Trump may prosper from tariffs even if this faded port town doesn’t

 In U.S.

Norfolk Southern ceased its coal operations in Ashtabula Harbor in 2016, taking away a valuable sector of the community. (Dustin Franz for The Washington Post)

— This northeast Ohio town was once the busiest port on the Great Lakes, with hundreds of men laboring each day to unload and transport the tons of iron ore that fed steel mills in Youngstown and Pittsburgh.

Now, after decades of decline that many here blame on unfair foreign competition, the docks are still, and the old steelworkers’ union hall is a used-car lot.

Ashtabula is the kind of place that President Trump, and his chief trade adviser Robert E. Lighthizer, who grew up here, aim to help with Thursday’s announcement of a plan to boost domestic manufacturing by imposing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

But while communities like Ashtabula show why protectionism may be a political winner for the president, blocks of dilapidated clapboard houses signal broader economic woes that the administration’s proposed trade measures do not address.

“I don’t think it’ll ever come back like it used to be. Those days are gone,” said Ray Gruber, 66, a retired machinist and United Steelworkers union official.

President Trump, with U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer by his side, speaks to reporters after imposing tariffs on imported washing machines and solar products in January. “And you’ll see what’s going to take place over the next number of months,” Trump said. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump’s intent to levy import taxes of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, the most dramatic steps so far in his “America First” campaign of economic rejuvenation, stirred an outcry from Republicans in Congress, close U.S. allies such as Canada and corporate leaders.

The president showed no signs of sharing their alarm. Trump has for 30 years maintained that foreign countries cheat American workers out of their jobs. That assertion is disputed by mainstream economists but carries evident ­political appeal.

Few here expect the president’s trade remedies to bring dramatic improvements in their living standards. The old steel mills and factories have been closed for too long. Too many of the people who remain lack the requisite skills.

Most of the roughly 5 million American manufacturing jobs lost since 2001 resulted from the closure of entire facilities rather than partial layoffs, according to Gordon Hanson, an economist at the University of California at San Diego.

If tariffs prompt companies to move production back to the United States, they would likely opt for highly automated plants that require fewer workers. Trump’s tariffs “would bring back 21st-century factories where we lost 20th-century factories,” Hanson said this week at the National Association for Business Economics conference in Washington.

And Ashtabula’s problems can’t all be blamed on foreign competition, according to Ned Hill, an economic development specialist at Ohio State University.

Technological changes in steelmaking, notably the rise of electric arc furnaces, also hit the town hard. Such mills consume scrap metal rather than the iron ore that cargo vessels brought from Michigan to Ashtabula via Lake Erie.

Starting in the 1970s, several local employers also decamped for the nonunion South, lured by attractive tax preferences. More recently, opioid abuse has further undermined the area’s economic foundation, making hard times feel more like a permanent condition and less like a trial to be endured.

The county recorded 39 drug overdose deaths in 2016, according to the most recent data available from the Ohio Department of Health, up from just five a decade earlier. Employers routinely complain that too few job applicants can pass a required drug test.

Like other enclaves in the industrial Midwest, Ashtabula County is older, poorer and less educated than the nation as a whole. Only 1 in 7 adults hold a college diploma compared with one-third nationwide, the Census Bureau says.

Ren Carlisle adjusts a photo of 19th century Ashtabula Harbor in his gift shop in February. (Dustin Franz for The Washington Post)

“The economic deterioration we’ve experienced has more to do with companies fleeing unions, technology . . . and the absence of education,” said Ren Carlisle, who owns a gift shop near the harbor.

The reality of Ashtabula’s malaise is indisputable.

The city’s median household income is just $28,865, half the national figure, according to Census Bureau estimates. More than one-third of Ashtabula’s roughly 15,000 residents live in poverty. On the streets, Dollar General stores are ubiquitous.

Ashtabula is among the poorest quarter of Ohio’s 88 counties, but its economic and social ailments are not unique.

“The conditions that exist here exist right through the middle of the country,” said local writer Carl Feather, author of a history of the port.

Trade is steadily reshaping politics in American communities where imports have risen at the expense of domestic manufacturers.

Between 2000 and 2016, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the vote increased where local labor markets were most vulnerable to competition from imported Chinese goods, according to economists Hanson, David Dorn, David Autor and Kaveh Majlesi.

Worries over trade-related job losses added 1.7 percentage points to Trump’s vote total in counties whose workers were most directly threatened by China, they concluded.

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