Many of Today’s Factory Workers Rely on Public Assistance

Workers at a factory. (photo: Bloomberg)
Workers at a factory. (photo: Bloomberg)


Bourree Lamn | The Atlantic | Reader Supported News | May 14, 2016

Nostalgia for manufacturing jobs is obscuring the fact that their 21st-century incarnation doesn’t tend to pay very well.

ince the peak of U.S. manufacturing in the late 1970s, over 7 million jobs in the sector have been lost. More specifically, employment in factories all but collapsed in the aughts, when the industry shed 5 million jobs.

Throughout these many years of decline, talk of the need for an industry revival was common the in Rust Belt cities where manufacturing had played a large economic role. Now, on the national stage, the same argument has emerged as a political touchpoint, with presidential candidates proposing the cancellation of international trade agreements so that manufacturing jobs can make a comeback America. Though employment in the manufacturing sector has rebounded significantly in recent years, the election-year spotlight begs a question: Are these manufacturing jobs built to last?

A new report from Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education takes aim at this question. Analyzing the five largest means-tested public-benefit programs for which good data was available, the report found that over a third of manufacturing workers rely on safety-net programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or household-income assistance. The Center estimates that Americans who work in low-wage manufacturing jobs currently receive $10.2 billion a year in federal and local public assistance.

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