Trump Tariffs Will Hurt Lower Income Americans Above All: Economists

May 31, 2019, 8:56 PM UTC
US President Donald Trump speaks with reporters as he departs the White House, in Washington, DC, on May 30, 2019. - Trump is heading to Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s hardline stance on trade with China—and, now, Mexico—may be rattling the markets and shaking investor confidence. But according to some of the nation’s top economists, the Trump administration’s newly imposed import tariffs will be felt most sharply by a group that the President is loathe to alienate: ordinary, working American households.

In a new survey of 40 economists on the Initiative on Global Markets’ (IGM) Economic Experts Panel, comprised of leading academics at the top U.S. universities, 86% of respondents said they believe that the effects of the most recent round of U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports are “likely to fall primarily on American households”—with 20% noting they “strongly agree” with the assertion.

Several respondents pointed to recent studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found U.S. consumers have “borne the brunt of the current trade war” with China. The Trump administration imposed tariffs on approximately $283 billion of imports in 2018, according to the IGM, while the Chinese retaliated with their own duties on around $121 billion of American goods.

But the situation has only escalated since the start of 2019, with the President announcing that he would raise tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports in early May amid contentious trade talks. Beijing responded in kind, raising tariffs on nearly $60 billion of U.S. imports.

What’s more, Trump is now taking a similar protectionist stance against Mexico—one of the U.S.’s closest and largest trade partners—with Thursday’s surprise Twitter announcement of a 5% tariff on all Mexican imports, which he said would “gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration [sic] problem is remedied.” That development has subsequently shaken the markets, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down more than 200 points on Friday morning.

IGM economists also overwhelming agreed that the impact of the Trump tariffs, as well as countermeasures from the likes of China, are “likely to be felt most heavily by lower income groups and regions” in the U.S.—with 75% of those surveyed in agreement with that assertion, and 15% noting they “strongly agree.”

“Among U.S. households, lower income ones will bear most direct costs,” MIT economist Daron Acemoglu said in his survey comment, while Yale’s Larry Samuelson noted that “Those with higher incomes will be better able to adjust to the tariff-induced distortions.”

For a President who rode a wave of economic populism to the White House—promising to bring prosperity back to economically disadvantaged communities across the country—the prospect of Trump’s trade disputes hurting lower-to-working class Americans above all is surely an uncomfortable one ahead of next year’s elections.

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