MIT research: The high price of losing manufacturing jobs

Kimberly Allen

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

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.

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