Perspective: America needs prime-age men to work

Perspective: America needs prime-age men to work

Amid widespread labor shortages and historic wage growth, why are so many prime-age men on the fringes of employment? One reason is the diminishing value our government places on work.

Even before the pandemic hit, growing public assistance programs were undermining employment by offering unlimited assistance to men able to work. It’s no wonder that many middle-aged men took the message that labor was expendable to heart.

We need the government to send a new message: that prime-age men and their jobs are essential.

The labor force participation of prime-age men in the United States has been steadily declining for decades. Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior demographer and political economist at the American Enterprise Institute, highlighted the problem in his 2016 book “Men Without Work.” He recently released an updated version documenting the persistence of the problem and diagnosing the 2022 condition as bleak as any time in history.

According to Eberstadt, the jobless rate — down to 3.5% from its peak of nearly 15% during the pandemic — grossly underestimates the unemployment problem among prime-age men. If everyone who has completely dropped out of the labor force is included in this calculation, male jobless rates swell to Depression-era levels. Fourteen percent of prime-age men were not working in 2019.

While some of these men have health issues that prevent them from working, most of them – with ages in the 20s, 30s and 40s – are simply not looking for work, instead spending their time in front of screens and relying on a mix of family and government benefits to get by.

Economists debate why a declining proportion of prime-age men are working. One explanation has to do with the labor market itself — technological change and globalization have reduced the demand for traditional “male” labour. Another explanation is the growing proportion of men with criminal histories and the reluctance of employers to hire them.

But government programs also clearly play a role. The availability of help to able-bodied men reduces the importance of employment. Under our current system, federal food and housing assistance largely comes with no expectation of work, and disability assistance ignores the possibility that treatment and rehabilitation may eventually lead to meaningful employment.

Without work, many of these men turn to unproductive pursuits. Eberstadt reported that in 2014, prime-age men not in the labor force spent nearly eight hours a day on average socializing, relaxing, and relaxing, including five hours a day. day watching TV and movies. Even if we compare them to employed women, these men spend less time caring for family members and spend about as much time on household chores.

Without income to support themselves, use of government benefits among these men is common. According to a 2018 analysis by the Joint Economic Committee, 64% of non-working prime-age men received some form of government assistance, while 4 in 10 received disability assistance and 38% received received food stamps. There is no doubt that government benefits help fund workless lifestyles, sending the message that idleness is okay.

But middle-aged men are among the most important contributors to our society, and their idleness is harmful, both to themselves and to society at large. For starters, businesses need workers, and prime-age men on the fringes mean fewer workers and less economic growth. As economists at the Federal Reserve of Philadelphia explained in 2017, “the effects of non-participation (in the labor force) on society are potentially severe: slower economic growth and rising dependency ratios “.

Perhaps most importantly, work offers men purpose and meaning, promoting dignity in a way that other activities do not. That’s why employment is correlated with a host of positive life outcomes, such as better health, marriage, and greater life satisfaction. When government assistance undermines the importance of employment, it minimizes the financial and non-financial benefits of work for prime-age men.

We need productive and fulfilled prime-age men for other reasons as well. Birth and marriage rates are approaching historic lows in the United States, no doubt fueled by the idleness of middle-aged men. Declining marriage rates and birth rates will contribute to demographic and economic challenges that threaten the prosperity of future generations.

The newly elected Congress has an opportunity to move away from policy proposals designed to expand government, such as universal basic income, expanded food stamps, and increased Medicaid coverage, which will only make the problem worse. of the idleness of men in the prime of life.

Instead, policymakers should recognize the value that work brings to prime-age men, their families, and their communities. This involves reforming existing government programs with an emphasis on employment, while strengthening values ​​and norms around work and government assistance for prime-age men.

Angela Rachidi is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She is co-editor with former House Speaker Paul Ryan of the forthcoming book “American Renewal: A Conservative Plan to Strengthen the Social Contract and Save the Country’s Finances.”

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