As the Democratic presidential candidates gather in Westerville, Ohio for the fourth primary debate on Tuesday, they would do well to acknowledge the growing public concern about the “future of work.” As a Midwestern swing state that has an intimate history with displacement and its consequences, Ohio is a fitting place for candidates to offer more robust solutions to issues such as automation and artificial intelligence, which will likely have disproportionate impacts on certain American communities and populations, including places like Westerville.
The candidates have not been completely silent on these issues. Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg have elevated the potential problems of digital transformation and its tendency to exacerbate inequality. However, their policy solutions—a universal basic income and enhancing the bargaining power of gig workers, respectively—fail to tackle the mass redeployment of labor from one set of skill demands to another, while minimizing harm and displacement. Other candidates—Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, and Tulsi Gabbard—have referenced a general need to invest more in workforce programs and retraining, but the debate about skills and education has, strangely, not gone much deeper than that.
Meanwhile, the most common responses that candidates have given to questions about rising inequality have focused on either “free college” or enhancing college access more broadly. Several have referenced the need to invest more in skills training for the new economy, but the headline-grabbing proposals have come from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who emphasize free tuition for public universities and two-year colleges.