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Guest column/People still make the United States work

As we work to defeat and recover from this pandemic, we must avoid the mistakes of past economic recoveries, and build back better for all families, in all communities. In Ohio, we remember how after the last economic crisis in 2008 and 2009, the biggest corporations and the biggest cities on the coasts and in the Sunbelt recovered, while so many Ohioans were left behind. We can’t allow our country to make the same mistakes, and write off entire swaths of the country — whether it’s a coal town or an historic industrial city, whether it’s farm country or an urban neighborhood.

We need to invest everywhere: In the places that have seen investment dry up, and in places that were overlooked, discriminated against, or outright preyed upon to begin with.

A major federal infrastructure program could put Americans back to work, and transform communities that have languished without investment for years or decades. And when we imagine the infrastructure of the future, we need to think big. Infrastructure means roads and bridges and buses, of course — and it also means broadband access. It means houses and apartments people can afford. It means research and development into the technology that will support the jobs of the future. And it means our education system.

You shouldn’t have to live in a wealthy, exclusive suburb of a big city to go to a good school, with the latest technology, and with the support you and your whole family need to succeed. We know that even before the pandemic, too many classrooms were overcrowded, too many school buildings were crumbling, and too much of our technology was outdated. And now schools need even more space to reopen safely, while facing increased costs. That’s why I introduced the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act — a comprehensive plan with real funding to modernize public schools, and upgrade both their physical and technological infrastructure.

As we make these investments in our future, we have to make sure that the benefits of these tax dollars actually circulate in our own communities. We won’t realize those multiplier effects without strong Buy America rules, to ensure American tax dollars are spent in ways that support and grow American industries and jobs.

President Biden promised to work with us to do that, and during his first week in office, he signed an executive order to strengthen Buy American standards.

We can build on that with my bill with Sen. Rob Portman, the bipartisan Build America, Buy America Act, which would implement these rules across the board, and guarantee that any federally funded infrastructure projects use American-made iron, steel and manufactured products.

We’ve also seen too many cases in Ohio of corporations making big promises about the jobs they’ll create, collecting a tax break, and never following through. Ohio communities want to attract private investment, but too often, the tools they have to work with end up as nothing more than corporate welfare, paid for by Ohio taxpayers.

I’m working on a plan to reform this process, to create real accountability. It’s simple: To get the tax break, a company would have to prove it will create good-paying jobs for local workers — and if companies break that promise, they don’t get the tax break.

I’ve also heard from workers all over our state concerned that changing technology will make their jobs obsolete and erode Ohio communities. Major industries always evolve — from transportation to healthcare to education. The question isn’t whether we can prevent industries from changing; it’s whether we as a country are going to make sure workers — and the communities they support — evolve along with them. We need to ensure working people have a seat at the table.

That’s what my Workers’ Right to Training Act would do — it would require employers to pay for and provide on-the-job training to any employees affected by the introduction of new technology. And we know that these changes aren’t felt evenly across the state and across the country. Look at what happened with GM — it claims it had to close the Lordstown plant because the company is pivoting to electric vehicles. But there is no reason those electric cars can’t be made right here in Ohio. And it isn’t just the workers who lost their jobs who paid the price for GM’s choice, it was the entire northeast region of our state.

If we allow evolving technology to come at the expense of workers — rather than helping workers evolve along with it — we end up with more hollowed-out towns, and more workers forced to leave in search of new opportunities. But there’s not much dignity in a job if you’re forced to leave the home you love to find it.

Ohioans are proud of where we come from, and are tired of being told they have to choose between their roots and good-paying jobs and opportunity for their kids. We know people on the coasts always want to write us off, stereotype us, call us the “Rust Belt.” But Ohioans know the vibrancy and the dynamism and the diversity of working-class towns and neighborhoods all over this country. This year, we’re going to get to work to invest in them — in Ohio schools and infrastructure and jobs; in the people and the places that make this country work.

(Brown, a Democrat, represents Ohio in the United States Senate.)

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