Yes, the collapse of manufacturing and exports helped doom Baltimore

A pair of contrasting articles about the situation in Baltimore from the Wall Street Journal and National Review this weekend serve as a reminder to not allow ourselves to become so tied up in partisan ideological purity that we lose sight of basic realities. The first is what should prove to be an important analysis of how Baltimore became such an economic and social sinkhole over the last half century, provided by the WSJ’s William Galston. The author notes a variety of factors which contributed to the steady and nearly complete decline of what was once a vibrant, productive urban center. It’s true that decades of corruption and ill advised Democrat policies coupled with progressive social failures have hastened the decay and stifled attempts at recovery, but the best program for social progress remains a job. And thanks in large part to NAFTA and other so called free trade policies, most of the good ones went away.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Charm City was a thriving economic and financial center. Young people with high-school educations or less found good manufacturing jobs—at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrow Point mill and the General Motors plant, among many others. In 1960 the Port of Baltimore—another major source of good working-class jobs—ranked second in the country.

Then everything changed. By 1995 Baltimore had lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs. Today, the steel and auto factories are closed, the port has fallen to 11th place and manufacturing accounts for only 7% of Baltimore’s employment. People with a high-school education or less find jobs in lower-wage service occupations or fall prey to long-term unemployment. Median household income stands at $41,400, 44% lower than the state average. Twenty-four percent of Baltimore’s population lives below the poverty level, compared with 10% for Maryland. Since 1950, Baltimore’s population has fallen by 35%.

The author goes on to note that in the high crime, gang infested neighborhoods where the Freddy Gray riots broke out, conditions are even worse. There, more than half of the neighborhood’s working age inhabitants are unemployed and the medium income is only $24,000. It is a dismal environment indeed.

But over at National Review Online, Mona Charen attempts to point to a “success story” of sorts in an effort to claim that this analysis must be faulty. For source material, she cites this study, which purports to show that immigrants in Baltimore are doing far better than their native born neighbors.

Foreign-born workers earned approximately $1 billion in wages in 2011, with a median household income of $40,796. Immigrants held more than 27,000 jobs; with unemployment rates nearly two full points below the general population – 6% vs. 7.9%. Immigrants owned more than 7,500 homes in the city and rented another 11,700. Additionally, 39% of immigrants hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared with only 25% of the general population, substantially contributing to Baltimore’s knowledge-base, crucial to 21st century economic growth.

Charon concludes with the following challenge:

Before concluding that the loss of manufacturing jobs is the explanation of the problem, we must explain why immigrants, many of them black and Hispanic, do so much better.

In order to accept Charon’s premise, we must allow ourselves to be willfully ignorant of a few key numbers in the study. While it says that “many” of the black and Hispanic immigrants live in the affected district, the numbers given are still for the city as a whole. And the “so much better” income they are bringing in – at $40,796 annually – is within $600 dollars of the citywide average… a statistically insignificant margin. Further, she notes that the immigrants have a two point lower rate of unemployment than the rest of the city, but that very same study notes that these immigrants hold four years degrees at a rate of 39%, which is far, far above the average in the affected neighborhoods. Anywhere you look in the nation, the unemployment rate is lower for those with college degrees. If anything we should be shocked that the gap wasn’t even wider.

No, as I noted above, liberal Democrat policies have done nothing to help Baltimore recover and almost doubtless have helped suppress any possible prosperity. But that shouldn’t lead us to accept the false conclusion that the collapse of manufacturing and the shipyards over the last twenty years, largely caused by NAFTA and other so called free trade agreements which followed, were not the prime driver. The massive outsourcing of middle class jobs – measured not in the thousands or tens of thousands, but in the millions – poisoned those factories where even workers with high school educations used to be able to find good work at good wages. And the collapse of manufacturing led to a lot less traffic at ports on the east coast, as the majority of traffic shifted to cheap, low quality merchandise coming into the west coast ports from China and India, killing off even more middle class jobs on the docks.

Pretending that this isn’t true based on one study which shows that a few well educated, hard working, legal immigrants are doing okay in Baltimore is weak tea indeed. That’s like pretending that everything was going to turn out fine in other places across the inland northeast, such as the wreckage left behind by IBM in the Binghamton area, General Electric in Utica or Xerox in Rochester. Those cities, and others like them, are hollowed out graveyards compared to the heyday of American productivity and domestic growth. Granted, Baltimore suffered far greater and longer lasting ill effects from disastrous, liberal social policies, as noted above, but the underlying root causes of decay on the employment front can not be ignored.

David Strom 4:41 PM on September 26, 2022