What’s Happening to Working?

May 13, 2010

With unemployment near 10 percent, few outside the White House and Congress question the existence of a jobs crisis. Things are tough out there.

The Great Jobs Recession is a big problem. Of even more concern is the attitude many of our fellow citizens have about working.

One of the scariest yet least-known economic metrics is the male “labor force participation rate.” It doesn’t look at the number of working men vs. the number who want jobs, but rather the share of the male population that is employed.

A few years ago, The New York Times noted that 13 percent of “men in the prime of their lives, between 30 and 55,” aren’t working. That’s up from a mere 5 percent in the late 1960s.

“To be honest, I’m kind of looking for the home run,” an unemployed, 54-year-old electrical engineer told Times reporters. “There’s no point in hitting for base hits. I’ve been down the road where I did all the things I was supposed to do, and the end result of that is nil.”

Wow. What a go-getter.

One way non-working men and women alike are getting by is through abuse of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. Its budget has exploded in the last few decades, with fraud playing a major role. The average SSDI recipient receives $1,064 a month in benefits. That’s no princely sum, but with other revenue to rely on -- a spouse, a shack-up partner, a roommate -- it’s more than enough to cover groceries, cable, and cigarettes.

Don’t want to work? You’ve got a friend in the welfare state. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, Katherine Bradley and Rachel Sheffield count “71 separate programs” on the state-federal welfare menu. They found that the Great Society ballooned welfare spending from an inflation-adjusted $54.6 billion in 1964 to $714 billion in 2008. Meet the qualifications, and you’re on your way to subsidies for healthcare, food, housing, energy, and child care. Cash assistance is available, too, as is -- don’t laugh -- job training.

Heritage’s analysts report that the Obama administration wants “a massive permanent increase in the welfare state, not a temporary boost in welfare spending in response to the present recession.”

Record social-program expenditures are directly related to out-of-wedlock births and fatherlessness. Steve Sailer notes in the June issue of The American Conservative that “the illegitimacy rate rose from 33 percent in 1998 to 41 percent in 2008.” But clearly, welfare makes a less-publicized contribution to males’ unwillingness to work.

For those who once did have jobs, frequent extensions of unemployment benefits offer disincentives to visit Craigslist. Last year, the Los Angeles Times profiled the ranks of what it called the “funemployed.” Reporter Kimi Yoshino found that “the funemployed do not spend their days poring over job listings. They travel on the cheap for weeks. They head back to school or volunteer at the neighborhood soup kitchen. And at least till the bank account dries up, they’re content living for today.”

Unemployment as vacation is consistent with the research examined by economist Alan Reynolds, who concluded: “When the government pays people 50 to 60 percent of their previous wage to stay home for a year or more, many of them do just that.”

Early “retirement” is another cause of the not-working phenomenon. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the early 1950s, the average age when men began to receive Social Security checks was 68.5. In the late 1990s, it was 62.6. (The drop was about the same for women.)

Good nutrition, reliable health advice (cut carbs, exercise daily), and once-unimaginable medical advances have us living better, and longer, than ever. So why are we leaving the workforce at an earlier rate?

“[N]ot only has the average retirement age fallen,” observed a 2006 paper by the American Enterprise Institute, “but years spent in education have also increased, so that entry into the workforce has been later. Thus, working years have been shrinking from both ends while retirement years have been expanding.”

America needs to get back to work. (Tax cuts, lighter regulations, and an end to market-warping corporate welfare would be helpful.) But Americans need to get back to work, too.

The nation that rapidly turned itself from an impoverished, agrarian colony into the planet’s most powerful engine of economic dynamism has a challenge far more daunting than a serious, yet cyclical, economic downturn: Fewer and fewer of its people want to work.

Isn’t it time we looked at that problem?

D. Dowd Muska is a writer, commentator and lecturer. His website is www.dowdmuska.com.

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