The Philadelphia Story: The Democratic Debate

When the Democratic presidential candidates converge on Drexel University in Philadelphia for Tuesday night's DNC/MSNBC debate, which of them will draw on the rich history of that city to offer a new economic vision for America?

When people think of Philadelphia, Betsy Ross or the Declaration of Independence may come to mind. But there are plenty of other frames of references, starting with Ben Franklin's inventiveness in the 18th century, a 20th Century Manufacturing boom, and on to the current, continuing decline of Philadelphia's manufacturing sector and the ensuing social and economic decay in some of its neighborhoods like North Philadelphia more recently.

You may ask, what's the connection between Ben Franklin and North Philly's prospects? The answer is manufacturing: the future of this vital sector and the good jobs it supports. How to grow good jobs for the next generation is not nearly as provocative a debate topic as Iran or stem cell research for most in the mainstream media, but it is no less important to Philadelphia's future -- and to our future as a nation.

Ben Franklin invented bifocals, a more efficient stove, catheters, and many other remarkable devices. Today, American manufacturers are responsible for two-thirds of research and development investment in the United States. Nearly eighty percent of all patents filed come from the manufacturing sector. But more than 40,000 manufacturing facilities have shut down over the past seven years, and more than 3.2 million manufacturing jobs have been lost across our nation, including 200,000 in Pennsylvania alone. As more and more manufacturing moves offshore, the research and development goes with it.

Who will be tomorrow's Ben Franklin as we continue to lose productive capacity -- and therefore innovation -- because of offshoring, cheating by our trade partners, and a health care system that punishes employers who provide good health benefits to attract skilled workers? And what sorts of jobs will be left in the City of Brotherly Love?

Philadelphia has America's fifth largest African-American population, and many experts consider black men to be particularly at risk because of manufacturing's decline. Consider these facts:

In 2004, William Julius Wilson, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, found that "since 2001, over 300,000 black males have lost jobs in the manufacturing sector -- the highest rate of any ethnic group."

Over the past 35 years the percentage of African American men earning their living in factories has fallen from 25 percent to 10 percent nationally, according to The Center for Economic and Policy Research.

A July 2006 labor market estimate showed that both African American men and women saw an erosion of employment opportunities, but it was more pronounced for men than for women. This trend is in line with the above-average representation of African American men in manufacturing. The unemployment rate for African American men grew by 1.6 percentage points to 11.2 percent in July 2006, while it rose by 0.8 percentage points to 9.9 percent for African-American women.

Manufacturing has traditionally provided employment to workers who entered the workforce without a college degree, and it was a large source of employment for workers in urban centers. These lost manufacturing jobs are simply not replaced by new jobs in the service sector, which pay less, support less employment in the community and fail to sustain the research and development which drives America's innovation. Manufacturing jobs, however, support good schools and good government services; they are a sure-fire way to encourage strong communities.

Some will be tempted to chalk up the decline of manufacturing to economic progress running its course, catapulting us into the information age. But nothing could be further from the truth. A host of public policies, including trade agreements, health care, taxes and energy, contribute to whether or not our workers and manufacturers will be able to compete in the global marketplace. There's no single solution that will make manufacturing more competitive; it will take a significant shift in course to turn things around.

Which candidate has the vision to do this? I hope all of them do. If the 21st century gives us a new Ben Franklin, I'd like to make sure that he is inventing things that we can still make in Philadelphia.