At just 37, Pete Buttigieg doesn’t have much of a record to run on. He’s never held a federal office or won a statewide election, nor is it likely that he could in a conservative state like Indiana. Outside of his inspirational rhetoric, there’s one thing Buttigieg is proud of: his record as mayor of South Bend.
Yet for a presidential candidate who touted how he “cut the unemployment in half” and helped revitalize a Midwestern city, not all residents are feeling the results of the city’s supposed revitalization.
In January, Buttigieg told an NPR host that his administration “transformed the trajectory of our city” and that South Bend “was written off as dying at the beginning of this decade. Now it’s growing again.”
There’s no doubt that South Bend has undergone tremendous change since Buttigieg took office in 2012. Notre Dame administrators and students now have more dining options and hotels for visiting relatives and parents. There are a handful of new tech startups, and residents can now enjoy the South Winds casino that opened in early 2018.
But data detailing the structural economic changes Buttigieg helped oversee as mayor show that most of the new jobs rest entirely in the service industry. Those jobs, according to Indiana University School of Business professor Hong Zhuang, are far different from the kind that many South Bend natives grew up with.
“South Bend is more of a service-based economy now. The expansion into service jobs means of these jobs are mostly low-paying,” Dr. Zhuang told the Washington Examiner. “From the data, it seems to me that manufacturing jobs would provide much better incomes for residents.”
In the first half of the 20th century, manufacturing dominated the Indiana city. Over half of all jobs were in manufacturing, which began to rapidly decline after Studebaker closed its automotive plant in 1963.
That old Studebaker factory has now been converted into a “start up incubator,” according to the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce. Only 13% of all jobs in the South Bend-Mishawaka area are now in manufacturing, and growth remained stagnant through the last year, according to data provided by the state.
“The people who once upon a time might have worked good union jobs at Studebaker now work increasingly in the ‘food and serving’ sector, whipping up fancy coffees and craft booze for the rich kids,” Benjamin Studebaker, a descendant of the industrial family, wrote in April.
Meanwhile, jobs in “leisure and hospitality” saw the largest growth from 2017 to 2018 at 1500. In total, the South Bend-Mishawaka region only gained 200 net jobs over the year.
Even the economic areas where Buttigieg wished to create a “Silicon on the prairie,” like health and business services, saw a loss of 2,700 total jobs.
Unemployment might have almost recovered from its double-digit highs during the Great Recession, but the poverty rate in South Bend is a startling 26.7% — 11 percentage points higher than the state’s average. Wage growth in the region actually declined by 1.5 percent in the 2017 to 2018 year.
Meanwhile, the neighboring city of Elkhart, Ind., tells a different economic picture — so much so that an estimated 11,000 people from South Bend now commute 15 miles to the city each day for work. With roughly 65,000 people in the city’s labor force, that’s nearly 17% of all workers going to another city for work each day.
“There’s a tremendous amount of energy to work closer with Elkhart. In fact, parents at the middle school are taking kids over there to show them some of the jobs available. The city has had excellent GDP and population growth over the years,” South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Rea told the Washington Examiner.
When looking at Elkhart’s economy, that’s not surprising. Considered the RV manufacturing center of the world, Elkhart has booming growth and a record low unemployment rate at under 3%, one of the lowest in the entire state.
Mark Dobson, the CEO of Elkhart County’s economic development corporation predicts the manufacturing workforce will be breaking 25,000 in just a few years and expects at least tens of thousands more related jobs to open up in that same time period.
Weekly wages just hit an average high of over $1,000 in Elkhart, while the average person in South Bend makes roughly 20% less.
“Manufacturing jobs just pay better nationwide, so it would make sense that you would try to grow those kinds of jobs in South Bend,” Zhuang said.
So far, that doesn’t seem to be on Buttigieg’s agenda, which has been focused on courting tech and investment firms.
“We propelled our city’s comeback by taking our eyes off the rearview mirror, being honest about change, and insisting on a better future,” Buttigieg said in his presidential announcement video.