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A trade war with China could hit these communities hardest

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/25/2018 Ted Mellnik, Kevin Uhrmacher
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The latest tariffs announced by China on June 15 would tax goods that accounted for about $45 billion in U.S. exports last year. It’s a tiny speck of the nation’s thriving overall economy. But those tariffs are no broadside threat. They’re targeted with laserlike precision at farmers, ranchers and certain manufacturing workers, as well as at the local economies of rural and small-town America.

These maps, based on data from the Brookings Institution, show counties with workers in China-targeted industries, with the circle sizes representing their share of total jobs. The maps don’t predict if or how many jobs could be lost, but they do show a pattern of where jobs and communities are most exposed to fallout from further escalation of trade hostilities.

“It illustrates the way large international skirmishing ultimately touches down in very specific places, and often with small population but large dependence on particular industries,” said Mark Muro, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. “The possibility is here for significant disruption in America’s agricultural tier.”

Almost 1.6 million people work in the targeted industries, with about three-quarters working in farming, fishing and food-related manufacturing. The rest are primarily workers who make construction equipment, trucks, cars and vehicle parts.

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While they didn’t account for the largest share of jobs affected, counties with the most exposed agriculture and food-related jobs include those in California that grow grapes, melons and strawberries and make wine: Fresno, Monterey, Kern, Stanislaus and Ventura counties. Those with the most exposed jobs related to auto manufacturing include Wayne County, Mich.; Jefferson County, Ky.; and Rutherford County, Tenn.

In both of those lists, there are hundreds of thousands of total county jobs, so the jobs exposed to China tariffs account for a relatively small share, generally under 10 percent.

But most counties with industries exposed to tariffs count their total jobs in the tens of thousands, or in the thousands, so the local role of exposed jobs ranges far higher. It’s well over half in Sargent County, N.D., a center for construction equipment manufacturing. In three parts of Alaska, more than half of jobs are in the targeted seafood industry. The share of exposed jobs also runs high in Parmer County and other ranching and farming areas of the Texas panhandle; and in poultry-producing areas such as Scott County, Miss., and Dooly County, Ga.

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While the largest urban and suburban counties are home to almost as many people working in tariff-exposed industries as rural areas, the rural concentration is far higher, about 1 job in 33. In the big cities, it’s 1 job in 200.

Tariff-exposed jobs are more than twice as likely to fall in counties that voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 than in counties won by Democrat Hillary Clinton. There are more than 1 million jobs exposed to China tariffs in more than 2,600 counties carried by Trump, and fewer than 564,000 exposed jobs in Clinton’s counties.

Muro said the mix of goods and industries targeted by the tariffs “seems carefully selected to maximize agitation in mostly red counties that are oriented toward agriculture.”

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Trump’s administration has said it is taking steps to protect farmers and others hurt by the tariffs. At a rally in April he argued that forcing trade concessions from China would be a big benefit to the United States that would be worth any short-term pain now. “You’re going to do much better,” Trump said.

Dustin Baker, an economist for the National Pork Producers Council, said tariffs from China and tariff talk are mostly to blame for a recent drop in hog futures. “Even a couple of bucks a pig can make a difference between being profitable or not,” he said, “so an $18 drop per pig is significant.”

Randy Spronk, who farms pigs and soybeans in Pipestone, Minn., said the tariffs have already hit his income and made him more cautious about the future. “When you’re concerned about the amount of funds coming in,” he said, “you’re more careful about what’s going out.”

The United States is the world’s largest soybean exporter, and China, its biggest customer, bought $14 billion of them last year.

A fourth-generation soybean farmer in Illinois, Rob Shaffer said the uncertainty would cause him to think about how to “tighten the belt” for next year’s harvest. Shaffer says the good news is that this year’s crop is already planted.

Shaffer said he typically plans his farming one to five years in advance. “Today it seems like we can’t look more than a day,” Shaffer said. “It’s hard to run a business that way.”

Spronk echoed that sentiment, saying he and many folks in U.S. agriculture “just want what we had — zero tariffs and market access. We are very competitive and good at what we do, and we have a surplus balance of trade. … Just give us a level playing field, and we’ll help with the deficit.”

Bonnie Berkowitz contributed to this report.

About this story

County job totals from a Brookings Institution analysis of job data from the BLS Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages and from Emsi. This analysis considers tariffs only from China and not from Canada, the European Union or Mexico.


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