Photo by Pete Marovich of American Reportage

Morning shift change at U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works in Clairton, Pennsylvania, about 16 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh. U.S. companies have added about 4,000 steel manufacturing jobs since the beginning of the Trump administration. That’s a minor victory when taking the industry’s long decline into consideration. In the 1950s, as many as 650,000 people worked in steel manufacturing nationwide; today, that number hovers around 140,000. U.S. Steel’s stock price sits near a 10-year low. Photo by Pete Marovich // American Reportage for Postindustrial

January 6, 2019

The truth about steel — and Trump

Stagnant production. Diminished job numbers. It’s not partisan to state facts.


By Matt Stroud

Photo by Pete Marovich // American Reportage for postindustrial

In the United States, steel production is stagnant. Steel job numbers are at distressing lows.

There’s plenty of history to consider: Data from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System show that three recessions during the late 1970s and early 1980s helped to decimate steel outputs in the U.S. They went from a peak of 184 million tons in May 1974 to a nadir of just under 53 million tons in December 1982. That’s a 71 percent decline in about eight years.

The industry never recovered. It has experienced rises and falls since then, but production has mostly ranged between about 80 million and 110 million tons since 1987 — a fraction of its peak.

That’s only part of the problem: While production numbers have remained relatively consistent for the last few decades, the industry has automated: For every 10 hours of work required to produce a ton of steel in 1980, only about one is required now, according to the American Enterprise Institute. Job numbers have suffered. In the 1950s, as many as 650,000 people worked in the U.S. steel industry, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Today that number hovers around 140,000.

None of those numbers significantly changed after November 2016. Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told NBC News this week that the industry has gained about 4,000 jobs over the course of the Trump presidency. That’s positive, he said, but that increase is minuscule in comparison to the industry’s overall job losses. And it comes “at the great expense of other sectors,” he said, noting recent jobs cuts at major companies such as General Motors. Meanwhile, the stock price of U.S. Steel — the Pittsburgh-based, publicly traded steel company routinely referenced in presidential addresses — is in the midst of a yearlong downswing. With a price of $18.48 at Friday’s close, U.S. Steel shares are priced 90 percent lower than they were at their modern peak in June 2008.


You wouldn’t know any of this if you listened to a recent press conference from the president — or followed much of the coverage that came after it. In the speech on Friday, Trump called the steel industry’s current status a “miracle,” describing it as “thriving.”

It’s certainly not a miracle. It hasn’t thrived since the 1970s. Yet the coverage that followed the speech had an air of uncertainty to it: “As Trump touts ‘thriving’ steel industry and manufacturing, insiders disagree,” read the NBC headline. Politico tweeted a quote from the president’s speech, which included the made-up assertion that “steel companies … were practically out of business when I came into office as president. And now they’re thriving.”

It seems like an eon ago, but commentators wrung their hands in the wake of the 2016 election circus about Trump’s false claims and how to fact-check them. One of the most concrete suggestions from all that hand wringing? When fact-checking the president, begin by helping readers to understand the issues — the state of steel, for example, or the number of jobs in the industry, or how policy has influenced both — rather than the political statements.

Start with the truth, not the lies. Set the stage, then let the show go on.

This was of particular interest in states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where false or ridiculous claims — such as those about a radically different NAFTA, or bringing back significant numbers of coal jobs (or resurrecting Joe Paterno) — gave unrealistic hope to those who were primed to accept it.

But little has changed since the last presidential election.

If media don’t give serious thought to how they approach truth and lies as the next presidential campaign begins, we’re all bound to experience the same circus — unbound to reality — that we faced in 2016.

No matter what Trump says, the data show two things to be true: It’s unlikely the U.S. steel industry will rebound. And those steel jobs are gone.

Photo by Justin Merriman of American Reportage

Matt Stroud, an accomplished journalist and book author, is a former staff writer with Bloomberg and the Associated Press who has written for Esquire, Harper’s, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.

Pete Marovich's photography has appeared in Time Magazine, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Financial Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, Sports Illustrated, Woman’s World, The Huffington Post, Politico, Essence, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Daily Beast. Pete is a founding member of American Reportage. Helives in the Washington, D.C. metro area with his wife, Jenny, and their two cats.

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