Mr. Trump (I believe he deserves the respect of “Mr.” because he is the president-elect) was successful in tapping the fear, anger, and frustration of an America that is hurting economically. Job prospects generally improved under President Obama, but the benefits did not reach many of those who supported the winning candidate. Certainly, their wages have not risen in recent memory, and the hope that their children would achieve a better life than they did was lost along the way and has never returned. Worse, the “establishment” didn’t seem to care about or even recognize the depths of their discontent.
In 2001 I was hired to lead a large regional foodbank. That year I became aware of a shift in economic conditions that was like a silent tide raising around our ankles. More of the folks seeking help at food cupboards were not unemployed, and they lived in communities where hunger had never been a problem. As conditions continued to deteriorate, few national alarms bells went off, up until the economic crash in the fall of 2007. Massive layoffs then sent the unemployment rate soaring and lengthened the lines of people trying to get food assistance.
At first most assumed that the recession would be like previous recessions, although it was known that a financial collapse ushers in a different type of crisis than does a simple downturn in the business cycle. Further, the insidious problems that began before the crisis continued to grow, partly masked by the recession itself.
I believe that the globalization of the labor market had begun to shift American jobs to cheaper markets. Not just manufacturing jobs but clerical jobs, engineering jobs (like computer coding), and service jobs (who hasn’t gotten technical support from someone in Bangalore?). Technology had made it possible for these jobs to flow to cheaper markets with the push of a key. While the remnants of the industrial age became highly technical or found refuge in developing countries, information age jobs have always been globally distributed.
The Obama administration’s response to the financial crisis led to gradual economic improvement. At my food bank and at others across the country, things got a little bit better but not as much as expected. The domestic job market did not recover from the hollowing out caused by globalization. Those who would later support Mr. Trump had work, but it wasn’t “good” work—not the kind you could count on and grow old doing for increasing wages.
Who or what was to blame for this? Immigration? Minorities? Bad trade deals? Maybe, maybe not, but at least one candidate “got it.” Workers were hurting, and increasing the minimum wage wasn’t the answer. They didn’t want a higher minimum wage, they wanted good wages, and good-wage jobs were few and far between.
Mr. Trump may “get it” that the prospects for the America of the future do not look great without some concerted effort to address the underlying causes. But what remains difficult to see is what Mr. Trump can do to address the globalization of labor. I think the answer is more likely to be found in domestic empowerment than in global protectionism. Our citizens cannot long expect first-world wages for third-world labor. One solution is for workers to acquire the skills that can command first-world wages, but unfortunately that cannot be achieved quickly or by executive order.
In this time of division and discord, are there goals that all of us can agree on and come together to achieve? Surely there are, and one of the most important is to make a strong nationwide investment in our greatest treasure—our children.
According to data collected by the Council on Foreign Relations in the late 1960s, America ranked first globally in both high school and college graduation rates. In the latest data, we’ve fallen to 12th. It seems unrealistic to fight the economic forces that are shaping world commerce with a labor pool at an educational disadvantage.
To catch up and return America’s education system to best-in-class status, a top-to-bottom restructuring is called for. Primary education is almost unchanged from the days when its main objective was to prepare farm children to work in factories. The proponents of early education and appropriate grade-level reading by third grade have shown us a path, but as long as we see education as a civic expense and not an investment in our collective future, progress will be minimal.
Another sobering indicator is that the U.S. military rejects about 80 percent of walk-in applicants as unfit for service. Obesity is the single most common reason for rejection. Too many of our kids are unhealthy, and the roots of their habits go back to toddlerhood. Their unhealthy habits are also causing healthcare costs to rise steadily.
Producing a nation of healthy, fit, and well-educated citizens should be our top priority. And to reach that goal, we need to focus on the nation’s children and give them the support they require. Failure to do that will doom all other strategies for achieving greatness in a global age.