In dueling speeches this week in Michigan, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton laid out opposing visions for the U.S. economy.
Neither candidate, however, has grappled with what may be the most challenging economic crisis of our times: what to do with older workers whose jobs have disappeared and are never coming back – and who are injecting so much frustration (and rage) into this election cycle.
These are the workers who got a raw deal, who saw their livelihoods ripped from beneath them, who feel left behind by an increasingly globalized and automated 21st century economy. They are predominantly white, non-degree-holding men, many of whom lost stable middle-class jobs in shrinking sectors such as manufacturing and coal.
To be fair, there’s a good reason neither presidential candidate has proposed a comprehensive, credible plan for how to help these workers.
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It’s really, really hard to come up with one.
We basically have a playbook for how to help younger people secure stable jobs and boost their long-term earning potential. That includes subsidizing their educations or even just helping them navigate the training (or retraining) they need to get better opportunities. Policies that make it easier for workers to stay attached to the labor force, or in school, such as subsidized child care or family leave, are also useful.
Clinton’s economic package, as laid out in her Thursday speech, is rich in these kinds of programs; Trump’s nods at some of them, such as child care. Unfortunately, such proposals would do little to help displaced, mid-skilled 50-somethings get back on their feet.
Older workers, after all, are less likely to benefit from work-support programs targeted at parents of small children.
Likewise, subsidizing their retraining offers limited benefits, at least from a fiscal perspective. It’s certainly not impossible to teach an old dog new tricks, so to speak, but retraining a worker who’s a decade from retirement may not be the best use of public funds (or that worker’s time) – especially because rampant ageism makes it harder for older workers to find jobs in new fields even when they do get training.
Trump’s solution, instead, involves a promise to “bring back” these workers’ jobs in coal mining and manufacturing – through energy deregulation and tough trade talk, respectively.
This is a cruel promise to make.
Coal miners’ jobs are long gone. These positions vanished not primarily because of regulatory burdens but because of technological advances that make it easier to extract more coal with fewer workers and also to produce natural gas – coal’s most important competitor – at much lower costs.
Trump’s promised tariffs and ripped-up trade deals, on the other hand, have been forecast to start a trade war, as well as a major recession. But even if you didn’t believe those forecasts, a bump in manufacturing – which Clinton now promises as well – seems unlikely to help already-laid-off manufacturing workers much.
That’s because the kinds of jobs that the manufacturing industry has been adding, and will likely continue to add, look pretty different from the kinds that have been lost. Innovation has turned U.S. manufacturing into increasingly highly educated, white-collar work; about a third of manufacturing occupations in 2010 were high-skilled, compared with less than a fifth in 1980, according to economists Lawrence F. Katz and Robert A. Margo.
So what options are left for helping the bereft boomer worker?
One is to increase direct transfers – that is, cash payments – to these unlucky job-losers. We already basically have a backdoor version of this policy. The Social Security Disability Insurance program, whose rolls have swelled in the past decade, has served as a sort of last-resort unemployment insurance for many Americans whose occupations or skills have become largely obsolete.
Given that many Americans base their identity on the dignity of their work, though, paying more people to give up on employment won’t fully resolve their anxiety and frustration.
Expanding the earned-income tax credit, which supplements the wages of low- and moderate-income workers, is one possible way to improve these workers’ lives, if they’re willing to take a job paying less than the one they lost. Wage insurance, as the Obama administration has proposed, could have a similar effect.
Another option is increasing their access to other insurance programs that could improve their quality of life – by, for example, allowing Americans as young as 55 to buy into Medicare (as Clinton has indeed proposed).
Trump has played pied piper to millions of Americans displaced by tectonic global shifts, who not coincidentally remember America as being great when they themselves had greater economic security. But neither he nor Clinton has offered a true antidote to their suffering. There’s an opportunity here for someone to offer a thoughtful solution.
Washington Post Writers Group