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Benefiting Business: The Fragmented Federal Response to American Deindustrialization


The widespread manufacturing job loss that resulted from late 20th century American deindustrialization has had particularly devastating consequences for former U.S. industrial workers and communities. While other countries responded with a range of policies to assist economically distressed communities and workers, the U.S. response was far less robust. This dissertation asks, why was the U.S. federal policy response so limited in addressing deindustrialization, what characterized the limited form certain policies took, and what were the consequences of these actions?

I argue that the response is best understood as a limited and fragmented policy response that addressed piecemeal consequences of industrial decline. Using comparative historical analysis, I argue that the demise of the more comprehensive National Industrial Recovery Act in 1935 left a “negative policy legacy” that prompted policymakers between 1961 and 1988 to experiment with policies that focused on discrete consequences of deindustrialization. The expiration of the Area Redevelopment Act (1961) in 1964 additionally foreclosed future opportunities for more holistic measures. In the wake of these failed programs, distinct policies such as the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), and enterprise zone legislation, emerged and subsequently developed separately from one another.

To conduct an analysis of how these policies developed over time, I use congressional testimony and presidential archives. I theorize that each policy thread developed through processes of gradual institutional change that reflected business’s influence to varying degrees. I argue first that notification policies like WARN were significantly delayed and limited as a result of business mobilization through American national institutions. Secondly, I argue that while TAA originally served as a compensatory policy for displaced workers, its institutional tie to trade policy and presidential “fast-track” authority allowed for shifting institutional authority and policy layering that exacerbated jobs losses and the need for compensatory assistance. Finally, I argue that redevelopment policy – recast as enterprise zone legislation – developed through policy conversion, allowing for the proliferation of business tax benefits as opposed to targeted community development. Though originally intended to help workers and communities, these discrete policies institutionally evolved to benefit business more than their intended targets.

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