When (and where) work disappears

Study: Overseas manufacturing competition hits U.S. regions hard, leaving workers unemployed for years and local economies struggling.

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As the United States seeks to reinvigorate its job market and move past economic recession, MIT News examines manufacturing’s role in the country’s economic future through this series on work at the Institute around manufacturing.

The loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs is a topic that can provoke heated arguments about globalization. But what do the cold, hard numbers reveal? How has the rise in foreign manufacturing competition actually affected the U.S. economy and its workers?

A new study co-authored by MIT economist David Autor shows that the rapid rise in low-wage manufacturing industries overseas has indeed had a significant impact on the United States. The disappearance of U.S. manufacturing jobs frequently leaves former manufacturing workers unemployed for years, if not permanently, while creating a drag on local economies and raising the amount of taxpayer-borne social insurance necessary to keep workers and their families afloat.

Geographically, the research shows, foreign competition has hurt many U.S. metropolitan areas — not necessarily the ones built around heavy manufacturing in the industrial Midwest, but many areas in the South, the West and the Northeast, which once had abundant manual-labor manufacturing jobs, often involving the production of clothing, footwear, luggage, furniture and other household consumer items. Many of these jobs were held by workers without college degrees, who have since found it hard to gain new employment.

“The effects are very concentrated and very visible locally,” says Autor, professor and associate head of MIT’s Department of Economics. “People drop out of the labor force, and the data strongly suggest that it takes some people a long time to get back on their feet, if they do at all.” Moreover, Autor notes, when a large manufacturer closes its doors, “it does not simply affect an industry, but affects a whole locality.”

In the study, published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Autor, along with economists David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, examined the effect of overseas manufacturing competition on 722 locales across the United States over the last two decades. This is also a research focus of MIT’s ongoing study group about manufacturing, Production in the Innovation Economy (PIE); Autor is one of 20 faculty members on the PIE commission.

The findings highlight the complex effects of globalization on the United States. “Trade tends to create diffuse beneficiaries and a concentration of losers,” Autor says. “All of us get slightly cheaper goods, and we’re each a couple hundred dollars a year richer for that.” But those losing jobs, he notes, are “a lot worse off.” For this reason, Autor adds, policymakers need new responses to the loss of manufacturing jobs: “I’m not anti-trade, but it is important to realize that there are reasons why people worry about this issue.”

Double trouble: businesses, consumers both spend less when industry leaves

In the paper, Autor, Dorn (of the Center for Monetary and Fiscal Studies in Madrid, Spain) and Hanson (of the University of California at San Diego) specifically study the effects of rising manufacturing competition from China, looking at the years 1990 to 2007. At the start of that period, low-income countries accounted for only about 3 percent of U.S. manufacturing imports; by 2007, that figure had increased to about 12 percent, with China representing 91 percent of the increase.

The types of manufacturing for export that grew most rapidly in China during that time included the production of textiles, clothes, shoes, leather goods, rubber products — and one notable high-tech area, computer assembly. Most of these production activities involve soft materials and hands-on finishing work. “These are labor-intensive, low-value-added [forms of] production,” Autor says. “Certainly the Chinese are moving up the value chain, but basically China has been most active in low-end goods.”

In conducting the study, the researchers found more pronounced economic problems in cities most vulnerable to the rise of low-wage Chinese manufacturing; these include San Jose, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; Manchester, N.H.; and a raft of urban areas below the Mason-Dixon line — the leading example being Raleigh, N.C. “The areas that are most exposed to China trade are not the Rust Belt industries,” Autor says. “They are places like the South, where manufacturing was rising, not falling, through the 1980s.”

All told, as American imports from China grew more than tenfold between 1991 and 2007, roughly a million U.S. workers lost jobs due to increased low-wage competition from China — about a quarter of all U.S. job losses in manufacturing during the time period.

And as the study shows, when businesses shut down, it hurts the local economy because of two related but distinct “spillover effects,” as economists say: The shuttered businesses no longer need goods and services from local non-manufacturing firms, and their former workers have less money to spend locally as well.

A city at the 75th percentile of exposure to Chinese manufacturing, compared to one at the 25th percentile, will have roughly a 5 percent decrease in the number of manufacturing jobs and an increase of about $65 per capita in the amount of social insurance needed, such as unemployment insurance, health care insurance and disability payments.

“People like to think that workers flow freely across sectors, but in reality, they don’t,” Autor says. At a conservative estimate, that $65 per capita wipes out one-third of the per-capita gains realized by trade with China, in the form of cheaper goods. “Those numbers are really startling,” Autor adds.

The study draws on United Nations data on international trade by goods category among developing and developed countries, combined with U.S. economic data from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Social Security Administration. The study received funding from the National Science Foundation, Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, and the Community of Madrid.

The paper has already generated discussion among economists focused on this issue. The large effect found in the paper of overseas competition on U.S. unemployment is “quite plausible, from my experience of surveying and talking to manufacturers,” says Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University. “That was an important figure, it’s been very well-estimated, they’ve done as good a job as you can.” Bloom also thinks the paper’s analysis of the rise in social insurance payments is “ingenious,” and of value to policymakers.

New policies for a new era?

In Autor’s view, the findings mean the United States needs to improve its policy response to the problem of disappearing jobs. “We do not have a good set of policies at present for helping workers adjust to trade or, for that matter, to any kind of technological change,” he says.

For one thing, Autor says, “We could have much better adjustment assistance — programs that are less fragmented, and less stingy.” The federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program provides temporary benefits to Americans who have lost jobs as a result of foreign trade. But as Autor, Dorn and Hanson estimate in the paper, in areas affected by new Chinese manufacturing, the increase in disability payments is a whopping 30 times as great as the increase in TAA benefits.

Therefore, Autor thinks, well-designed job-training programs would help the government’s assistance efforts become “directed toward helping people reintegrate into the labor market and acquire skills, rather than helping them exit the labor market.”

Still, it will likely take more research to get a better idea of what the post-employment experience is like for most people. To this end, Autor, Dorn and Hanson are conducting a new study that follows laid-off manufacturing workers over time, nationally, to get a fine-grained sense of their needs and potential to be re-employed.

“Trade may raise GDP,” Autor says, “but it does make some people worse off. Almost all of us share in the gains. We could readily assist the minority of citizens who bear a disproportionate share of the costs and still be better off in the aggregate.”

Topics: Economics, Future of Manufacturing, Global economy, Jobs, Labor, Manufacturing, Production in the Innovation Economy (PIE), Research, Trade, China


This is not new. Having US companies moved overseas is not just matter to do the same job by half of the cost. The environment, as always model this kind of behaviors. Example: I work on a big US company in a tropical country in Latin America, the simple facts that population on this little country do not need to pay air conditioned or calefaction through the year, and having excellent and healthy food available the whole year making room to attract investments because living there is cheap, therefore, average wage is low and one can have a descent live style; and of course, US companies comply with local policies related to taxes and fully respect labor legislation, by this you get a win-win situation. Is important to mention that people on this country have a different vision of life compares with MOST of US population in terms of living a good life without wasting what they do not have. MOST of US population lives under models such buy-through away-buy, if they don’t learn to live

America has given business decision making the leadership role in US Economic Planning since the Reagan Revolution. As this article demonstrates breaking up industry creates social accruals that compound over time. In the 1980s and 1990s the US fell behind earlier generations in GDP growth. After the DOTcom crash US GDP rate of decline increased and US Political Leadership tarnished the US Trade Name with endless war and social divisiveness. Despite Political Economists arguing for economic growth under collaborative (sustainable) models America's baby boomers fell back on 19th Century management theory later promoted and distilled by the private goods focused MBA. American Political Culture will need to upgrade to 1960's management theory proposed by MIT legends Deming and later Senge. After all - precision tooling and code are not laissez-fair procedures. Why would we trust US Economic configuration to chance? Private sector governance has failed. http://goo.gl/ZrFOT

What is at work here is the basic form of the free market system. Decisions are made according to the "needs" of profitability, the capitalist market system and more specifically the actual capitalists themselves declare. No matter how many "distinguished" MIT professors study these problems nothing changes except through the class struggle.

Hasn't anyone read the The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin or The Lights in the Tunnel by Martin Ford? It is not just the offshoring of jobs by increasing global trade. It is the loss of manufacturing and soon-to-be white collar jobs worldwide due to automation.

One thing that has made America great in history is its ability to adapt. A topic that has been discussed even by the current president is that of skilled training in areas that have impact (on the less exportable trades). These areas may be best represented by some of the career and technical areas being taught in the vocational-technical schools in the United States both at the secondary and post-secondary levels. I say this because I work at a vocational-technical high school in Massachusetts and it represents an institution that trains students in career areas that may be less exportable in that they represent the skills that provide direct service and product to consumers. They also learn the same scope of academic instruction that is demanded of the comprehensive high school student. They thus have the same opportunity to continue their education, and may also be able to answer the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” quicker than someone without skilled training.

Can you tell me which US Company was the first to manufacturing overseas along with the year overseas production began? Was the decision to manufacture overseas approved by the US government?

And its called competition. Its 3rd world slave labor being used by corporate profiteers using our resources to make products we use. These products are what made our country.

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