Baltimore’s industrial decline

The Sparrows Point Bethlehem Shipyard (discussed in the article linked to in the tweet below) was probably the biggest private employer when I moved to Baltimore in 1976. If you had told me then that it would totally vanish, I would have been shocked. I interviewed many people filing for retirement benefits who worked there. I was making $8,925 a year just out of college and these guys were making about $20,000. That was excellent money for people who frequently didn’t even have a high school education but you could look at them and see they had worked hard. Those kind of good paying manufacturing jobs are mostly gone now which exacerbates income inequality.

Everyone now takes having a birth certificate for granted but many people born before around 1930 didn’t have one. For many people, we had to get Census records. In the 1970s, you had to write the Census Bureau in Pittsburg, Kansas and it took six weeks to get a response. Many of the retirees had been born on rural areas in the south. Their ability to remember exactly where the farm or other home was located was impressive.

I remember one man who said he was born in 1914. We got the 1920 census record. It should have showed he was six. It showed he was 11. Then we had to get the 1910 census record. He was there and he was one which consistent with the 1920 census. Somewhere along the way he had lost five years. I had no doubt that he was 70, not 65, and he was still doing manual labor at Sparrows Point. When I explained this to him, his first concern was if it affected his pension since they had a mandatory retirement age. I didn’t know but didn’t think so since he genuinely didn’t know his real age. A lot of businesses would let the government establish the age of an individual and then adopt our determination.

Muscle and Blood is a fine book about industrial work in the 1970s which I read back then. As I recall, author Rachel Scott had worked for the Baltimore Sun and discussed Sparrows Point in her book.

This is an excellent article. I look forward to reading his book. MacGillis lives here in Baltimore.

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