Free-trade agreements are all the rage in Washington. The latest President Bush has been pushing is a free-trade deal with Caribbean countries.

Free-trade agreements may lead to cheaper products for American consumers. But they also cost Americans jobs when companies here can’t compete with those in countries with much lower wages.

That’s why the government has talked up the “trade adjustment assistance” program, which is supposed to help workers who lose their jobs when companies move overseas re-train into new fields.

The problem is the program is a bureaucratic nightmare and a failure.

Last fall, Bush touted the program, saying the government had plenty of money to help people learn a new skill, according to The Knight Ridder News Service. The problem is the money is not as plentiful as it should be. The Government Accountability Office reports that 19 states had to suspend taking workers into the program because of a lack of funds. Congress has capped the funding for the re-training program at $220 million per year.

But the red tape has snared many working people who try to get money to learn a new skill. The GAO found that of the up to 450,000 people who lose manufacturing jobs due to foreign competition every year, few actually get the assistance. In 2003, for example, only 204,000 were found to be eligible by the government. Of those, only 47,000 actually received the assistance.

Who is to blame? Well, in a very familiar scenario, the federal government is pointing its finger at the states, and the states are pointing their fingers right back at the feds.

Caught in the middle, of course, is America’s working class, which is seeing jobs disappear south of the border and elsewhere at an alarming rate.

Elected officials must be willing to pay the bill to re-train Americans when they support measures that see jobs lost overseas. The president and Congress must keep their promises and help these workers train for new careers. This country cannot afford for more of the middle class to slip into poverty.

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