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Deconstructing Trump’s Construction Plans

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“We will get our people off of welfare and back to work rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor,” said President Trump, in his inaugural address, referring to his plans to invest in infrastructure spending.  As with many of his proclamations, it is yet unclear what this means in policy and practice but it is worth looking at some of the possible implications for gender equity.

Most adults currently on “welfare” (commonly understood as the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program or TANF) are single moms, two thirds from communities of color.

For these recipients, scholars have documented how the current workforce development system that is designed in part to help TANF participants exit poverty and gain economic stability actually helps to maintain the segregation of women, especially women of color, in lower paying gender stereotypical occupations (service and care) and, consequently, out of the living wage infrastructure jobs that Trump referred to in his speech.

A majority of workers enter the skilled construction trades through apprenticeship programs, an “earn-while-you-learn” approach where women’s representation remains in the single digits nationally (7% in 2014).  Since 2015, the Obama administration and Congress have invested $265 million in new funding to support apprenticeships.  $20.4 million has gone to helping states diversify apprenticeship programs by recruiting and retaining more women and people of color, among other aims.  If the Trump administration is serious about using an infusion of infrastructure spending to move people off of “welfare” and rebuild America in the process, it should continue and significantly expand these efforts.  In contrast to this approach, however, Trump’s first choice to head the Department of Labor, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, was expected to focus on more traditional forms of job training and placement programs that channel workers directly and quickly into the low-wage sectors of the economy (including  the fast-food sector where Puzder has operated for much of his private sector career).  Puzder withdrew his name from consideration for that appointment and it is unclear where his replacement Alex Acosta stands on issues related to workforce development.

Another tool that has been successfully used at the federal, state and local level to create additional demand for women and people of color in construction are workforce participation goals on government-funded construction projects.

Executive Order 11246, which was issued by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and not updated since 1980, calls for 6.9% of work hours on certain federally funded projects to be filled by women. Minority goals vary significantly based on geography and trade.  At the state and local level, higher goals, especially for minorities, have been successfully achieved.  For example, the worker’s rights organization Jobs with Justice recently released a report on model projects in Minnesota and Boston.  These projects exceed goals, achieving 30-36% minority participation and 9-10% female participation.  Updating and increasing participation goals on the federally-funded projects proposed by the Trump administration could contribute to accomplishing his stated goal. Workforce participation goals, however, are more likely to be achieved with aggressive oversight and enforcement, something a Trump administration may be unlikely to pursue, given its stance on regulations.

Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it is unlikely his inaugural proclamation was aimed at single moms.

More likely it was targeted to the white working class men who propelled him in to office.  But if this is the case, the President’s remarks would represent a significant, if not intentional, change in the dominant narrative about white working class men and their reliance on government support.  Historically, the unemployment insurance (UI) program that predominantly assists white men (who are cast as victims of a bad economy) has not been labelled a “welfare” program.  It is housed in the U.S. Department of Labor and the state equivalents, for example, as opposed to the Department of Health & Human Services where most traditional “welfare programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families-TANF-program are maintained.  Over the past three decades, the political narrative, at times advanced by both political parties, has been that welfare (or TANF) is for lazy women who have and continue to make bad choices and take advantage as “Welfare Queens.”   In fact, research conducted in Minnesota shows that most TANF recipients are also victims of a bad economy, coming directly from a job and/or already working in a low wage job that doesn’t pay enough to support a family or qualify them for unemployment insurance.

Living wage construction jobs would be a significant benefit for women relying on TANF and the families they support.

Finally, it is important consider what President Trump meant when he said “American hands and American labor” should be “rebuilding America.”   While unauthorized immigrant workers, mostly men, are over-represented in the U.S. construction workforce, especially in the South, their share has been in decline since 2007.  It is also important to note that immigrant workers are found in the lowest wage and most dangerous sectors of the construction industry and face significant exploitation due to their undocumented status.  In fact, declines in immigration have contributed to a shortage of construction labor in some states.  Recent proposals to build a wall on the Mexican border may be more likely to stem the tide of out-migration and keep unauthorized immigrant workers in construction jobs, rebuilding our country. It is unlikely, based on the inauguration statement above and others, that the Trump administration intends that outcome.

The Trump administration plays a significant role in creating a dominant narrative about public policies and their intended outcomes.  So, what does it mean to suggest that “welfare” recipients should be put to work rebuilding our country?  Alternatively what are the implications of casting the “forgotten” white working class (formerly male breadwinner) workers at the center of Trump’s rhetoric and campaign as “welfare” recipients, alongside the women of color and children we more often think about when this term is used?

The President’s language could signify a choice to use the resources at his discretion to move more women into living wage construction jobs.  But more likely, these infrastructure jobs will be used to satisfy the promises made to white working class men to bring back family-supporting “manly-man” work, leaving women on “welfare” to fill the fastest growing but lowest wage jobs in the service and care sectors.

In doing so, President Trump will continue his campaign rhetoric that reinforces narrow ideas about masculinity and breadwinning.  As Congressman Tim Ryan told NPR, “These are working-class people [men]. They don’t want to get retrained, you know, to run a computer. They want to run a backhoe. They want to build things.”  This may be the case, but perhaps the administration should also be open to women who may actually want to build things, too.

Debra Fitzpatrick, Co-director, Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota

— Photo originally published in Equipment World of a trainee in the Women Wear Hard Hats Too construction training program in Minneapolis, Minnesota