Beyond all the bluster and the bragging, Northeast Pennsylvania knows what really matters in this election. It’s simple: jobs, and who can bring them back.
By Ambassador (retired.) David Huebner
Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan asked America a powerful question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
I know what it’s like to answer “no” to that question. I was born and raised in Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County, south of Wilkes-Barre. My grandfather worked in the mines and then with my grandmother and parents in the family’s small butcher shop. In the kind of education money can’t buy, my brother and I worked in the shop after school and on Saturdays from elementary school until high school graduation.
I have seen up close the stress and uncertainty of running a small business, as well as the impact of job loss and uncertain employment in a distressed economy. I know how quickly “getting by” can turn into “under water.”
When I was 16, I developed a blood clot which almost killed me and required 6 weeks in the hospital. My father thought we had decent health insurance until we had to use it. The resulting “after insurance” bills drained the family’s modest savings — it took us years to recover financially.
So, I understand. The economy is not theoretical. It’s not the stock market. It’s daily uncertainty, hard choices, and often a sense of hopelessness. As when I was a kid, for many in NEPA today the threat of financial disaster — from an accident, job loss, or medical bills — is a corrosive reality.
Candidate Reagan asked the right question in 1980, and it remains the right question today. As my tough-as-nails immigrant grandfather used to say, talk is cheap. Show me what you’ve actually done. And don’t treat me like a fool — I can tell the difference between [German expletive deleted] and Shinola.
Pennsylvania has 600,000 fewer jobs than when Trump was inaugurated. Manufacturing and mining have not been spared, suffering declines even before COVID 19 hit like a freight train (even though Trump knew it was coming). Since the beginning of the year, Pennsylvania has lost more than 25,000 manufacturing jobs. The statistics are publicly available. And real.
Bluster about tariffs and trade wars did not save jobs; it made things worse (because the leaders of other countries do their homework and don’t bluff). Tax cuts did not help workers; they enriched wealthy investors (because that’s what they were designed to do).
NEPA has borne the brunt of the decline. Unemployment numbers stand at 16% in Luzerne County and 14% in Lackawanna County. Over the last four years, almost half the counties in Pennsylvania — 30 out of 67 — have seen increases in poverty rates. Foreclosure rates are higher in NEPA than elsewhere in Pennsylvania — and they continue to rise. If this is success, we can’t survive much more of it.
We need a plan to turn this all around — not just a catchy slogan but an actual plan that focuses on industry, small business, and long-term strategy designed for the future, not the prior century. We need a plan that emphasizes actually investing in America, making in America, and buying American — not just mouthing the words and then ordering steel, textiles, and campaign paraphernalia from China.
Joe Biden has such plans. They come from a lifetime of moving past partisan positions, identifying common interests, and engineering results for all of us — not just a privileged few. Joe’s worldview was formed in NEPA, watching his father clean boilers and struggle with the realities of life when you aren’t accidentally born into wealth.
When I was confirmed as ambassador in 2009, I cold called the Vice President’s office to see if he would swear me in. When a somewhat annoyed receptionist started to brush me off, I suggested she tell him that I was a fellow coal cracker from the Route 81 corridor. He swore me in a couple weeks later in a ceremony at the White House in which his NEPA common sense, compassion, and sense of humor were on full display. He hasn’t forgotten who he is.
There are two very different economic visions competing in this election, arising from the very different life experiences, priorities, and senses of reality of the two candidates. I encourage you to compare the detailed plans published by Joe Biden’s campaign to whatever you find on the incumbent’s twitter feed.
And ask yourself Ronald Reagan’s question, which is as critical today as it was 40 years ago. Are you better off now than you were four years ago? If, like the vast majority of us, the answer is no, then the final question should be who has a plan — not just more slogans, bluster, or random promises — to improve your life and your family’s future.
David Huebner, a native of Schuylkill County, was U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand from 2009 to 2014.