Discussion: (0 comments)
There are no comments available.
View related content: Poverty Studies
Economists and policy analysts across the political spectrum agree that employment among prime-age (25–54) men in America has reached crisis-level lows. Labor force participation rates have declined precipitously from 96 percent in 1967 to only 88 percent in 2016 (and 83 percent among those with only a high school degree or less education). This trend has resulted in seven million or more working-age men being out of the labor force. Several studies have documented the family breakdown, decline in life satisfaction, and increase in mortality that have accompanied the decrease in work for lesser-skilled males.
While experts agree about the scale of the problem, there is disagreement about its causes. Some researchers emphasize increasing dependency on government disability programs and means-tested assistance programs, while others focus on low levels of educational attainment and stagnant or declining wages. Other previously cited causes include the increased number of men with criminal records, a lack of available work in depressed regions, increased levels of opioid addiction, decreases in physical health, and a weakening of the cultural norms that expect able-bodied men to be working.
We agree that all these forces have played at least some role in the decline in work among prime-age men and that policy must address each of them. We propose increased government efforts to provide education, training, job opportunities, and more generous wage subsidies to make jobs more attractive. In addition, we recommend reforms to government assistance programs that encourage work among recipients and a wide range of polices to help men with criminal records, child support obligations, and opioid dependencies overcome their barriers to work. Finally, we believe leaders throughout our society should reestablish the social expectation that able-bodied men are productively engaged.
Work activity among prime-age (25–54) men in America—especially the less-educated—has declined precipitously, falling from 96 percent in 1967 to only 88 percent in 2016 (and 83 percent among those with only a high school degree or less education), leaving seven million or more working-age men in the noninstitutional population outside the labor force.1 There is little doubt that a lack of work has hurt less-educated American men and their families, the communities they live in, and the national economy.
Alan Krueger has noted a deep dissatisfaction among nonworking men with their lives,2 and J. D. Vance examined in his book the disintegration of their families and communities, along with the devastating effects of opioid dependency.3 Other scholars—such as Charles Murray, Andrew Cherlin, and Isabel Sawhill—have discussed the declining rates of marriage and rising tendency of children to grow up in female-headed families among all racial groups, which have accompanied the decline in work among men.4 And economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have documented the shocking rise in mortality—which they have labeled “deaths of despair”—among less-educated, white, middle-age Americans that has occurred as opioid dependency has risen and work has declined among American men.5
Declining male employment also hurts the national economy. To remain productive and prosperous, our nation needs to reengage men in the workforce. In February 2017, the US Department of Labor reported an unemployment rate of 4.7 percent, essentially the lowest jobless rate since 2007 and close to the rate widely regarded as “full employment” for the US economy. The unemployment rate, of course, does not include the large numbers of men who have dropped out of the labor force and are not even seeking employment. If these men do not return to the labor force, our economy will face constraints on our productive capacity and perhaps even labor shortages.
In housing construction, for example, the unemployment rate has dropped to 5.2 percent, but some economists estimate that the US economy will require an additional 500,000 to 600,000 construction workers over the next several years in a field that remains nearly 90 percent male.6 A potential labor shortage in construction and affiliated industries could be exacerbated by the Trump administration’s proposals to stimulate employment growth through infrastructure development (e.g., airports, highways, and energy grid reconstruction). Without bringing more workers, especially males, back into the economy, increased fiscal stimulus from infrastructure spending may end up feeding inflation rather than families.
In addition, the ongoing retirement of baby boomers has already led to large declines in the US labor force—by as much as 0.2–0.3 percentage points a year—and will continue to do so for the next few decades. This will slow economic growth in America and make it difficult to fund our retirement programs unless we find untapped pools of labor or achieve high levels of increased labor productivity.
Finally, the Trump administration’s immigration policies are going to significantly hinder an important source of labor. Immigrants are 13 percent of the population but 16 percent of the labor force, and the new administration’s rhetoric and policies are likely to deter new immigrants from coming to America and could drive away legal and illegal immigrants alike who already reside here.7 Regardless of one’s views of these changes, they are unlikely to be reversed soon, making the need to employ native-born Americans who are currently outside of the labor force imperative.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the principles, tools, and resources currently available to policymakers to begin reengaging “missing men” in economically and socially productive labor. The severity of this crisis requires that we bring forward the best ideas of the political right and left. Between the three of us, we have worked for presidents, governors, and mayors who were Republican, Democratic, and independent. We hope elected policymakers from both parties can come to a similar consensus to the one we reached here.
Although researchers do not yet agree on the exact causes of the declining work in this population or their magnitudes, we know enough to say the following issues must be addressed:
Accordingly, efforts to increase work among less-educated men must address this range of problems.
Specifically, such efforts must include job training and workforce development, increased access to new jobs created by infrastructure spending, subsidized employment programs for those with the fewest skills and least education, reforms in SSDI and other benefit programs, prevention and treatment of opioid dependency, incentives to help the unemployed move to areas with available jobs, and reductions in barriers and disincentives to work among those with criminal records and child support obligations.
Before detailing our policy proposals, we review what we know about the causes of declining work among American men and exactly who in this population is adversely affected.
There are no comments available.
Men Without Work
A newsletter highlighting work on poverty—and efforts to reduce it—from AEI’s Poverty Studies team.
1789 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036
© 2017 American Enterprise Institute