Democracy Dies in Darkness

Made by History | Analysis

Move people to where the jobs are? It’s not so easy, President Trump.

By Elisa Minoff

August 10, 2017 at 6:00 AM

Families in depressed communities like Huntington, Ind., may find President Trump’s “just move” advice difficult to follow. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

While running for office, Donald Trump promised to bring blue-collar jobs back to struggling Appalachian coal towns and declining Rust Belt cities. As president, he has boasted about how he can strike deals with large manufacturers such as Carrier and Foxconn to solve the problem of job loss. But in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, even Trump admitted that this will not be enough. There will be some areas where jobs will not return. In his typically bombastic fashion, Trump offered a solution. “Don’t worry about your house,” he pronounced. Just go to where the jobs are.

Trump is not alone in proposing mobility as an economic solution to intransigent unemployment. Experts from across the ideological spectrum agree that more people should follow in the great American tradition of our Western pioneers and move to pursue new opportunities. But this idea does more than romanticize the complicated history of migration, in which Okies faced armed guards when crossing the California state line to look for work and African Americans moved North to escape Jim Crow and racial violence in the South. It also advances an economic policy that has proven difficult to execute in practice because it poses problems for the very people and towns the policy aims to help.

Despite Trump’s promises that he personally would bring jobs to his voters, his recent turn toward migration as a solution is probably a dead end. For 50 years, his predecessors repeatedly tried — and failed — to help people move for work. Their attempts pitted local businesses, community institutions and governments against the national government by threatening to shrink their population and tax bases. What’s more, when Congress did enact modest programs of relocation assistance, moving disadvantaged workers proved expensive and difficult.

Although moving people to where the jobs are provides a simple slogan to address a changing economy, real results will demand that the Trump administration grapple with more complicated public policy problems. The federal government can better address unemployment by funding public works and investing in education and training. At best, mobility is a small part of the solution.

The current consensus that labor mobility is important for economic growth and full employment was forged in the mid-20th century. John F. Kennedy, who had run for president in the midst of the fourth postwar recession on a promise to “get the country moving again,” proposed the first significant program of relocation assistance in the postwar period. The Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA), introduced in May 1961, was designed to help displaced workers retrain for new jobs and, if necessary, move for them.

Under the act, the federal government could pay up to half of the moving expenses for workers who authorities determined had been unemployed for six months or more and could not reasonably be expected to find work where they lived. The relocation provisions were a small part of the bill, but they were central to its conception. Kennedy highlighted them in speeches, and newspapers called the MDTA the “retraining and relocation bill.”

Even before Kennedy proposed relocation allowances, however, members of Congress expressed skepticism about the federal government helping Americans move. A 1960 Senate report on unemployment bitingly observed that “most people do not share the classical economists’ willingness to prescribe abandonment of a community with its traditions, schools, churches, social capital, and stabilizing influence upon the human person.”

The coverage of the Kennedy administration’s modest relocation allowance only reinforced this opposition. Newspapers reported that government relocation assistance would target Pennsylvania coal country. In response, leaders of local businesses, churches, schools and other community institutions protested the rumored “relocation drive.” The Hazleton City School Board denounced relocation plans as “inhumane,” and Scranton’s City Industrial Commission declared its “violent” opposition to relocation allowances.

The public scare surrounding these relocation provisions forced Congress to act in unanticipated ways. Representatives of depressed areas actually became vocal critics of the bill. Charles Goodell, a conservative Republican from Upstate New York, denounced relocation assistance as the first step toward “almost complete state control over the American worker.” Sen. Jennings Randolph, a Democrat from West Virginia, worried that relocation assistance would undercut federal and state efforts to rebuild depressed areas, especially the “hard-hit bituminous coal areas.”

With such vehement criticism, passage of the MDTA was possible only when the modest provisions to assist relocation were removed. The lesson: The politics of facilitating mobility were treacherous. Many of the members of Congress whom the administration needed to support the legislation — representatives of areas with high unemployment — were wary of the policy from the start. When the press drew attention to the relocation assistance provisions and their constituents rebelled, it solidified their opposition.

The policy, it turned out, was also difficult to execute. Shortly after Kennedy’s death, successor Lyndon B. Johnson muscled through pilot projects to test relocation assistance in amendments to the MDTA that did not attract the attention of the press and were small enough to pass muster in Congress. The projects helped people move from rural areas with high unemployment to cities with jobs. They were rigorously evaluated, and the results were mixed. Projects run by local social service agencies that provided financial support and intense pre- and post-migration counseling and supportive services did have success in connecting disadvantaged workers to jobs. But those that provided financial support without such services failed to help the most disadvantaged workers.

The lessons of the project were clear: Financial assistance alone was not enough. Meaningful aid required comprehensive (and expensive) social services to prepare workers for the move and find housing and work once they had relocated.

The politics of moving people is difficult. So are the practicalities of moving people. Any program that is going to effectively facilitate migration will take significant resources and will require the full backing of local political leaders.

Johnson realized these lessons immediately. When members of his Council of Economic Advisers and Labor Department recommended applying the lessons from the MDTA pilot projects and expanding them, Johnson refused. It was not worth the political headache. A large-scale program of relocation assistance has never been enacted.

And yet the appeal of such a simple solution remains. Economists continue to believe that mobility is necessary to reduce unemployment and grow the economy, and experts dangle the solution whenever lawmakers worry about economic troubles.

But Trump will not solve the problem of entrenched unemployment by simply telling workers in depressed areas not to worry about their houses. This solution masks the deeper social and economic issues facing workers today. For example, high rents and limited job search and child-care services in cities with jobs are notable barriers to mobility. Any solution to unemployment and depressed areas will require tackling these social issues. Such a comprehensive policy solution would require political capital, not just campaign rhetoric. As the president has already discovered, the latter is easy, but the former poses much more of a challenge.


Elisa Minoff is a historian and author who is currently finishing a book The Age of Internal Migration, which examines the law and politics of migration in the twentieth-century United States.

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