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How progressives can pressure Trump on 3 key issues

Donald Trump
Nancy Wiechec | Reuters
Donald Trump

There is little doubt that the Trump Administration aims to undermine, defund, and repeal much of the progressive agenda. However, progressives have one crucial move they can play to avoid four years of devastating policymaking: using Trump's own voters against him.

Donald Trump's Electoral College victory was in no small part due to the support of voters who suffered immensely during the Great Recession and who have still not recovered. Two thirds of all voters thought that their personal financial situation was the same or worse than four years ago and in Wisconsin, where Trump achieved an unexpected victory, the majority of voters believed that the economy was the top issue, despite official indicators of an improving job market.

Trump now faces a paradox. Many of the core elements of his agenda—loosening financial regulation, gutting health care reform, bashing immigrants, attacking unions, undermining the Fair Labor Standards Act—will actually damage the struggling workers and families he pledged to protect. Many of these people voted for Trump in hopes he'd fulfill that promise –even as his policies would do the opposite. So while the Trump Administration may be driven by its ideology to follow through on these proposals, its ultimate success depends on support from voters who would suffer under them.

How will Trump resolve this paradox? There's no denying that many of his proposed initiatives would inflict pain on his support base. But with pressure from progressives, the president-elect could also be pushed to adopt policies in three key areas that appeal to the blue collar voters of the Trump coalition: skills training, investing in education, and providing support for families.


"It will be in Trump's self-interest to draw upon what we have learned in the past decade about what would improve the circumstance of working people."

Skills training can enable people to obtain good jobs that are currently unfilled. Trump could support the work of labor market intermediaries--organizations that see their clients as being both those who need training and the firms that need workers. These initiatives often focus on one sector in a region and hence develop deep expertise in what it takes for firms to succeed and create good jobs.

These "dual client" organizations sometimes do the training themselves but more typically work with community colleges. Successful models are found in all parts of the country, on the coasts and in the center. A recent Department of Labor review summarized a range of evaluation evidence and concluded that there is "reason to be optimistic" about the benefits of these programs.

What about job creation? Here investment in education pays off. As Edward Glaeser and Albert Saiz show in their research on "The Rise of the Skilled City," there is a strong relationship between education levels and urban growth—especially in the Midwestern cities that were crucial for Trump's election. Healthy higher education institutions are also a strong source of economic growth and job creation.

Just consider the impact of MIT in the Boston area, Stanford in Silicon Valley, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg and numerous other examples. More systematic research at the MIT Industrial Productivity Center documents the connection between higher education systems and local economic growth. And when it comes to helping manufacturing, a central element of the Trump campaign, the constructive role of community colleges in meeting the skill needs of employers in their region is well documented.

Finally, if people are to take advantage of new opportunities and if their quality of life is to be improved, then pressures on families need to be relieved. Three quarters of employed women work full-time, and in a Pew Study 41 percent of working mothers report that being a parent is an obstacle to getting ahead at work.

Access to paid leave varies dramatically by education, with nearly three quarters of those with a college degree reporting access while less than a third with less than high school education and less than two thirds with just high school report having access. Yet evidence from the California experience with required paid leave shows that the earnings of mothers with young children are improved by ten percent due to that state's initiative.

Skills training, strengthening educational systems and helping families share a common theme: investing in people and, by doing so, also stimulating job creation. The people and families who would benefit the most from this agenda are precisely those economically pained Americans who cast their votes for Trump. It will be in Trump's self-interest to draw upon what we have learned in the past decade about what would improve the circumstance of working people.

There will be no shortage of clashes around other elements of the Trump agenda but in this arena, a divided America can come together.

Commentary by Paul Osterman, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management and co-author of Good Jobs America, Making Work Better For Everyone (Russell Sage).

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