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While little in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate addressed rural issues specifically, several parts of the debate did deal with some top rural concerns — jobs, healthcare, and the opioid epidemic.
On jobs, the candidates raised concerns about international-trade policy and corporate behavior.
Rural counties are still recovering from the job losses of the Great Recession, while metropolitan counties are well ahead of employment figures from 2008. Most of the nation’s job growth is occurring in the largest urban centers, not in smaller cities.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said corporations’ influence on trade policy was the biggest cause of job loss.
“The principal reason [for job loss] has been a bunch of corporations, giant multinational corporations who’ve been calling the shots on trade, giant multinational corporations that have no loyalty to America,” Warren said. “They have no loyalty to American communities. They are loyal only to their own bottom line.”
She proposes a requirement that employees of large corporations elect 40 percent of the corporate board of directors. “That will make a difference when a corporation decides, ‘Gee, we could save a nickel by moving a job to Mexico,’ when there are people on the board in the boardroom saying, no,” she said.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro said some parts of the U.S. are finding new types of manufacturing to fill part of the void left by offshoring jobs.
Castro mentioned Newton, Iowa, a city of about 15,000 residents in rural central Iowa. “Newton, Iowa, had a Maytag washing machine manufacturing facility, and then it closed down,” Castro said. A new manufacturer is building wind turbines in the town now. “They’re putting hundreds of people to work at decent-paying jobs and creating a better future for those families.”
Billionaire Tom Steyer, in his first appearance in the Democratic debates, said American workers are falling behind.
“Ninety percent of Americans have not had a raise for 40 years” in inflation-adjusted dollars, Steyer said. Minimum wage, adjusted for inflation since 1980, would be $11 an hour instead of its current $7.25. “If you included the productivity gains of American workers, it would be over 20 bucks [an hour],” he said.
Corporate power is to blame for stagnant wages, Steyer said. “There have been 40 years where corporations have bought this government,” he said. “And those 40 years have meant a 40-year attack on the rights of working people and specifically on organized labor. … It’s absolutely wrong. It’s absolutely undemocratic and unfair.”
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang said automation, not trade policies or corporate rules, was a chief cause of job loss (presumably in both rural and urban areas). He cited the automation of freight trucks as a looming issue for American workers.
“Driving a truck is the most common job in 29 states, including [Ohio],” Yang said. Self-driving trucks will mean an end to that employment.
“What is that going to mean for the 3.5 million truckers or the 7 million Americans who work in truck stops, motels, and diners that rely upon the truckers getting out and having a meal?”
Yang proposes a universal basic income of $1,000 a month for all Americans.
In debate about healthcare policy, the now-common discussion about how to create a public option for insurance received the most attention.
There was some discussion about windfall profits for healthcare corporations and drug manufacturers.
Corporate profits were also at the center of the debate over how to address the opioid addiction crisis.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said she would require corporations that have profited from opioids use part of their earnings to pay for addiction treatment.
“The people that should pay for this, that should pay for the treatment, are the very people that got people hooked and killed them in the first place,” she said. “And that is the people that are manufacturing these opioids.”
She proposes a 2 cents per milligram tax on opioids to generate revenue for treatment. She said such revenue would “help rural areas where they’re so isolated, and also in urban areas.”
Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, is pursuing a master settlement that would relieve the company from litigation pursued by more than 20 states. The company has previously pled guilty in federal court for false marketing.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said the opioid epidemic was the result of “unfettered capitalism.”
“You have executives, CEOs of major pharmaceutical companies, making tens of millions of dollars a year,” Sanders said. “And in this particular case with the opioids, they knew that they were selling a product to communities all over this country which were addicting people and killing them. And last year, the top 10 drug companies made $69 billion in profit.”
California Senator Kamala Harris said she would redirect the U.S. Department of Justice to take on pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid epidemic. “Let’s end mass incarceration and end that failed war on drugs, and let’s go after these pharmaceutical companies for what they’ve been doing to destroy our country,” she said.
On another topic related to rural economic conditions, Warren said she would shore up Social Security and increase payments by $200 for every recipient. Daily Yonder research shows that rural communities are more reliant on Social Security than urban areas.