Tim argues that aid to outsourced workers is “welfare.” So it would seem. And all good conservatives know that welfare is bad. Cue Hayekian talking points. Reaffirm free-market faith. Should that fail to impart sufficient smugness, throw in a reference to “welfare queens.” QED.
Or not. Conservatives’ primary complaint about welfare is that it rewards the unproductive by confiscating producers’ gains, inhibiting the output of both. But how does this apply when the majority of Americans are benefiting from cheap imports, subsidized by those paying with the loss of their livelihoods?
I’ve been reading The Big Squeeze by NYT reporter Steven Greenhouse. He writes of his visit to Galesburg, Illinois, the town 5-year-old Ronald Reagan moved to with his family in 1916. The future president recalled finding a collection of birds’ eggs and butterflies in glass cases left in the rented white house on North Kellogg Street. “I escaped for hours at a time in into the attic, marveling at the rich colors of the eggs and the intricate and fragile wings of the butterflies,” Reagan wrote seven decades later. “The experience left me with a reverence for the handiwork of God that never left me.” His father sold shoes at O.T. Johnson’s department store on Main Street.
For much of the 20th century, Galesburg was a model of progress and prosperity, fueled by three powerful forces: agriculture, manufacturing and railroads. So robust was Galesburg’s economy that Main Street boasted not just O.T. Johnson’s emporium but also a Sears, A JCPenney, and a Carson Pirie Scott—quite an array of department stores, considering that Galesburg was a community of 35,000 out on the prairie between Peoria and Rock Island.” On Friday nights, farmers from miles around converged on Galesburg to shop and socialize, at times making it hard not just to park but even to walk on Main Street. While agriculture was big and so were the railroads—the town’s rail yard is one of the largest in the Midwest, with seven major lines passing through town—the most important economic engine was the Galesburg Refrigeration Products factory on the south side of town. It was more than a million square feet, the size of 20 football fields, and at peak times it employed more than 3,000 workers. … In 1950, the Admiral Corporation acquired the plant and turned it into a refrigerator factory.
In 1979, Magic Chef bought Admiral. Seven years later, Maytag bought Magic Chef, and with it the thriving Galesburg facility. Greenhouse goes on: “Each year the factory pumped tens of millions of dollars of wages into Galesburg’s economy, and in that way, it helped build and sustain the town’s—and the country’s—middle class.”
He tells the story of Aaron Kemp, a hometown football hero who started work at the plant when he was 23. “It was a job where you could raise your family and have decent benefits, good health insurance, and a good pension—all the things that are important to us,” Kemp said. “Our shift was like family. … We could reach out and grab a piece of the American dream. We wouldn’t be rich, but we’d be comfortable.”
When Kemp showed up for work one October morning in 2002, he found the factory silent. Maytag was closing shop. 1,600 workers were losing their jobs. The company’s side-side refrigerators, awarded Consumer Reports’ number-one rating while they were made in Galesburg—would be produced at a new factory in Reynosa, Mexico, which has attracted 292 American companies since NAFTA passed. Employees earn $2 per hour.
Kemp’s daughter asked him, “Didn’t you guys work hard enough?’ That’s the problem with dismissing transitional aid to outsourced workers as welfare. They did work hard enough—and want to keep working. But their jobs aren’t in Youngstown, Detroit, Milwaukee, or Galesburg anymore, courtesy of their own government’s policies. Meanwhile, the rest of us are enjoying cheap refrigerators.
There are no easy answers here, and the problem isn’t going away. In addition to the 2.5 million manufacturing jobs lost since 2001, Forrester Research figures that 3.4 million white-collar jobs will be outsourced by 2015. Better to keep the jobs in the first place than compensate the victims, but neither can the rest of us pretend not to derive unearned benefits every time we go shopping.
Conservatism has some things to say about welfare, but it also has a few thoughts about the sanctity of community—and Main Street in Mr. Reagan’s boyhood home is no longer packed with friends on Friday nights.