Two seemingly unrelated events from last week are reminders of the plight of poor Alabamians.
Nucor Corp. — a major Decatur employer — announced profits would be down because of foreign competition, mainly from China.
Also, the University of North Alabama announced a sharp increase in tuition, joining most Alabama colleges and universities in their reaction to reduced state funding.
For decades, the U.S. government has been whittling away at international trade barriers. There are many sound economic reasons for the effort, but a dramatic result has been that it effectively opened up the U.S. workforce to competition from millions of unskilled workers who have no choice but to work for survival wages.
Nucor struggles to compete with China, in part because Chinese companies pay a pittance for their labor. Nucor and other U.S. companies compensate for this by increasing the productivity of their plants with advanced technologies. This reduces the number of employees they need but increasingly requires those employees to have technical training beyond high school.
The globalization of trade has put unrelenting downward pressure on the wages of unskilled American workers. For many, the only way to escape a lifetime of poverty-level wages is to turn themselves into skilled workers.
This is where the tuition increases come in.
Every tuition hike puts college further out of the reach of Alabamians who, until attending college, are limited to unskilled jobs.
A few decades ago, a high school degree and hard work were enough for a person to buy a house and settle comfortably into the middle class.
Those days are gone, thanks in part to competition from millions of destitute workers in China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Mexico.
The gradual disappearance of the U.S. middle class — replaced by a growing number of people in poverty and an increasingly wealthy upper class — is hurting our nation and state.
If it is not feasible to protect Americans from foreign competition, then we need to get moving with a plan to make college affordable.
As the percentage of Alabamians living in poverty increases, we all have an interest in making sure they have the ability to find a better life. Affordable post-secondary tuition is an important part of the solution.