November 25, 2016

Is increased trade to blame for higher mortality rates in white working-class American men?

Since 2000, increased trade with China has resulted in higher suicide and poisoning (including fatal drug overdoses) rates in areas vulnerable to competition, report economists Justin Pierce and Peter Schott in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released this month.

They estimate that increased trade has caused an additional 0.4 suicides per 100,000 residents (equivalent to 4% of the national average) in counties with vulnerable local economies. The figure for poisonings was 1.3 deaths per 100,000 people (an increase of about 28% of the national average).

However, they also found evidence that exposure to Chinese competition significantly reduced the number of heart attacks, possibly because fewer people were engaged in strenuous labor (2.7 fewer people died of heart attacks per 100,000 residents in those same areas).

While the research focuses specifically on counties where Chinese imports had negative economic effects, trade with China could have brought economic benefits to the country as a whole, improving Americans’ health. By spending less on inexpensive Chinese imports American consumers may have had more money left over for medical costs.

Many Americans have also benefited from being able to sell their products and services to China, including farmers, car and aircraft manufacturers, and consultants and researchers.

The report's authors call on policymakers to do more to ensure that everyone shares in the gains from globalization.

Francis Green has written for IZA World of Labor about the health effects of job insecurity, which has become an increasing problem since the great recession and as labor markets have become more flexible. Job insecurity, like unemployment, has causal detrimental effects on mental and physical health. Workers’ health is a matter for public policy. Green stresses that “[g]overnments should count the health cost of restrictive policies that generate unemployment and insecurity, while promoting employability through skills training. Policy should also encourage forms of employee participation and social support in workplaces.”

Related articles: 
Health effects of job insecurity, by Francis Green
Offshoring and the migration of jobs, by Gianmarco Ottaviano
The relationship between recessions and health, by Nick Drydakis
Unemployment and happiness, by Rainer Winkelmann
See also our articles on trade policy and the labor market