All These People Complaining About Debt Forgiveness, and No One Talking About Lapsed Trade Adjustment Assistance?

By Matthew McMullan
A massive cargo ship arrives at the Port of Long Beach, California. Getty Images

Makes you wonder how worried about the working class they really are.

There’s been lots of public debate around President Biden’s big student loan forgiveness plan. A lot of folks are really bent out of shape about it!

Of course, millions of Americans aren’t bent at all, as $10,000 in debt relief for millions of us is nothing to sneeze at. And right before a midterm election, no less!

But there are plenty of others who are indeed very bent. Some of them say this will add to economic inflation, while others argue it will encourage colleges to just raise tuition rates, and others still worry what it means for the national debt. One congressman pondered aloud what it would mean for military recruitment.

And then there is the class argument, which is that forgiving loans to the college-educated – who will earn more over their lifetimes than those without a college degree – isn’t deserved while working Americans are still out there, workin’. And that isn’t fair, said another congressman!

This is the same congressman who, as a member of House Republican leadership, just this summer helped thwart including the renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) in the CHIPS Act, the industrial policy bill just signed into law. Because… the Biden administration isn’t pursuing new trade agreements. Yep, that’s the rationale.

Make no mistake: TAA is still needed, new agreements or not. The economy is globalized and American workers are still buffeted by its pushes and pulls.

TAA for 60 years helped Americans whose jobs were lost to offshoring and import competition reinvent their working lives. It subsidized retraining, relocation, and even things like transportation to job interviews, and it worked.

Was it fair to workers – like the guy who put in almost four decades at a lighting factory in Ohio before import competition ran it out of business and somehow couldn’t get TAA assistance – that access to it became more restricted as the years went on? No, but it happened anyway. Fair or not, now the entire program is defunded. Zeroed out. Kaput.

But even when it was funded, TAA was barely enough. Only 5 million American workers were ever advantaged of it, which is a drop in the bucket when you remember it started during the Kennedy administration. The United States lost more than 2 million jobs between 2001 and 2019 to Chinese import competition alone. Anecdotally speaking, if this is the program the New York Times describes as “America’s main antidote to the pressures that globalization has unleashed on its workers,” then it suggests our government doesn’t do a lot to maintain its workforce in an international economy that often rearranges people’s jobs. And, relatively speaking, it doesn’t. Two academics writing in The Hill last month pointed out the United States ranks near the bottom of OECD economies for spending to support employment.

“It is ironic that the end of one of America’s main programs to assist dislocated workers comes at a moment of massive global disruption,” they said:

Rapid technological change is affecting many industries and occupations, with even more automation-induced displacement on the horizon. Trade flows are being disrupted by COVID-19 supply chain shocks and a strong U.S. dollar. In sum, job loss due to structural change is not disappearing, it is accelerating, and workers without college degrees are those most likely to face the headwinds.

Perhaps, though, it’s not ironic and rather symbolic of our political priorities.

Here’s one way to interpret them: A significant chunk of Congress can find time to complain loudly about action from the Biden administration to relieve what for some has been crushing personal debt, but can’t be roused to maintain even a base layer of employment assistance for working-class Americans like TAA.  

These jamokes should restart Trade Adjustment Assistance immediately.