HUNTINGTON, Ind. —Chris Setser worked a 12-hour graveyard shift while his children slept, cleaned the house while they were at school and then went outside to wait for the bus bringing them home. He stood on the porch as he often did and surveyed the life he had built. The lawn was trimmed. The stairs were swept. The weekly family schedule was printed on a chalkboard. A sign near the door read, “A Stable Home Is A Happy Home,” and now a school bus came rolling down a street lined by wide sidewalks and American flags toward a five-bedroom house on the corner lot.
“Right on time,” Setser called out to the driver, waving to his children as they came off the bus.
It had been two months since Setser and 800 others in Huntington were told their manufacturing jobs would soon be outsourced to Mexico, but so far nothing about his routine had changed. He was still making $17 an hour on the third-shift line at United Technologies. The first layoffs wouldn’t take place for a year, maybe more. “We’ll be fine because we’ve always been fine,” Setser had said again and again, to his fiancee, his four children, and most of all to himself, but he was beginning to wonder if the loss of something more foundational in Huntington was underway.
Into the house came 10-year-old Johnathan, who had heard a rumor at school that factory workers would also be moving to Mexico. “No way, bud,” Setser told him. “We’re staying right here.”
In came 14-year-old Ashley, holding a payment notice for a school field trip. “Are we going to become one of those families with a voucher?” she asked.
“Don’t worry,” he said, handing her $20 from his wallet.
All around him an ideological crisis was spreading across Middle America as it continued its long fall into dependency: median wages down across the country, average income down, total wealth down in the past decade by 28 percent. For the first time ever, the vaunted middle class was not the country’s base but a disenfranchised minority, down from 61 percent of the population in the 1970s to just 49 percent as of last year. As a result of that decline, confusion was turning into fear. Fear was giving way to resentment. Resentment was hardening into a sense of outrage that was unhinging the country’s politics and upending a presidential election.
But Setser remained a believer in what he called the “basic guarantees” of the working class. He had his work history of near-perfect attendance. He had his home mortgage, his two cars, his weekly bowling night and his annual family trip to a small Indiana lake.
Most of all he had the assurances of what life had always been in Huntington, a town of 17,000 that remained a living museum to the iconic middle class. It was located not on the marginalized fringes of America but on the Heartland Highway, a place where 85 percent of the residents were considered working class. For generations it had helped manufacture the country’s baby shoes, ice cream cones, barbecue grills and dentures, and even if the recession had taken many of those good-paying jobs from Huntington, it had yet to take away from the middle class mythology at the town’s core. “Time honored American strength,” read one motto on a city website. “Tenacious! Industrious! Resilient! Strong!”
Now Setser’s oldest child, 16-year-old Krystal, walked into the house holding an envelope from Indiana University. It was her first college solicitation letter, and she tossed it aside on the kitchen counter. She was a smart student and a voracious reader. She had always assumed she would go to college, but lately she wasn’t so sure. “Like we are going to be able to pay for that,” she said.
“Things have a way of working in the end,” Setser said.
“Yeah, right,” she said.
The family china was polished in its cabinet. The spices were alphabetized on the shelf.
“You’ll see,” he said. “Life always evens out.”
That was the philosophy he had been living out for 13 years by packing a lunch and leaving for the third shift at exactly 9:30 p.m., which was what he had done one night in February, back when his biggest complaint about a job in the middle class was its utter predictability. He had driven past the same farms and Little League fields to the same United Technologies factory. He had parked in the same space and then changed into the same blue uniform to plug the same small parts into the same electronic control boards for heating and air conditioning units.
The temperature inside was always set to 70 degrees. Oldies music piped onto the factory floor. A few minutes before 10 p.m., the regular call came over the speakers. “Lights.” “Positions.” “Lines are rolling.”
Setser had heard rumors earlier in the day that the company had decided to move its operations to Mexico, but he found them hard to believe. While dozens of other manufactures had left Northeast Indiana, his factory, United Technologies Electronic Controls, or UTEC, was still taking back contracts from China and winning president’s awards for performance. It was the area’s largest employer and also a rare place where America’s fraying social contract had remained mostly intact: Employees helped the factory’s parent corporation earn more than $6 billion in annual profit. In return they got a decent hourly salary with good overtime, bonuses for completing work-training programs, a turkey to take home on Thanksgiving and a ham on Christmas. “Successful businesses improve the human condition,” read one sign posted on the factory wall.
Setser and his parents had moved to Huntington in the 1990s in part because of that idea. “The Town That Works!” was what one Huntington advertisement had promised in those years, and so they had moved from Chicago for lower rent, better schools and reliable union work. First Setser’s mother had been hired at UTEC, then his brother-in-law, and then eventually Setser himself was called in off the wait list. “From Day One to Day Dead,” was the saying about a job at UTEC, because once people were hired they usually stayed until retirement.
But on that night in February, another announcement had come over the factory speakers, instructing all UTEC employees to report to the cafeteria. The factory manager was standing at the front of the room, holding a piece of paper and reading into a microphone.
“A difficult decision,” he said.
“Relocation is best,” he said.
“Northern Mexico,” he said.
“No questions,” he said, and then he told employees they would have an hour-long break in the cafeteria to process the news before returning to their lines.
A similar announcement had come earlier that day at one of UTEC’s partner factories, a Carrier air conditioning plant in Indianapolis, where the mention of Mexico to the plant’s 1,300 employees had been followed by cussing and boos. Donald Trump had issued a statement — “disgusting,” “un-American” — and some Carrier employees had threatened to destroy equipment in the latest wave of the betrayal and rage that had become so much of a part of the political moment.
But in polite-and-steady Huntington, the cafeteria stayed quiet except for the hum of the vending machines. A psychologist who had been brought in to counsel workers waited alone at her table. The company security guards eventually wandered off to eat lunch. UTEC employees sat quietly in the cafeteria and watched the clock, until finally Setser stood and motioned for others to follow. “Let’s go,” he had said, and none of his co-workers had any doubt about where he was going, because there was no other choice.
They still had their jobs. Those jobs were the thing keeping them in the shrinking 49 percent of the middle class. So with five minutes left before the end of the hour, all 250 UTEC employees returned to their places on the lines.
His solution to every problem had always been work. Work harder. Work weekends. Work doubles. Work a second job. In Northeast Indiana, the epicenter of American manufacturing, everything was right there if you were just willing to work for it, so in the weeks after the announcement Setser had taken every available shift, increasing his hours and working 19 consecutive nights while still making it back home on school days to stand on the porch and wait for the bus.
Every evening was a sit-down family dinner. Every dinner they took turns going around the table to talk about their days. Every night they finished dinner and sat together to watch movies in the living room, where now Setser’s fiancee, Jennifer Bowers, was looking over plans for their summer wedding. It would be her first marriage and his third. She had been looking online for a photographer, but so far the only one she liked charged more than $1,000.
“I know we have to start cutting corners, but we don’t want to cut on this,” she said.
“It’s just bad timing,” Setser said. He had done the math, and the photographer would cost the equivalent of a little more than two weeks in take-home pay. And while that wouldn’t have mattered before February, now it did.
“We’re only getting married once,” Bowers said. “A good wedding, some nice family pictures — that seems like a basic thing to have.”
“What about building up a little cushion?” he said, because that seemed like a basic thing, too.
Together between his overtime and Bowers’s small salary at another manufacturer in Fort Wayne, they had remained firmly in the middle class by finding ways to make their money stretch. When they wanted to drive to Florida for their first overnight vacation in a decade, Setser could volunteer for more overtime to save up the cash. When they wanted a new TV, he could spend the 10 percent premium he earned for working third shift. He had cashed out part of his 401(k) account to pay for his daughter’s braces, purchased some of their basic household items with credit cards and taken out a no-money-down loan on their $95,000 house.
He had never worried too much about saving money, because there was always more to make. Every night was another shift. Every week was another paycheck. It was Day One to Day Dead, but now a few executives from Mexico had begun visiting the UTEC factory to prepare for the move and the layoff was closing in.
“I don’t want to spend too much and put us in a bad position,” Setser said, thinking of the photographer.
“We’re talking about a family heirloom,” Bowers said. “This is what we will look back on. This is who we are.”
He squinted and pursed his lips. He looked back at her and nodded.
“You’re right,” he said. “We can make it work.”
It was beginning to seem to him as though that was the new ethos of Huntington: from “The Town That Works” to making it work, and now the sun was rising on the cornfields, the local radio broadcaster was shouting, “Good morning Hoosier Heartland!” and Mark Wickersham was in his downtown office as director of economic development.
It was his job to recruit businesses into Huntington — to sell the viability of the town and its workforce — and for generations the product had mostly sold itself. It had state-of-the-art manufacturing parks and easy shipping by train or freeway. It had two lakes, an operating drive-in theater and a museum to honor Vice President Dan Quayle, a longtime resident whose endorsement of the city during one campaign stop in the 1980s had been reprinted and displayed all across town: “Here we’re taught the values of middle America, like faith in God, family, neighbor helping neighbor, the dignity of work, morality, integrity and personal responsibility,” he had said.
“Through hard work and determination we can achieve anything!” Wickersham had written in his own business recruiting pitch, and somehow during his career he had successfully helped Huntington’s leadership stave off one crisis after the next while upholding a middle class life for the 85 percent. They had saved downtown from the drain of the freeway bypass. They had opened job centers and retrained the manufacturing workforce. They had used generous state and local tax breaks to lure manufacturers from Germany, Japan, Brazil and Australia. A year after the recession, the town’s manufacturing parks were nearly full and the unemployment rate had dropped to 5 percent, even if some of those new jobs paid 10 or 15 percent less than what the middle class had been earning a decade before.
“We are certainly aware and concerned that Joe Lunchbox is still behind the eight ball,” Wickersham said, and now he was at already at work staving off another crisis, this time at UTEC.
“There’s always another big blow, but we always recover,” he said. “That’s ingenuity. That’s a community that comes together during the hard times and pushes ahead.”
But that was also first-shift optimism in a three-shift town, where it was Tom Lewandowski’s job to protect the other two shifts. “We’ve got a whole lot of smart people in smart suits, just whistling their way through a graveyard,” said Lewandowski, a union organizer in Fort Wayne, who was now traveling to Huntington to survey the mental health of employees at UTEC.
He had made the drive enough times to already suspect what he might find. Stride Rite had left Huntington for Mexico at the tail end of the recession; Breyers Ice Cream had closed its doors after 100 years. In the weeks after each factory closing in his part of Indiana, Lewandowski had listened to politicians make promises about jobs — high-tech jobs, right-to-work jobs, clean-energy jobs — but instead Indiana had lost 60,000 middle-class jobs in the past decade and replaced them with a surge of low-paying work in health care, hospitality and fast food. Wages of male high school graduates had dropped 19 percent in the past two decades, and the wealth divide between the middle class and the upper class had quadrupled.
“These jobs aren’t the solution so much as they’re part of the problem,” Lewandowski said, and now the result of so much churn was becoming evident all across Indiana and lately in Huntington, too. Fast-food consumption was beginning to tick up. Poverty was up. Foreclosures were up. Meth usage up. Heroin up. Death rate up. In Dan Quayle’s Middle America, one of the biggest news stories of the year had been the case of a mother who had let her three-week-old child suck heroin off her finger.
“Despair is our business, and business is booming,” Lewandowski said. “Workers have lost all agency in their lives. They’ve based their lives on believing in something that turned out to be a lie. They work when they can, for what they can, for as long as they can until it ends.”
As second shift finished in Huntington, several of those UTEC workers gathered at an Applebee’s that displayed construction hats on the wall. Earlier in the day, an employee had been suspended for taping a “Run for the Border” bumper sticker to one of the company’s roving robots — the biggest act of rebellion yet. A few employees had been trying to popularize a boycott of United Technologies products, and others had started using their regular 10-minute breaks to campaign for Trump in a traditionally Democratic factory. But for the most part their work was continuing unchanged, with attendance steady and factory production on the rise. They couldn’t risk losing their jobs or their UTEC severance packages, so the only way to vent was to come here, where the discussion on this night was of a country in decline.
“This is how it feels to be sold out by your country.”
“It’s pure greed.”
“They wanted to add another 6 feet to their yachts.”
“You’re telling me those people down there are going to be able to crank out 12 million units a year — no drop in quality, no incidents, no safety issues? Yeah. Okay. Good luck with that. There’s a reason they’re going to make $3 an hour.”
“We’re becoming like a third-world country. We’re going to have nothing left but fast food.”
“Fast food and hedge funds. That’s where we’re going.”
“What in the world is happening to this neighborhood?” Setser was saying now, waiting again for the school bus on his front porch. In the months since the announcement at UTEC, the steady march of anger and anxiety had been moving down his manufacturing line, part after part, shift after shift, and lately he had begun to notice things about Huntington that he had once overlooked. There were weeds creeping up around the neat craftsman homes, a stray needle in the alley and a fresh layer of graffiti on the nearby apartment building. “Can’t anyone keep up a house anymore?” he said.
His children came home on the bus, and they sat down for family dinner and took turns talking about their days. Bowers had booked the wedding photographer. “Expensive but worth it,” she said. The two boys had decided they wanted to go back to Florida, where they had vacationed, because they thought it might be nicer than Indiana. Krystal had met with an adviser at school and decided she wanted to become a dental hygienist, because the adviser thought there were lots of openings, and if so Krystal was happy to clean teeth.
Setser had begun looking for his next job, too, because he had heard rumors that UTEC might begin layoffs sooner than he originally thought. He had inquired about work at a local milk factory and at the General Motors plant in Fort Wayne, but both places already had waiting lists and both would likely require a shift change and an initial pay cut.
“We’re getting to the point where there aren’t really any good options left,” he said. “The system is broken. Maybe its time to blow it up and start from scratch, like Trump’s been saying.”
Krystal rolled her eyes at him. “Come on. You’re a Democrat.”
“I was. But that was before we started turning into a weak country,” he said. “Pretty soon there won’t be anything left. We’ll all be flipping burgers.”
“Fine, but so what?” she said. “We just turn everything over to the guy who yells the loudest?”
Setser leaned into the table and banged it once for emphasis. “They’re throwing our work back in our face,” he said. “China is doing better. Even Mexico is doing better. Don’t you want someone to go kick ass?”
“That doesn’t really seem like you,” she said, and for a few seconds she stared back at him, as if examining someone for the first time. The spices were alphabetized on the shelves. The family schedule was printed on the wall. Theirs was a happy home, a stable home.
“You said it always evens out,” she told him.
“Maybe I was wrong,” he said, but now his voice was quiet.
“You said things just have a way of working.”
“Maybe not,” he said, because with each passing day he was seeing it more clearly. The town was losing its best employer, and all around him stability was giving way to uncertainty, to resentment, to anger, to fear.
He stood up from the table and looked at the clock. For now the factory in Huntington was still open, and he had a routine to follow. He washed the dishes. He helped his children with their homework and got them ready for bed. He told them everything was going to be okay. Then he waited as night closed in on a three-shift town, and at exactly 9:30 he left for work.