The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s policies have not revived Scranton. But few there blame him.

Scranton, Biden’s birthplace and a place at the heart of his political identity, has continued to struggle during his presidency. But many residents cite woes that far predate his tenure.

A pedestrian crosses at the intersection of Biden Street and Lackawanna Avenue in downtown Scranton, Pa. (Nadia Sablin/for The Washington Post)

SCRANTON, Pa. — In the past, grocery shopping for Marie Schumacher meant little more than a trip to her local Gerrity’s, a northeastern Pennsylvania chain with several stores near her house. But as prices soared, Schumacher started a new Tuesday routine: hopping in the car and driving 10 miles to a discount chain in Dickson City.

“Everything has obviously gone up — like a dozen eggs here would be almost $5,” said Schumacher, 81, who started the trips during the pandemic to help out friends worried about catching the coronavirus.

She doesn’t think Scranton’s most famous native son is responsible for the city’s shuttered industries, empty storefronts or $5 eggs, but she also doesn’t think President Biden has done much to help reverse the community’s slide. “Nothing has changed here since he’s been president,” she said.

Biden leaned hard into his upbringing in this blue-collar city in his bid for the White House, and his presidential speeches and anecdotes are peppered with references to Scranton. He empathizes with financial struggles by mentioning his father’s “long walk up a short flight of stairs” to tell the family he’d lost his job. He says America’s social policies should reflect Scranton’s values, where “people stuck up for you — stuck up for one another.”

And Scranton is where he says his mother gave him one of his earliest lessons on equality: “Nobody is better than you, and everybody is equal to you.”

But if his election showed how far a self-described “kid from Scranton” could go, two years of his presidency have exposed the limits of what Biden — maybe any president — can do for a place like this. If Biden’s political goal is to help people like his former neighbors, it’s not clear he’s succeeded, at least not yet.

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“People are very nervous and rightfully should be,” said Ty Holmes, a Scranton School District director and the president of the local NAACP who, during a presidential visit in October, asked Biden to help revive the city’s pre-K program.

“Scranton is not a place where people have a large amount of money to begin with — never has been,” Holmes said. “These are people who are starting to have anxiety. I’m not a specialist in economics or financials, but there’s no way you can’t see we’re in the beginning stages of a recession.”

Biden argues that the country is not entering a recession, and a prolonged surge of job growth has bolstered his case. But prices for food and other items have continued to rise, and a sense of economic anxiety has been hard for many to shake.

Publicly, the love affair between Scranton and Biden, who spent the first 10 years of his life here, is reciprocal. Scranton has bestowed the name Biden on three streets: one in the heart of the city’s downtown, another on a recently re-christened (and occasionally vandalized) expressway, and a third on the street where his childhood home sits. Lackawanna County, which includes Scranton, went strongly for Biden in 2020 and helped him win Pennsylvania, despite being encircled by communities that voted for former president Donald Trump.

And in October, Biden returned to Scranton to launch his Build Back Better initiative — whose goal, he said, was to help communities like Scranton. Another trip to the city was scrapped a few weeks ago after Biden contracted covid-19.

“Scranton isn’t my home because of the memories it gave me — it’s my home because of the values it gave me,” Biden said outside the Electric City Trolley Museum during the October trip, as his cousins sat in the front row. “So when I ran for president, I came back to Scranton. … And I resolved to bring Scranton values to bear, to make a fundamental shift in how our economy works for working people.”

Last week, Joe McAndrew, a 65-year-old retiree, sat outside his apartment on Biden Street and reflected on a country now led by the man whose name is on the street sign. McAndrew doesn’t regret voting for Biden. He wanted Trump out, and thinks the former president “should be in jail, because he’s the one that caused the insurrection.”

Still, McAndrew said he’s worried about the rising price of food and housing. His landlord just announced a rent increase, and he’d like to move to a better place, but even nearby apartments that have sat empty for months are too expensive — and so, it seems, is almost everything else, despite the dropping price of gas.

“I went food shopping the other day and just two little bags [of groceries] was 60 bucks,” McAndrew said. “Everything went to sky high. These open apartments are $1,500 a month.”

Nearby, several storefronts look like they’ve been shuttered for years. One features a handwritten “no loitering” sign. Another, apparently from a relocated bank, has been closed since 2014.

But many in Scranton dismiss the idea that Biden is responsible for the city’s struggles. The city has been on the losing end of tectonic economic shifts for more than a century.

Iron works at the core of the city’s founding began to close at the beginning of the 20th century. The last coal mines started closing a few decades later. In the latter half of the century, Thomson Consumer Electronics, which produced picture tubes for televisions, employed more than a thousand people in the Scranton metro area, but after the North American Free Trade Agreement, the company moved its factory to Mexico, where it could pay workers far less.

In the 20 years since, no dominant employer has emerged in Scranton to take its place.

“We had 1,600 families poking around for something that would help make ends meet,” said Rep. Matthew Cartwright, a Democrat who represents Scranton in Congress and has appeared several times with Biden. “People took retail and service jobs, restaurant jobs. And you’d have to take two of them to supplant the income they lost.”

As a result, Scranton has slowly emptied out. It had more than 140,000 residents around the time Biden was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in 1942. That has dwindled to just under 77,000, and more than 1 in 5 people live below the poverty line.

It’s not even clear the city can meet its pension obligations to retired firefighters and police officers, said Joan Hodowanitz, the citizen representative on the Scranton Firefighters Pension Commission, and another economic blow could be devastating. “We don’t know what the stock market’s going to be six months from now or even a year from now,” Hodowanitz said. “So it could become another drag on the city’s financial health.”

These decades of financial turmoil have become political ammunition as Pennsylvania has transformed into a battleground state, its 20 electoral votes a major prize in presidential elections.

For years, people seeking the White House have come to Scranton, hoping to show they understand the tough losses wrought by uprooted industries. Biden is not the first president, or would-be president, to wrap himself in the tough-as-nails reputation of a town built by miners and ironworkers. People in Scranton, all too familiar with the four-year political cycle, try not to roll their eyes when candidates visit to praise them as “scrappy.”

Whether the candidates win or lose, not much seems to change.

“When Trump came here campaigning for president, he said he was going to bring the mines back,” said Ed O’Hearn, who’s lived in Scranton most of his life and worked in the machine shop at Thomson Consumer Electronics. “They’ve been closed for decades, and we’re all making a big joke about it: ‘Oh, we’re gonna put our application and we’re going to get a good job in the mines.’ Nobody’s really shocked too much when they hear somebody’s promises, or when those promises don’t come true.”

During a 2016 visit to northeastern Pennsylvania, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton spoke about gun control while recalling how she learned to shoot behind her family’s cottage overlooking nearby Lake Winola, according to the New York Times. “Secretary Clinton has northeastern Pennsylvania blood running through her veins,” Scranton’s mayor at the time, William L. Courtright, told the crowd, describing her as “a local woman that made it big.”

Biden spent Election Day 2020 in Philadelphia and Scranton, and by then, the question of who best represented this area had featured prominently in the presidential race. On the day Biden accepted the Democratic nomination, Trump visited Old Forge, Pa., and claimed that Biden only embraced his short, long-ago stint in nearby Scranton to score political points.

“So tonight … Slow Joe will speak at the Democrat convention, and I’m sure that he’ll just knock ’em dead,” Trump said. “And he’ll remind us that he was born in Scranton. But you know, he left like 70 years ago. … So I view it differently. He abandoned Scranton.”

With Biden in the White House, Scranton remains a powerful shorthand for people on both sides of the political aisle. “What matters to President Biden, and therefore to his economics team, is how are families like the one that he grew up in doing?” Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, recently told The Washington Post.

In June, Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, sought to use the president’s birthplace against him. “Biden talks about his Scranton roots, but he couldn’t care less about the struggles hard-working Pennsylvanians face today,” she said on the day Biden spoke at an AFL-CIO convention in Philadelphia. “Soaring inflation, record gas prices, and a baby formula shortage are only a few of the crises he’s dealt Keystone State families.”

Jimmy Connors, the mayor of Scranton from 1990 to 2002, has spent the last few years rebutting claims that Biden’s talk of Scranton is for show. During the campaign, he took reporters — and anyone else who asked — to visit people who pulled out pictures of Biden through the years at weddings and parties and funerals.

Now Connors says Biden’s doubters need to give him more time, an argument that’s easier to make with Biden’s recent run of legislative wins.

“There’s a certain percentage of people that are saying ‘Who can we get to replace Joe?,’ even Democrats, and I’m saying to them, ‘Look, you’re throwing him over the side a little early.’ Even before this week, I said, ‘Let’s give him some time.’ He put NATO back together. He’s facing down Putin the bully. He’s helping Ukraine now. The gas prices have been dropping for the last couple of weeks.”

And he said Scranton is reflected not just in Biden’s economic policies, but also in his bipartisanship and emphasis on equity.

“Scranton never got rid of some of the stuff that was important to keep — some of the buildings, some of the values that we have,” he said. “That has never disappeared from Scranton.”