Twenty years ago, 400,000 Minnesota residents were employed in manufacturing. Today, that number has fallen by a fourth to roughly 300,000 workers. It’s a major drop-off — and it mirrors the roughly 5 million good-paying manufacturing jobs lost throughout the United States since 1997.

Advocates for U.S. manufacturing have long blamed this economic decline on failed free-trade deals that offshored more and more of America’s middle-class jobs. But the Washington establishment, Wall Street, and corporate elite have continued to promise that these deals will benefit American workers and industry.

Now, however, thanks to the release of a new report by the International Trade Commission, or ITC, it’s clear that the trade agreements signed in Washington over the past 35 years overwhelmingly have failed America’s workers.

The ITC’s new report may not have received much attention, but Minnesota’s working families should be troubled by its findings. Essentially, the ITC found that all of the trade deals the U.S. signed since 1985 boosted U.S. GDP by only a minuscule 0.5%. That’s a far cry from the brave new world promised by successive presidential administrations — that free-trade deals would boost U.S. wages and help America’s factories sell millions of goods to eager new customers overseas. That certainly didn’t happen. The ITC found instead that America’s trade deals actually led to imports rising by more than two-to-one compared to U.S. exports.

How did things go so wrong?

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Under NAFTA, America’s trade deficits with both Mexico and Canada soared. Within one year of NAFTA’s launch, the annual U.S. trade deficit with Mexico jumped by $15 billion. And within six years, the U.S. trade deficit with Canada quadrupled. When U.S. jobs moved south of the border after NAFTA took effect, importers made large profits. However, even though NAFTA cut U.S. tariffs on imports, prices on Mexican goods hardly budged. Importers simply enjoyed a price break on Mexico-sourced goods, but they didn’t pass those savings on to U.S. consumers.

What’s particularly revealing is that, whenever the U.S. signed a trade agreement with a country, America’s trade deficit actually grew. For example, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement saw America’s trade gap with Korea quickly climb from $16.6 billion in 2012 to $25 billion last year. And, overall, the U.S. experienced losses in 34 of 57 industrial sectors, including three advanced manufacturing sectors — auto parts, machinery, and electronic equipment — that each saw output fall by more than $175 million. It’s now estimated that the Korea trade deal has cost the U.S. roughly 194,000 jobs.

None of this is what Americans were promised.

Trade deals were supposed to create new jobs across the nation and boost U.S. exports. But none of that materialized. Instead, working Americans lost ground, even as faceless multinational corporations benefited by importing low-cost goods from China, Mexico, and other low-wage nations.

What’s particularly unfortunate is the destructive impacts these trade deals have had on many low-income communities. A study by the Coalition for a Prosperous America found that job quality for Americans employed in non-supervisory positions has been steadily declining since 1990. This is particularly true for communities of color, with job quality for Black communities falling as much as 40 points below the average for all U.S. private-sector production and nonsupervisory employment.

In its report, the ITC notes that much of the damage from America’s failed trade agreements has come at the expense of blue-collar workers. This is significant, since roughly two-thirds of America’s workforce lacks a college degree. The end result has been U.S. workers pitted against low-wage labor in countries like China that often lack workplace protections and meaningful environmental standards. NAFTA in particular put U.S. workers at a disadvantage, since the ever-present threat of production being offshored to Mexico weakened U.S. workers’ ability to bargain for higher wages.

For too long, economists have pressed for free-trade deals as a means to achieve a utopian, international consensus. They’ve simply sought trade expansion as an end unto itself rather than a concrete means to achieve higher living standards for America’s workers. The evidence is clear, though: Trade deals have hurt manufacturers in Minnesota and other states.

It’s past time to revise America’s trade agenda and start prioritizing U.S. workers.

Michael Stumo of Sheffield, Massachusetts, is CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America (prosperousamerica.org), a nonprofit coalition of manufacturing, agricultural, worker, consumer, and citizen interests, based in Washington, D.C. Follow him at @michael_stumo. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.