Conservatives like to say they believe in personal responsibility, and they admonish others to take charge of their lives and not expect the government to solve their problems. Name just about any societal issue — poverty, crime, the lack of affordable housing, the high school dropout rate — a conservative will find a way to raise "lack of personal responsibility" as the root problem.
But it occurred to me, while reading John Fritze's story in Sunday's edition of The Baltimore Sun, that many of the same people who preach personal responsibility have been slow to seize the day themselves. I speak here of some of the former Democrats of eastern Baltimore County who support Donald Trump for president because of "economic conditions" that went south decades ago.
The decline of industry in Sparrows Point and Middle River is old news. The loss of good-paying union jobs has been well-documented, sufficiently bemoaned and broadly accepted as a reason for many of the region's social problems, including the decline of the urban middle class.
The long, slow death of Bethlehem Steel has also been used as an instruction to at least two generations of Baltimoreans: Learn a new trade or skill, get an education, get a college degree because, as Bruce Springsteen sang 30 years ago: "These jobs are goin', boys, and they ain't comin' back."
So this complaint about the loss of industry in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign sounds like a stretch to cover other reasons to support Trump. I think his main appeal is to white people's fears and their general unhappiness with immigrants. His campaign has exploited racial/ethnic anxiety as much, if not more than, economic grievances.
But to those who claim support of Trump because of his economic message — whatever it is — I might ask the following:
Given the writing that has been on the wall for 40 years, what have you done to adjust to life without easy-to-obtain manufacturing jobs? Did you take personal responsibility for getting on a new career path? Have you become bullish about education, insisting that your children and grandchildren learn a craft or gain the college degrees they need for good jobs in the global economy? Have you supported politicians who support education?
A striking fact from Fritze's story: In Maryland's 6th legislative district, the Trump stronghold that includes Dundalk and Essex, just 10.6 percent of residents 25 and older have an undergraduate degree. That's the lowest rate of college education in any legislative district in the state, and it's only slightly better than the rate for the Baltimore metropolitan region in 1970.
That year, only 10.3 percent of residents of the Baltimore area had a college degree, according to an analysis by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, part of the Brookings Institution.
By 2010, however, the number of metropolitan Baltimoreans with a bachelor's degree had grown by nearly 25 percentage points. The region ranked 14th nationally, at 35.1 percent, in residents with a college education. As a percentage of population, the Baltimore area had a better-educated workforce than New York-New Jersey and even Pittsburgh, often held up as a model of post-industrial renewal.
In Maryland, some 37 percent of residents 25 and older hold college degrees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2014 survey.
There are many reasons for the growth in college-educated adults: More rights and opportunities for women and minorities, immigrants' high regard for education, the desire of baby boomers to live better than their parents did, and the loud, clear and repeated message that manufacturing careers were in decline.
That message does not appear to have reached all of southeastern Baltimore County, and now many there complain that the "establishment," particularly Democrats, have left them behind.
Those of us who never personally experienced the powerlessness and uncertainty caused by the loss of big industry were sympathetic to the workers and their families who did. It was a long, hard transition that began four decades ago. Manufacturing's decline accelerated in the 1980s and again in the 2000s. Millions of jobs were lost.
Over all this time, Americans adapted. It was tough, but many found new jobs, sometimes in other states. Some retooled by going back to school or taking advantage of a government-funded retraining program at a community college. They came to see, if they hadn't before, the value and potential of education and passed that along to their kids.
But others, for reasons unclear, seem to cling to the smokestack past, bemoan the loss of a life that went the way of the No. 26 streetcar line, and now bet that Trump, a Republican billionaire whose business interests include manufacturing abroad, will "bring steel back" and make America great again.
"I love the poorly educated," Trump said during his primary campaign, in a sense absolving those who did not adjust to the changing economy of any personal responsibility. It's one of the most un-American things he could have said.