As Ohio Goes: Life in the Post-Recession Nation

A journey into Ohioans’ economic lives with bracing implications for American politics.

Khoury-amazonWinner of the Independent Book Publisher Award, Bronze Medal in Current Events, 2017.

For some, the Great Recession that began in 2007 was a traumatic setback; for others, it was just another dip in a long descent from comfort and security. America is changing in profound ways, but we rarely hear the voices of regular people living the transformation.

As Ohio Goes is a journey through cities, suburbs, and remote rural towns in this quintessential American state. Sitting together at dining room tables, walking through rows of planted fields, and swinging back beers at pubs, you’ll meet individuals you won’t soon forget. People like Bill, whose handicap did not push him to take disability payments until his layoff, and Rhonda, a working mother embarrassed to feed her son using food stamps. There are the young soldier who shows us his scars from deployment to Iraq but who remains in the Army to make ends meet, and the Amish man whose business loss during the downturn induced him to leave his family and the church.

Together their stories personify today’s timeliest issues, which Rana B. Khoury navigates in informative and accessible terms. From student debt and health care costs to female breadwinners and hydraulic fracturing, As Ohio Goes situates each story in a context that relates it to wider trends in Ohio and across the United States. Where economic experts deal in the abstract, Khoury pumps life into otherwise cold facts and figures, putting a human face on economic issues.

If the old adage “as Ohio goes, so goes the nation” is right, then these stories should tell us where the nation is headed. Although Ohio is a swing state, Khoury insists that blue and red do not capture the character of the place she calls home. Another reality demands attention: economic inequality has reached historic levels, and there is no indication that the trend will slow or reverse. The growing income gap threatens democratic representation, equal opportunity, and even the American Dream itself. The people in this book display remarkable adaptability, resilience, and love, despite their predicaments, yet the country’s course is the sum of individual fates. Where are Ohio and the nation going?

Learn more and order the book from Kent State University Press!

You Load Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get? Guest Post

This story came to me from Lee Ballinger, a former steelworker in Ohio’s Warren-Youngstown area. In the early twentieth century, the Youngstown area boasted the largest concentration of steel-making facilities per capita, and per square mile, in the world. In time, the city’s fate turned. Between 1977 and 1982 alone, five major steel mills closed—thereafter, 50,000 jobs vanished.[1] Lee’s was one of them.

I know what it’s like to depend upon coal to feed a family. Many years ago I worked at a steel mill in Ohio. My job was at the coke plant where West Virginia coal was turned into coking coal for the blast furnace. The top of the coke ovens was an area the size of a football field where monstrous machines funneled coal into the ovens. It was my job to put the heavy oven lids back on nice and tight.  It was literally as hot as hell up there. It felt like walking barefoot on hot coals. The air we breathed was truly foul but to us it was the sweet smell of something like success. We called it the smell of money because it paid the bills.  Continue reading

To Stop Dreaming Would Be Folly: Inequality in America 50 Years Since MLK Jr.

My two cents – through two stories of young black people in Cleveland – on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, now up on HuffPost.

This week we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that true equality included civil rights but also economic justice. In fact, his later writings and speeches on economic inequality and the free market are conveniently ignored by our media and education systems. He dreamt about America, after all, and criticisms of capitalism do not coincide well with the American Dream. But poverty and inequality remain the greatest demarcations of race in America today. In that vain, I am offering a snapshot of two black youths in Cleveland who embody the challenges facing blacks and lower income Americans off all colors. Read the rest at The Huffington Post!

No Other Land, No Other Life

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this, or the like of this.          – Henry David Thoreau

I have been working on my stories about farmers and the agricultural industry in Ohio. The farming experiences of the men I spoke to are quite distinct from one other; they included a medium scale corn and soybean producer, a community-supported berry and vegetable farmer, and a chestnut farmer who made a small fortune from the shale oil boom (but who would take chestnuts over oil any day). One common feature of the interviews was the gorgeous bucolic views I was treated to in the course of our conversations. I want to share some pictures of the landscapes, and of the men whose labor livens the land. I attempt to describe them in writing, of course. But my iPhone camera might be more capable of capturing the beauty.

Books and Bankruptcy: Detroit City Is the Place to Be

detroitMark Binelli, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Metropolitan Books: 2012.

Ten days ago, I finished reading Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be. Five days ago, Detroit declared bankruptcy. I would hardly call the series of events auspicious, but I have to admit to a sense of relief. Because of Binelli’s book, I understood.  Continue reading

On Ruin Porn

I recently discovered the photography of Camilo Jose Vergara, who has been documenting the transformation of American cities – especially those in decline – for decades. His work is not voyeuristic like “ruin porn.” It is contemplative and sincere. In the rust belt, he has focused on Gary, Chicago, and Detroit. His other work spans the country, and I especially enjoyed his photographs from Old New York. His website has a great interface and I highly recommend browsing through it.

Vergara’s work came to my attention while reading Mark Binelli’s 2012 book Detroit City is the Place to Be, which I plan to review here soon (in short: it’s excellent). Binelli treats the topic of ruin pornography while discussing the migration of artists, journalists, and everyday bohemians to depression-struck Detroit, where they derive inspiration and material from the ruins of the city. Hanging around Cleveland, I’m already familiar with the ruin porn trend. And during my travels around the state, I have found myself taking my own pictures of decline, like this series of photographs, three from a half-demolished acme plant in Toledo and another two from downtown Youngstown. When facing sights such as these, embodying an utterly oxymoronic grand destitution, it is hard to resist the compulsion to capture that contradiction. One crumbling building can speak simultaneously to past, present, and future.  Continue reading

Book Review: The Unwinding

George Packer. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2013.

It evades definition, this unwindingThrough the course of 430 pages, Packer never attempts to describe it. He doesn’t use data, or even introductions and conclusions. Instead, he offers you stories meant to take you to it, guide you around its contours, nudge you down its path (because yes, it is on a decline), and drop you at its ending, where you are left with the discomfiting sense that it isn’t over yet.  Continue reading

One Hard Hat, Four Men

Some of the folks I spoke to around Ohio were natural story tellers. One of them was George, an autoworker in Toledo. For almost two hours he reveled in walking me through his three and a half decades as an employee of Chrysler. More than once, he made me laugh to tears. As I work on his story, I have to share one of his anecdotes, told to me with passion and pride.

George would not stand for being put in danger at work. That adamancy lost him his job during his first year with Chrysler, 1977. Back then he was working on Jeep Cherokee tailgates, which hung by hooks overhead the workers. Each tailgate weighed about seventy pounds, and a jerk in the line could cause the hooks to break, sending those bulks of metal tumbling down onto the men below. George, with the innocent audacity of a novice, demanded that a safety cage be put in place. Management handed over a hard hat. There were four men.  Continue reading

A Memory on Memorial Day

Memorial Day implores us to remember fallen soldiers. And we shall. Yet that remembrance will always be incomplete, because a life lost is a tragedy worsened by the silence it creates. Dead soldiers cannot tell us their stories. They cannot recount the details of their final moments, nor the thoughts that coincided. We cannot know if they sensed fear, shock, anger, surrender, loneliness, relief, all of these, none of these. Which loved ones warmed their hearts before the cold settled in? Which enemies tortured their minds before oblivion? We shall not know.

Surviving soldiers can share their stories. Death lives in these tales too. It’s depravity damages all sides in war. It can settle into the mind even when the body endures. It haunts. On Memorial Day, let us remember that.  Continue reading

Full Disclosure

I have lately been putting together the stories of the young people I have spoken with around Ohio, and wanted to share some personal reflections. 

I cannot compose this chapter without considering my own circumstances, and also feeling compelled to provide a full disclosure. I am only one year older than Meggan and Arianna. Like them, I am trying to find my way academically and professionally, and have yet to secure myself financially. I have also surpassed the average ages of marriage and childbirth, and am in no rush to catch up with my cohort. Just like Meggan, I work on a part-time basis while transitioning to graduate school and am not paying rent thanks to the hospitality of my parents. Unlike both of them, my choices have been made under privileged circumstances. Nevertheless, these choices were also intimately connected to the recession.  Continue reading