A Manufacturing Job No Longer Means a Decent Job

When people talk about bringing manufacturing jobs back to America, what they really mean is bringing back good jobs. Jobs where people were paid well enough to support their families. Jobs where people received decent pensions, so that the prospect of retiring was not synonymous with poverty. Jobs where workers received benefits that went beyond the numbers on the paycheck.

They aren’t thinking about this kind of job.

At the plant, Wade has the sort of job that Americans often associate with a blue-collar American Dream. But she's paid more like a low-level service worker: $9.50 an hour, with no benefits. She is officially a temporary worker, sourced through a staffing agency, and she doesn't earn nearly enough to feed, clothe and house her four children.

Actually, these are the exact same jobs that people used to be proud to do—metal working, machinists, assembly line workers—only companies have shaved back the pay, eliminated the benefits, and pocketed the difference. If manufacturers are paying like big box retailers, how are they able to keep workers? The same way that big box retailers do.

Taxpayers help her make up the difference. “I get energy assistance, I get food stamps, I get Medicaid," she said. "Every bit of public assistance there is, I get it.”

Wade's experience is surprisingly common for lower-skilled manufacturing workers … one-third of the families of "frontline manufacturing production workers" are enrolled in a government safety-net program. The families' benefits cost state and local governments about $10 billion a year on average from 2009 to 2013, the analysis found.

States and counties often compete to gain manufacturing facilities, and to get them they put packages on the table that include free land, free facilities, and exemption from taxes over a period of a decade or more. So local governments get little or nothing in revenues, then end up paying out millions to provide workers with basic services that should be coming from their employers. Still, politicians get to brag about all the jobs they brought in. 

As long as states are willing to engage in a race to the bottom, and as long as Republicans are able to demonize worker representation, a manufacturing job doesn’t mean a good job.


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