Over the past few years, economists have found that surging imports from China may have led to millions of job losses in U.S. factory towns, confirming what plenty Americans already assumed about the dark side of trade. Now, another important but similarly unsurprising new study suggests that this rapid hollowing out of industrial communities across the country may have driven up suicide and drug overdose rates among working-class whites.
The draft paper, by Federal Reserve Board economist Justin Pierce and Yale School of Management professor Peter Schott, looks at how mortality rates changed across the country after the United States decided to grant permanent normal trade relations to China in 2000. According to the pair's previous research, that move contributed to the swift collapse in American manufacturing employment during that decade by giving U.S. companies the certainty that they could offshore production or start purchasing from Chinese suppliers without worrying about sudden tariff hikes. Their new study builds on that work. It shows that, compared with the rest of the country, counties where local manufacturing businesses were more vulnerable to Chinese competition saw their job markets deteriorate more severely and experienced greater increases in deaths by suicide and “accidental poisoning”—a category that includes drug overdoses. They found “mixed” evidence of increased deaths from alcohol-related liver disease.
The rising mortality rates were concentrated among whites. Pierce and Schott generally found no relationship between the change in China's trade status and suicide or poisonings among blacks or Asians, for instance. The impact was also stronger in communities where fewer people had gone to college. In other words, trade with China seems to have brought more despair and tragedy to working-class white communities.
This may sound familiar. Last year, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton made a splash with research showing that mortality rates for middle-age American whites had risen even as they fell for minorities. Most of the change seemed to be due to rising drug and alcohol poisonings, as well as suicide. Pierce and Schott suggest their new findings “add context” to those findings by linking those issues to economic deterioration.
Which finally brings us to Donald Trump. People are going to argue for years about whether his rise was fueled mostly by white racial backlash or by economic devastation in the Rust Belt. My room-temperature take on that dispute is that a measure of both were involved, and that it's hard to separate the two. Moreover, it's a mistake to let the political science debate overshadow the fundamental economic issue. At this point, researchers are producing ample confirmation that even if you believe our trade policies of the past couple of decades have worked out for the economic good of the country, they really have immiserated large swaths of the country, to the point where the effects are apparently showing up in death tallies. Maybe that's not the only reason Trump is about to be our president. But it's something that needs to be fixed.