It’s no wonder Donald Trump won big in New York’s Republican primary on Tuesday. It wasn’t just that he’s a native New Yorker and a celebrity Manhattan businessman. The rest of his home state is a living testament to the plight of the white working class, whose anger and frustration with the political establishment have sustained Trump’s campaign.
Take a close look at upstate New York and you’ll see a region slowly dying. Its decline over the past thirty years is staggering. Blue-collar communities from Binghamton to Buffalo that were built on manufacturing plants and steel mills have simply been gutted. The jobs have gone overseas—or to neighboring states or to the Sun Belt—and the towns and smaller cities are gradually emptying out. A shocking number of those who stay behind are succumbing to opioids and other drugs. Unemployment is up, workforce participation is down, and crime is worse in Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton, and Syracuse than it is in New York City.
This is Trump territory—and it is worth marking it out, because the victory on Tuesday will give Trump’s campaign momentum going into the five primary contests in the Northeast next week, great swaths of which suffer from the same endemic problems as upstate New York.
Exit polls across the state Tuesday showed what previous polls have shown: Trump voters say they support him because they don’t trust politicians; he’s a political outsider who tells it like it is and will get things done. He talks like them, he’s one of them. Tuesday’s results followed the broad pattern of his previous victories: he won less-educated, lower-income white voters by large margins. A recent Wall Street Journal report that analyzed counties where Trump has had the strongest support found they tend to be, “rural communities that are struggling economically, with household incomes and college graduation rates below the national average.”
Trump Territory Is Bleak And Dying
That’s an apt description of upstate New York, which never really recovered from the Great Recession. A report by the state’s comptroller last year found that three out of four new jobs in the state from 2009 to 2014 were in New York City, while central New York and three other upstate regions lost jobs. The report also showed statewide unemployment remained above the national average. Every region except New York City saw a drop in the labor force, with labor participation at its lowest level in a decade.
In a way, the rustbelt communities of upstate New York have been stuck in recession for decades. For most of the twentieth century, Buffalo was one of the country’s great steel producers. It shuttered its plant at Lackawanna, a city founded by the steel mill, in 1982. General Electric employed 40,000 people in Schenectady in the 1950s. Today it employs 4,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 454,200 manufacturing jobs statewide in March. In the same month twenty years ago, there were almost 800,000—a 43 percent decline. As a result, upstate New York is hollowing out. A U.S. Census estimate released last month showed population losses in almost every region outside New York City, including Buffalo and Syracuse.
But those are just the economic numbers. The human toll of economic stagnation on this scale has been much worse. Opioid abuse in the state is staggering. According to a recent New York Times report, between 2013 and 2014 doctors in the state wrote more prescriptions for controlled substances (about 27 million) than there were residents (20 million), and the number of opioid-related deaths nearly quadrupled in the decade from 2003 to 2013.
The Plight Of The White Working Class Isn’t The GOP’s Fault
For some time now we’ve known that mortality rates for poor, uneducated white Americans are rising even as they’re falling for other demographic groups. Much of this rise is driven, disturbingly, by suicide, alcohol-related liver disease, and drug overdoses. Some have noted the despair of the white underclass coincides, to some extent, with support for Trump.
Conservative commentator Michael Brenden Dougherty thinks the GOP ignored these voters for too long, pandering instead to wealthy donors and big business, and now they’re revolting, as they should. He says the Republican Party has lots of ideas how to help well-off Americans, but nothing much to offer working stiffs who are bearing the brunt of globalization. As Dougherty wrote back in February: “The conservative movement has next to zero ideas for improving the life of the typical opioid dependent who lives in Garbutt, New York, outside of Rochester.”
Kevin Williamson penned a lengthy response to Dougherty last month in National Review, and his message, more or less, was this: “If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.” Williamson took some heat for that, and for declaring: “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.” He’s right, although perhaps only half-right.
Death And Rebirth In America
The truth about upstate New York’s dying cities and towns, where the idea of President Trump mollifies the fear and rage of people who feel they’ve been left behind, is that some of those place do deserve to die. Buffalo will never again be a great steel producer. The GE plant in Schenectady will never employ tens of thousands of workers. For that matter, Apple will never make iPhones in America, no matter what Trump says.
But it’s also true that some of these places might yet be resurrected. In fact, some of them already have been. Two hours southeast of Binghamton, across the state line, is Williamsport, Pa., a town that was shrinking for fifty years but is now the seventh fastest-growing metro region in the country. It’s unemployment rate is below the national average and future job growth there is estimated to be more than 41 percent over the next decade.
The difference between Binghamton and Williamsport is that New York banned fracking and Pennsylvania welcomed it. The oil and gas business in Pennsylvania’s former coal country now employs twice as many workers in the state as the coal mining industry. If Trump voters are looking for someone to blame for missing out on the fracking boom, they should look to Albany, not to Washington.
The larger point about dying towns, though, to paraphrase Williamson, is that if there are no fracking jobs in Garbutt, move to Williamsport.