International trade has been hard on Pennsylvania, but a boon for the country.
On a Friday night in Altoona, the Blair County Convention Center was packed to the rafters with supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. There was an overflow room downstairs and a crowd waiting outside that couldn’t get in. Trump discussed everything from ISIS to Supreme Court justices.
But it was the talk of jobs that got the crowd excited.
“We are not going to let your jobs leave, folks,” Trump said, to a roar of cheers. “We’re not going to let it happen. They’re not going to Mexico. They’re not going anywhere else.
Like many Pennsylvania cities, Altoona has been on a slow decline for decades. Factories have closed, industry has left, and “The Railroad City” is in Act 47, the state’s program for distressed cities.
Trump gave the crowd a clear culprit for this decline: the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It opened the doors to free trade between Mexico, Canada and the United States.
At the rally, Trump called NAFTA “a disaster.” He promised to renegotiate the country’s trade deals.
In this Aug. 12, 2016, photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves as he leaves a campaign rally in Altoona, Pa. Nearly every Trump rally comes with a boast from the candidate about the massive crowd size and the thousands more outside hoping to get in. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Trade deals or trade steals?
NAFTA gets badmouthed a lot on the Trump campaign trail. So do other trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a not-yet-ratified agreement between 12 countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, including the U.S. Trump has also decried the decision to allow China to join the World Trade Organization, saying the country is an unreliable partner and undercuts U.S. manufacturing.
But Trump isn’t the only candidate making these arguments. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has distanced herself from NAFTA and reversed her support for the TPP. Her five economic goals include a plan to “crack down on companies that ship jobs and profits overseas,” as she put it during a rally in Scranton.
In Pennsylvania, where both candidates have spent a lot of time, supporters are getting the message: bad times have bad trade deals to blame.
“You have to [renegotiate trade deals],” said Alan McManus, an Altoona native, after the Trump rally. “If you don’t, then jobs aren’t going to come back here. People are still going to go across seas or even in Mexico and start building their businesses.”
Vice President Joe Biden, seated on stage right, listens as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, addresses a gathering at a campaign rally Monday, Aug. 15, 2016, in Scranton, Pa. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
But a lot of manufacturing jobs in the state were lost well before NAFTA. They went to the Southern United States, where labor wasn’t unionized, or they fell victim to automation. Trade didn’t help bring those jobs back, and it may have accelerated the departure in some cases.
But Mauro F. Guillén, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, told Newsworks Tonight that international trade is just part of a modern economy.
“Certain kinds of jobs, in certain industries, like metal, steel, auto parts, would have gone somewhere else in the world, if it weren’t Mexico,” Guillén said. “Let’s also keep in mind that there’s been a lot of jobs created in the United States as a result of NAFTA.”
But those new jobs aren’t always in the same place as the old jobs, and they often require higher education. For example, new jobs created in the tech sector and even advanced manufacturing often require at least an associate degree.
Fariborz Ghadar, a professor at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State, says Pennsylvania hasn’t responded well to those challenges.
“Particularly in rural Pennsylvania, 45 percent of the adults today have no more than the high school degree,” Ghadar said. “This presents a difficulty if you want to compete in the newer jobs.”
Ghadar says those who are qualified and able are leaving the state, finding work in areas that have benefited from trade. Those who remain feel shut out of the global economy because, in many ways, they are.
“The issue is not really whether we have a bad deal,” said Ghadar. “It’s that what are we going to do for people who don’t benefit from the trade deal?”
The answer, these economists say, is not to bring steel mills and textile factories back to Pennsylvania, but rather, to create advanced manufacturing opportunities and a workforce to match.
The candidates are aware of that reality. Clinton plans to offer debt-free college and workforce training, as well as what she calls “the largest investment in good-paying jobs since World War II,” mostly in advanced manufacturing and clean energy. Trump intends to cut taxes for businesses and middle-class Americans, which he says will rev up job creation.
But even if the anti-trade rhetoric is oversimplified, it’s always good for a cheer in Pennsylvania. Here, convention centers are full of those left behind.