t care about them. But we as a party shouldn’t have lost that argument.
The solutions that will create hope and opportunity for the Harrisons and those who remain on their block will not be bigger and fatter federal entitlement programs that provide gasoline in the engine of dependency and poverty. Obamacare is not going to save the Harrisons. And they don’t want food stamps. What will give the Harrisons’ sons a better life will be a vision and policies that address their community – incentives for manufacturers and small businesses, tax policies that encourage and reward marriage and strong families, education that is affordable and practical and rhetoric from the top that inspires.
Mahoning Valley sits on the Utica Shale, which offers the promise of thousands of new jobs in the energy sector and, even more importantly, energy independence for America in our lifetime. There is hope. There is the distinct possibility of a better life for the Harrison boys. Are we committed to saving them?