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A big part of what fuels the American dream is opportunity, the chance to move ahead economically. Much of the anger and anxiety in our current politics is fueled by the sense that that opportunity has dried up for many Americans. As part of our election year project with some members stations, called A Nation Engaged, we are asking a question this week. How can economic opportunity be created for more Americans? We're focusing on two Ohio cities - Springfield and Columbus. NPR's Uri Berliner takes us to Springfield.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: There are plenty of places named Springfield in the U.S., 33 according to one government count. The Springfield in Ohio is a blue-collar city with a lot of history, pain and pride, a place with an uncertain future.
KEVIN ROSE: When you look at what makes America great, what makes America, you know, not great, our ups and our downs, Springfield represents all of it.
BERLINER: That's Kevin Rose, a historian with The Turner Foundation, a local philanthropy. For years now, the not so great seems to have the upper hand. Median incomes fell an astounding 27 percent in Springfield between 1999 and 2014. That's more than any metropolitan area in the country. Factory jobs disappeared, or they started paying less. And for many in town, a middle-class life is out of reach.
ROSS MCGREGOR: People need to have a little bit more to be able to do the things that we need to have done on the shop floor these days.
BERLINER: Ross McGregor is executive vice president of Pentaflex, which makes parts for heavy trucks. He says today's factory jobs require training, analytical skills. The unskilled work, that's what the robots are doing. When we head out to the factory floor, McGregor directs me to a machine moving parts through a stamping operation.
MCGREGOR: This is a automated assembly unit. Again, this was a process that required four operators before the automation. Now only one operator needs to run it.
BERLINER: For manufacturers like McGregor, those robots, all that automation and keeping a lid on labor costs is what allows them to compete with a country like Vietnam. But for workers, it's all part of what's putting the squeeze on living standards. That squeeze on blue-collar workers, the march of automation and global competition isn't just landing on Springfield. It's happening throughout the country and the industrialized world.
GREGG MCGILLIVRAY: I think it would be very hard to be starting out with a family now, like I did 31 years ago.
BERLINER: Gregg McGillivray has worked at Pentaflex for 31 years. He said he's made a good life in his job and in Springfield. But for younger people...
MCGILLIVRAY: I don't think it's as good as it used to be.
BERLINER: In what way?
MCGILLIVRAY: I just don't think it's as easy to get by in the world today.
BERLINER: There's no doubt it's harder to get by in Springfield. As it transitions away from manufacturing, the city relies more on service jobs, like in call centers or nursing homes. But they don't pay well. Some trucking distribution companies have come because Springfield is convenient to two big interstates. And incomes did tick up last year, but that doesn't get Springfield any closer to the knowledge economy of tech or finance or design.
WARREN COPELAND: Quite honestly, that's a struggle.
BERLINER: Warren Copeland is Springfield's mayor.
COPELAND: In Ohio, every city like us is in direct competition with Columbus, which is the go-go-growth city in Ohio. They really have a lot of the well-paying paperwork jobs that are the part of the economy that's performing well.
BERLINER: Springfield's population has fallen steadily over the years. Many young people go to college and leave - the brain drain. To help end that exodus, Springfield is banking on a revival of downtown.
JIM KING: We're Blue Jacket Dairy. We make farmstead cheese. It's called artisan cheese, meaning, you know, artsy.
BERLINER: Jim King is selling those artisanal cheeses at a farmer's market next to the downtown esplanade. It's a warm weekday evening. There's music. The vibe is friendly, exactly the kind of scene tourism and development officials dream about.
SAMANTHA SOMMER: Since I've been here, there's been something like more than $300 million invested in downtown.
BERLINER: Samantha Sommer is editor of the Springfield News-Sun. She's been at the paper since 2001.
SOMMER: That includes a brand new hospital, a new brewery, a new ice rink, multiple renovations of old historic buildings.
BERLINER: Including a Frank Lloyd Wright house that's part of the city's promotion of cultural tourism. But less than a mile from downtown is a neighborhood where no tourist would venture.
CHARLES ROLLINS: We're on the corner of Selma Road and Linden Avenue in Springfield, Ohio.
BERLINER: Pretty tough neighborhood.
C. ROLLINS: Yeah, it's pretty bad down here.
BERLINER: Charles Rollins is welcoming me to Many Pathways, an addiction recovery clubhouse. The streets here are bleak - dilapidated and abandoned buildings, guys walking around looking lost or haunted.
C. ROLLINS: Definitely an increase in young, Caucasian men, you know, turning to heroin.
BERLINER: Part of the opioid crisis sweeping this part of the country.
MICHAEL ROLLINS: One of the things about the opiate addiction that is crippling our economies is, it is - the addiction itself takes daily maintenance.
BERLINER: That's Michael Rollins, who helps his twin brother Charles run the place. Charles and Michael speak from experience. They're recovering addicts. Charles spent time in prison for trafficking cocaine. Now he's getting a degree in social work. Charles and Michael hope their paths set some kind of example.
M. ROLLINS: The people come into recovery. They want to quit using drugs, and they come into recovery. And the people that we see that succeed for the longest amount of time are the people that acquire some type of gainful employment.
BERLINER: Gainful employment - over and over again, I hear how it's tough to find gainful employment in Springfield but how it can change lives. Blake Drummond is 20, and a few years ago he was a high school dropout making $9 an hour in an unskilled factory job.
BLAKE DRUMMOND: We were assembling Corvette manifolds. And my only job was to just push two metal rods down into the manifold. Every day, eight hours a day, two breaks and a lunch. Every day I'm putting the two rods in. I kind of felt like a robot, honestly, just standing there doing the same thing. It was - it was bad.
BERLINER: After getting his GED and taking construction and building classes, Drummond now earns $21 an hour. He's supervising a crew renovating a historic building downtown.
DRUMMOND: I always say, I feel like I was a carpenter in my past life because I can just pick up a tool sometimes and immediately know what it's used for, what to do with it and how to use it.
BERLINER: Drummond says he'd like to stay in Springfield and help build up the city. But if opportunities dry up here, he can always pack up his tools and find work somewhere else. Uri Berliner, NPR News.
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