High-income Americans have lost much of their enthusiasm for free trade as they perceive their own jobs threatened by white-collar workers in China, India and other countries, according to data from a survey of views on trade. (Read the entire study)
The survey by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes is one of the most comprehensive U.S. polls on trade issues. It found that support for free trade fell in most income groups from 1999 to 2004, but dropped most rapidly among high-income respondents — the very group that registered the strongest support for free trade in the past. "Free trade" means the removal of barriers such as tariffs that restrict international trade.
The PIPA poll shows that among Americans making more than $100,000 a year, support for actively promoting more free trade collapsed from 57% to less than half that, 28%. There were smaller drops, averaging less than 7 percentage points, in income brackets below $70,000, where support for free trade was already weaker.
The same poll found the share of Americans making more than $100,000 who want the push toward free trade slowed down or stopped altogether nearly doubled from 17% to 33%.
Rising anxiety about free trade could intensify an already fierce political battle this election year.
In the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., has gained some ground on front-runner Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., by hitting Kerry's support for free-trade agreements that critics say have cost American jobs. The Democratic nominee is expected to use the trade issue against President Bush, whose administration has generally been supportive of free trade.
The PIPA 2004 poll was released last month, but breakdowns by income level were performed at the request of USA TODAY. The results are based on responses from more than 1,800 U.S. residents with a margin of error of +/ —— 2.3-4 percentage points.
The findings suggest that anxieties about free trade long held by lower-income Americans and blue-collar workers — who have been losing jobs to cheaper labor markets abroad — have spread up the income ladder.
The findings come as the U.S. job market remains sluggish and accounting, computer programming, radiology and other high-end service jobs are being lost to workers abroad.
"This is huge," says Steven Kull, director of the Maryland polling unit. "What's most dramatic is what's happened to support among those making more than $70,000 a year. ... These include those who've most avidly supported trade and globalization, who've taken the lead in pushing the free-trade agenda forward."
Kull said the PIPA poll shows most Americans remain supportive, or at least tolerant, of free trade, but with big caveats. "They're not saying, 'put on the brakes,' " he said. "But they are saying, 'Don't step on the gas. Don't rush. We need to make adjustments. We need more time to adapt to these changes.' "
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