As Congress gets down to business, Democratic representatives are expected to make an effort to extend and expand the expiring Trade Adjustment Assistance program. The program is meant to compensate workers hurt by foreign competition and thereby to reduce labor pressure for protectionist measures. Bargains of this sort are expensive. They also raise serious questions of unfairness to other groups of displaced workers who are, by any honest accounting, no less deserving of help than those who benefit from the trade adjustment program.
The current program is, thanks to Reagan administration cutbacks, a shadow of its former swollen self. Under earlier administrations the program had been progressively liberalized with strong emphasis on the "assistance" aspect and very little on the "adjustment." While claimants were supposed to demonstrate that foreign imports had directly destroyed their jobs, studies showed that more than 70 percent of workers ultimately returned to those same jobs. Only 3 percent enrolled in retraining and less than half of those completed it. The program simply provided much higher unemployment benefits for a longer time.
None of the bills now being pushed in Congress would restore the higher benefits terminated two years ago--workers now receive additional weeks of benefits but at the same level as regular unemployment. But the bills would make it easier for workers to claim their unemployment was related to foreign trade, soften work requirements, lengthen benefit periods and create an entitlement for retraining and additional stipends.
Money aside, all of this might be sound social policy if it were available to every U.S. worker permanently displaced. But why should trade-affected workers be so favored? If experience is any guide, they are more likely to be recalled to their former jobs than others among the long-term unemployed. And why should a worker be helped if his job moves overseas but not if it moves to another state?
No claim for special government responsibility for the trade-affected can be supported. Government did not create imports, and it has no obligation to create tariff barriers to them. If there is one group of unemployed workers who could legitimately claim reparations, it would be workers in export industries whose jobs have been lost by the inflated value of the dollar on foreign exchanges.
In opposing extension of trade adjustment benefits the administration points to the fact that it has requested over $200 million next year for job search help and retraining for all permanently displaced workers, not just a favored few. Perhaps that's not enough money, but the approach is the right one.