In his final State of the Union address, President George W. Bush urged Congress to pass new free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. What he neglected to mention is that three million U.S. manufacturing jobs have already been shipped abroad since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the mid-1990s. The offshoring of millions of family-wage jobs is bad news for all Americans, but it is especially bad for black communities -- and unless we band together to demand big changes in the way the United States conducts international trade, things could get much worse.
Many in our parents’ generation still embrace the notion that, in exchange for hard work and dedication, a person deserves to be rewarded with a stable job enabling them to provide for their family and eventually retire. That very reasonable aspiration has eroded so much in recent decades that, for new generations, it often seems like little more than a fantasy. There is a rising wave of economic insecurity in this country, and the nation’s trade policy is largely to blame.
Today, the rules governing international trade are written so that large employers are able to shift jobs across borders and around the globe to wherever labor is the cheapest -- often to places where workers are severely exploited and have few, if any, basic rights. This model of trade has very accurately been described as a “global race to the bottom.” It pits workers in the United States against workers in places like Mexico and China, where people earn just dollars a day.
As a result of instituting such a clearly uneven playing field, the U.S. trade deficit is rapidly approaching a trillion dollars a year. Millions of manufacturing jobs have already been lost, but so have an increasing number of both service sector jobs, putting significant downward pressure on American wages across all sectors of the economy. As is the case with virtually every economic woe within this country, black communities are hit harder by these trends than the American public as a whole.
According to recent census data, the median household income for black families has not risen in recent years, and remains tens of thousands of dollars less than that of whites. The unemployment rate for blacks is twice that of whites, and an outrageous 24.3 percent of black families live below the poverty line. These shameful figures are clearly the result of much more than the nation’s trade policy, but they point to the disproportionate harm imposed on black communities when jobs disappear and wages stagnate.
Part of the American Dream has always been for each generation to do a little better than the generation before it. Unfortunately, even that is slowly being taken away. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts finds that nearly half of black Americans born into solidly middle-class families in the 1960s have since plunged in the ranks of the working poor as adults forty years later.
As researchers are left scratching their heads and looking for “cultural” explanations for this shocking slip backwards, perhaps it is time to recognize that dreams of both reaching and maintaining a middle-class lifestyle become less-and-less viable for all segments of society as the country’s family-wage jobs are shipped overseas. The fact that the segment of society that has always been the last hired and first fired is among the first to be pushed from the middle class back into poverty should come as little shock to anyone. White Americans would be wise to view the slippage of middle-class blacks as a wake-up call.
And to be sure, some are sounding the alarm. Princeton economist Alan Blinder, the former Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve and a one-time proponent of the NAFTA model of trade, today warns that if trade policies continue on their current course, as many as 42 million American jobs are vulnerable to offshoring. That is one-and-four American jobs moved overseas, something that would make the millions of jobs lost to date look like a drop in the bucket. Take into to consideration that for every $10 of wealth the average white person has, blacks have only $1, and you can guess which communities are going to have the toughest time weathering this storm.
Fortunately, there is some good news. Public opinion polls show that by a two-to-one margin, Americans realize that free trade agreements have in no way lived up to their promises and are actually detrimental to working people. Like a root fire slowly burning away under the surface, people are getting angrier and angrier about the economic problems caused by the nation’s trade policy and they are starting to demand a change. Thirty-seven “free trade” incumbent Members of Congress were voted out of office by angry constituents in the last election, and politicians in Washington are finally opening their eyes to the exodus of jobs that’s taking place back home.
The politicians and large corporations that pushed NAFTA on us continue to fight for their model of trade, but the opportunities to resist this onslaught are considerably stronger than they have been for years. If we’re ever going to make the American Dream a real possibility for all Americans, we need to fundamentally change global trade policies for the benefit of working people. Only by Americans of all races coming together to work on this cause can we turn the “free trade” tide and bring stability and opportunity back to America’s shores.
Victor Pierce is the founder of Unique Christian Ministries (www.ucmrights.org), on the board of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign and an employee of the Freightliner Truck Plant in Portland, Ore., which has experienced considerable job loss under NAFTA. Arthur Stamoulis is director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign (www.citizenstrade.org/orftc.php).