Trade, Jobs, and Wages


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Benefits and Costs 

Information Courtesy Congressional Research Service, IF11016

What are the benefits and costs of trade expansion?

From a broad perspective of the U.S. economy as a whole, trade is one of a number of forces that drive changes in employment, wages, the distribution of income, and ultimately the standard of living. There is a broad consensus that trade overall has a net positive effect on a country’s economic well-being. Trade benefits can include the more efficient use of resources, greater competition, economies of scale, and consumption gains through lower prices and more choices for consumers. Increases in trade can boost GDP because of the increased competition, efficiency gains, and consumer welfare increases. According to the World Bank, liberalizing trade and investment globally has reduced the number of people in extreme poverty by half over the past 25 years. However, the benefits from trade are not necessarily distributed evenly within an economy. Trade can disrupt some sectors, and the costs, such as job losses and stagnant wages, may be concentrated in certain regions and import-sensitive industries. The economic impact of trade on jobs and wages is widely debated because there are numerous factors that impact jobs, including changes to technology.

While economic analyses indicate that economy-wide gains from trade generally exceed the costs, the difficult policy issue is how to reap these gains while dealing equitably with those hurt by the process. Economists argue that policies that facilitate the adjustment and compensate for the losses of those harmed by market forces, including trade, are economically less costly than protective policies that insulate workers and industries from trade and greater competition. In addition, from a political standpoint, experts also view adjustment assistance for those who are potentially displaced as an important factor for maintaining political support for free trade. Policymakers continue to debate the effectiveness of existing policies that help communities affected by trade; in the United States, many experts conclude they have been inadequate.

Does trade cause job loss in the United States?

Trade “creates” and “destroys” jobs in the economy—often called “job churn”—just as other market forces, such as technological change. Trade can have different effects on workers in different occupations, which some economists call “occupational exposure” to trade. Such disruptions can also occur through domestic trade when firms relocate from one state to another for various economic reasons. As a result, trade liberalization can have a different effect not only between sectors of the economy, but also within the same industry. Economy-wide, trade causes jobs to shift into industries in which a country has comparative advantage and away from industries with comparative disadvantage. In the process, the composition of employment may change, but there may not be a net loss of jobs. Estimates suggest that job loss attributed to trade is a small share of jobs lost economy-wide each year—one study finds that between 2001 and 2016 more than 150,000 U.S. net jobs were lost annually due to expanded trade in manufactured goods, which accounted for 1% of workers laid off in a typical year. While some jobs might be displaced, some workers are likely to be reemployed elsewhere. On the other hand, some estimates find that the short-run costs to workers attempting to switch occupations or industries to obtain new jobs due to trade liberalization may be “substantial,” including reduced wages. Studies suggest that increased import competition from China in particular negatively affected U.S. local labor markets and manufacturing jobs.

Most economists argue, however, that equating net imports—or importing more than exporting, known as a trade deficit—with a specific amount of unemployment in the economy is questionable given the underlying drivers of the trade deficit. Historically, during periods of economic growth, U.S. global trade has also expanded. The U.S. trade deficit and unemployment rate have generally moved in tandem—GDP growth reduces the number of unemployed while increasing aggregate demand, including for imports as well as attracting increased capital inflows, which often leads to an increased trade deficit.

Does trade reduce the wages of U.S. workers?

International trade can positively and negatively affect the wages of workers. Several studies have examined this relationship. There is no overall consensus on the impact of trade and trade agreements on wages of U.S. workers (which have been relatively stagnant for decades) and income inequality in the United States (which has also deepened). Many studies have found that other factors, such as technological change, have had a significantly larger effect on relative wages.

In economic theory, trade tends to increase the return to the abundant factors of production— capital and high-skilled workers in the United States—and to decrease the return to less-abundant factors—low-skilled labor in the United States. Therefore, other factors held constant, a large increase in imports, particularly from economies with vast supplies of low-skilled labor such as China, could negatively affect wages of low-skilled U.S. workers in import-sensitive industries (even though they too benefit from lower-priced imports from China). U.S. low-skilled workers have increasingly faced competition from lower-cost producers, largely in developing countries. The growth of global value chains has led some U.S. multinational corporations (MNCs) to shift low-value, labor-intensive production overseas. On the other hand, MNCs may keep or expand production in the United States or retain the high-end services aspects of their businesses; such jobs often require high levels of education and skills. In addition, U.S. workers in export-oriented industries earn, on average, more than workers in nonexporting industries. The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) estimated, on average, a 16% earnings premium in export- intensive manufacturing industries and 15.5% premium in services.