What’s Next for American Workers as Trade, Automation Roil Manufacturing?

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administration has proposed but so far failed to enact. Danzman says rural and manufacturing-dependent communities might be better off focusing on education.

“If you develop a higher concentration of skills in these rural areas, especially as the cost of living skyrockets in the cities, you can see more businesses moving there. But you need enough skilled workers there for it to make sense,” she says.

The future of public education is very much an open question under the new administration. My conversation with Danzman took place before Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released her proposed budget gutting public school funding in favor of more resources to charter schools.

Some policymakers have proposed a universal basic income—a monthly or yearly minimum stipend guaranteed to all citizens—as a way to soften the blow of economic displacement due to automation. Danzman is not necessarily opposed to such a tool, but says nobody is sure how it might work as a long-term solution.

“People want jobs, not a check from the government,” she says. “There’s always going to be a segment of the population that can’t or won’t work, but the majority of people want jobs and to be a contributing member of society, so we need more than just a universal basic income.”

The problem, in Danzman’s opinion, is that even with massive infrastructure spending, the jobs created won’t be in rural areas.

“There’s still that mismatch,” she says. “We need to think hard about public education, about how to have that protracted argument about the role of public education and money in charter schools. In a rural community, if you lose public schools, it leads to so many knock-down effects. If there’s no school, there’s no reason to go to town. Teachers aren’t going out to lunch. It’s hard to have a thriving small town if you don’t have a school to anchor it.”

Danzman opposes protectionist trade policies, which she characterizes as harmful especially to those already struggling financially. Tariffs increase the cost of consumer goods, which already take up a higher proportion of poor people’s income.

Yes, the robots are coming, and the globalization train has probably left the station for good. Regardless, Danzman says she doesn’t think we should go the way of the Luddites, who destroyed looms used to weave fabric because they feared labor-saving devices would put them out of business.

“What gives me hope for the future is that, quite frankly, we’ve been to this rodeo before,” she says. We are undergoing a major shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy, but the U.S. has had periods of economic decline in the past and has recovered to thrive in the future.

Danzman, a Philadelphia native, remembers when the city, with its huge manufacturing presence and working-class base, was a paragon of American prosperity. That changed rapidly in the 1970s and ‘80s as jobs moved south, west, and overseas, she says.

“Philly in the 1980s was a scary place, but now the economy is thriving and parts of Philadelphia that were unsafe in broad daylight are hip nightlife sections,” she adds. “Midwestern cities are basically where Philly was in the ‘80s. In a couple of decades, with the right policies, I feel confident that these cities can thrive once again.”

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