CLEVELAND ― You could argue that the transformation of the economy here is a case study in why so many working-class Americans struggle to get ahead, or even to get by.
But if so, it’s a case study with two distinct parts. And only one of them is getting attention from presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.
The first part is the more familiar one: It’s the story about the jobs in factories that don’t exist anymore. Cleveland used to have these in droves, scattered near the Lake Erie shore in plants that produced everything from rubber to electronics components. The work could be tough and sometimes hazardous, but by and large, these positions paid well. Better still, you could get one of them even if you had little education beyond high school.
Some of those jobs still exist, and where they do, they still pay well. The average salary for a manufacturing job in the Cleveland region, according to official Ohio statistics, is now around $61,000 a year. But factory positions aren’t so easy to find these days. Since 2000, manufacturing employment in the area has fallen by 36 percent, with the total workforce shrinking by about 70,000. Statewide, the losses in manufacturing over that same duration add up to 350,000.
Trump talks about these displaced workers all the time. He tells them he’ll get their jobs back by rewriting trade agreements between the U.S. and its partners, and then slapping high tariffs on the exports those countries send back here.
When Trump visited here in March, in advance of the Ohio primary, he talked about a nearby factory that the Eaton company had just decided to shutter. The factory, slated to wind down operations in December, makes parts for hydraulics equipment that Eaton manufactured in Mexico; the company decided it was cheaper just to get the parts elsewhere. “It is crazy, what we’re doing to our country is crazy,” Trump said. “We’re not going to let it happen anymore.”
In one respect, Trump is onto something. Trade has produced plenty of benefits for Americans, starting with lower prices on consumer goods. But research has shown that the communities losing factories frequently suffer. And while few economists relish the idea of an all-out, highly destructive trade war, plenty agree that it’s time the U.S. defend the interests of its exporters and workers more aggressively ― by, for example, demanding the Chinese stop devaluing their currency in order to maintain a trade surplus with Americans.
HuffPost infographic by Alissa Scheller
Still, the story of the U.S. economy, and the struggles of the working class, is a lot more complicated than Trump acknowledges or perhaps even realizes. It’s not just about the jobs being lost in manufacturing. It’s also about the jobs being gained, in retail, services and especially health care ― and the kind of compensation those jobs provide to the people who have them.
You see it in the country as a whole and you see it here in Cleveland, where the two largest employers countywide are the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, with MetroHealth hospitals coming in eighth. (Not a single manufacturing firm appears in the top 10.) Since 2000, jobs in health care and social supports have grown by 28 percent, offsetting roughly half the amount that manufacturing lost over the same time span. And many of the positions opening up now are available to high school graduates, with only a little extra training, just like factory jobs used to be.
The critical difference is in the compensation these new jobs provide. In the Cleveland area, average annual wages in health care are about $47,000. That’s a solid salary, for sure. But the figure includes high-paying professionals like doctors and nurses that require bachelor’s degrees plus additional training. The jobs for workers with less education don’t pay nearly as well. Home health care workers, for example, get just $25,000 a year on average. Child care workers get just $18,000, which perhaps is why so many of them end up on public assistance.
And that’s just wages. These new jobs frequently offer inferior benefits ― if they offer any benefits at all. “You have these jobs that left, jobs that were available to people with limited formal education,” Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, tells The Huffington Post. “It took training after high school but the training gave you entry to a career with clear career ladders, and there was a lot of clarity on how you moved ahead. ... A lot of them have been replaced by lower wage jobs that don’t have nearly as much in the way of career ladders or retirement security.”
Economists like Jesse Rothstein, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, agree ― and think the plight of these workers gets little attention in the usual debate about manufacturing jobs. “The fighting is all about trade policy,” Rothstein says. “But a serious policy response to wage stagnation and the plight of the middle class needs to incorporate lots of non-trade-related policies as well.”
As it happens, Democrats, including presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, have some ideas on how to do that. They would raise the minimum wage. They would offer financial assistance with child care and out-of-pocket medical expenses. They would finance public works, make it easier for unions to organize new members, and make attending public colleges debt-free. In short, they would do the sorts of things that progressive intellectuals, like those at the Economic Policy Institute, have been promoting for a long time.
You wouldn’t expect Trump to endorse this kind of agenda. He’s still a Republican and, like most Republicans, he probably thinks the taxes and regulations necessary to implement these policies would do more harm than good. But you would expect Trump to offer some kind of alternative agenda, or, at the least, to feign concern for the people working in these non-manufacturing fields. He almost never does. He’ll go on and on about the steelworkers and miners, but you rarely hear him talk about the folks prepping patients for cancer screenings ― let alone the ones changing diapers while mom or dad work.
One possibility is that Trump simply isn’t paying that much attention to what’s really going on in the American economy, and acting tough on trade just happens to fit in with his nationalistic impulses. A less generous explanation is that the people working in health care, services and other non-manufacturing jobs consist disproportionately of women, immigrants and racial minorities ― in other words, not the people Trump tends to champion.
Either way, the result is the same. A significant swath of Americans are having a hard time economically, and they are almost completely absent from Trump’s worldview. It’s true here in Cleveland. And it’s true in the rest of the country, as well.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump