One of the reasons people may not move for better opportunities, according to Bown, is that areas losing lots of jobs see less demand for housing, and home values fall. Workers who may still be paying off mortgages suddenly find they are underwater, meaning they owe more on their homes than their homes are worth. That makes the prospect of moving a financially dubious, or impossible, one. Even those that may be able to afford relocating see little appeal in leaving behind a community where they’ve spent their whole life. I talked to a worker named Jerry Nowadzky, who was laid off from an Iowa factory that made printing presses in the 1990s. He and dozens of other factory workers went to a class where they were retrained to repair computers, he told me. But after the yearlong course, there were no jobs, he said. Nowadzky, his certification in hand, went to work stocking shelves in a grocery store at night. He might have been able to find a job had he gone to another city or state, he told me, but “we were in our 50s, and you can’t really pick up and move with all the roots you have.”
There are other reasons that retraining hasn’t worked, too. Sometimes, people don’t know what kinds of jobs are in demand, and so are retrained for professions with few prospects. Other times, workers who have been at factories for decades find the idea of going to college intimidating. Someone who hasn’t done math or compositional English in 30 years may feel too old to begin at age 50. So they avoid retraining, even if it’s free.
In recent years, conservatives have taken the failures of TAA as a clear sign that the program needs to be scuttled. They ask: Why spend so much money on a program that provides retraining that doesn’t work? But this logic is problematic. If trade creates winners and losers in our economy—and many people passively win by gaining access to cheaper products from overseas—isn’t there an obligation to compensate the losers in some way? Giving up on them because retraining hasn’t yet proven to be successful seems short-sighted and indeed might be what has led to the discontentment plaguing this election season. Some of the people most affected by trade—white, working-class older men—are those who have eschewed traditional candidates from both parties and supported the anti-trade platforms of Bernie Sanders and Donald J. Trump in the election. Both candidates had pledged to stop trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership. “In theory, the winners should repay the losers, but we don’t in our country,” Timothy Smeeding, a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me a few months ago.
There are other solutions out there that haven’t been tried in depth. For instance, last December, the writer Henry Olsen penned an essay proposing a new Homestead Act that would subsidize people who want to move to areas with more jobs. People stay put, he argued, in part because many benefits—like cash assistance—are tied to where they live. They also stay put because they don’t know about opportunities in other places, he wrote. That doesn’t make sense, he wrote:
“Millions of low-to-moderately skilled, native-born, and immigrant Americans live in places where they can’t find decent work while a vast new economic frontier unfolds in Southern and Western states such as Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. These wide open spaces are enticing enough to encourage millions of Latin Americans to undertake dangerous and expensive journeys, yet millions of other Americans remain mired in ghettos, depressed steel towns and struggling regions like Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.”
Olsen’s idea could help overcome one of the biggest obstacles in helping those who lose out in trade deals: that they’re stuck in places where there are few opportunities. Rather than do away with TAA, there might be promise in helping people move to where there are opportunities. This could include retraining, mortgage assistance, and counseling. This isn’t exactly a new concept in American public policy. In the housing sphere, families are moved out of high-poverty areas where there is high crime and not enough access to jobs to better homes in the suburbs, and are provided with counseling in that transition. Why not expand that program to include inter-state moves for the people who are mired in communities where there are no job opportunities?