Many of Today’s Factory Workers Rely on Public Assistance

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

Paul Vernon / Reuters

Since 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.

“Manufacturing has long been thought of as providing high-paying, middle-class work, but the reality is the production jobs are increasingly coming to resemble fast-food or Walmart jobs, especially for those workers employed through temporary staffing agencies,” noted Ken Jacobs, the chair of Berkeley’s Labor Center and a co-author of the report, in a press release. “While employment in manufacturing has started to grow again following the Great Recession, the new jobs created are less likely to be union and more likely to pay low wages.”

According to the report, the most common form of assistance among manufacturing workers is the Earned Income Tax Credit—a subsidy for low-income families, for which over a quarter of those with manufacturing jobs qualify.

One reason so many of these workers are on public assistance is the rise in low-paying temporary positions in the sector, which have increased nine-fold in the last 25 years. The report questions whether these temporary manufacturing jobs can reasonably sustain a family’s needs: 50 percent of temporary workers with families, for example, are enrolled in one or more assistance programs.

In the post-recession U.S. economy, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone without a college degree to get a job, particularly one with a path toward long-term prosperity. Manufacturing jobs are likely not the answer, no matter how attached Americans are to the values they represent. “Historically, blue collar jobs in manufacturing provided opportunities for workers without a college education to earn a decent living,” the Labor Center concludes. “For many manufacturing jobs, this is no longer true.