Men Without Work: America's Invisible Crisis
By Nicholas Eberstadt
This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
America’s working man has taken a pounding over the course of the past half-century. According to the most recent data available, 15 percent of men in their prime working years (between 25 and 54) had no job—5 percent were unemployed and 10 percent were neither working nor looking for work. Fifty years earlier, in the summer of 1966, only 5 percent of men in that age range had no job. Most of the decline in male employment took place relatively recently, during the Great Recession, when men’s prime-age employment fell 8 percentage points, from 88 percent in the spring of 2007 to 80 percent in December 2009. Since the bottom of the recession, prime-age men have regained 5 percentage points, reaching 85 percent employed in the most recent data.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, sees this as an “invisible crisis” that urgently needs the nation’s attention. Eberstadt’s rhetoric runs high, but he is right to bring attention to employment trends. American culture measures men’s contributions to society in proportion to how hard they work, and most Americans embrace the idea that men’s worth is tied up in what they do for a living. Meanwhile, public policy insists on work. Laid-off workers in most states have to produce evidence of job applications in order to collect their unemployment insurance; mothers have to agree to look for employment when they apply for welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). With this kind of cultural and policy pressure, it is shocking to learn that 10 percent of prime-age men were neither at work nor looking for work in the fall of 2016. Whether they are idle, injured, criminal, or merely working under the table, they are more numerous than just a decade ago and deserving of public attention for what it tells us about our economy and society.
The question of why more men are jobless is a variant of “Did they jump or were they pushed?” The answer is far from obvious. Job growth had been robust for most of the past three years, clearing out the “discouraged workers” of the Great Recession. That suggests many jobless men “jumped.” Eberstadt thinks so. He believes the choices were voluntary and uses words like “hiding,” “flight,” and “idle” in provocative chapter titles, padding his argument with several dubious statistical comparisons. For example, he compares employment among 20-to-64-year-olds in 1930 and 1940 with their employment in 2016, arguing that work rates for men are lower today than in the Great Depression. But far more 20-to-24-year-olds are now enrolled in college, and employer-provided pensions and Social Security enable more 55-to-64-year-old men to retire early. We can’t assume men prefer to be idle.
Illness and injury may contribute to joblessness among men of prime working age. The economist Alan B. Krueger estimates that 43 percent of prime-age men who were out of the labor force struggled with what they described as “poor” or “fair” health, 34 percent had a condition that interfered with daily activity or cognitive functioning, and 18 percent had more than one such condition. Half reported pain; 43 percent were taking pain medications.
Two other factors, recessions and incarceration, are critical to the case that prime-age men have been pushed out of work. According to my own research, hard times have been harder on men than women at least since the 1970s. The American economy has suffered seven recessions since 1970. Predictably, American men’s prime-age employment has fallen during each one. Although most men have returned to work after each recession, men’s employment has not returned all the way to pre-recession levels, even during the longest growth periods. Each succeeding recession has dropped men’s employment a little lower.
Mass incarceration has added to men’s work woes. Men disappear from the data while in prison, but their struggles upon release contribute to the trends that Eberstadt discusses. Ex-felons face grim odds in the job market. Rebuilding a life after prison would be daunting if employers were merely indifferent; most employers aggressively weed out ex-felons. Men returning from prison face background checks and scrutiny when they are lucky enough to get a callback from a prospective employer. Eberstadt walks the reader through the difficulties in estimating the scope and scale of this problem. He then concludes that mass incarceration accounts for both why the United States has a higher proportion of prime-age men out of the labor force than other countries do and why American men’s labor force participation has fallen more than American women’s since 2000. The analysis is interesting, but to me it works strongly against Eberstadt’s view that men are fleeing work. Discrimination against ex-felons is a push factor. The more the aftermath of incarceration matters, the less likely it is that out-of-work men need new incentives to seek employment. Perhaps they need remedial education or training. They almost certainly need advocacy and legal protection.
How do men without work survive? Most rely on family. Their employed wives, cohabiting partners, and sometimes even grown children support them. Many get benefits from federal and state programs, but the government does not know how many do so. Each program keeps records, but since the records are not linked, the government and researchers have a hard time estimating how many men get benefits from multiple sources or how many men are left out of all programs. This is the strongest and most original part of Eberstadt’s book.
Eberstadt asserts that falling employment reduced economic growth, exacerbated inequality, and increased public debt. I think he has the first two backwards. Fleeing workers did not precipitate recessions; recessions pushed those men out of the workforce. Inequality did not come from voluntary pay reductions by idle men; it came about because capital now reaps the rewards of whatever growth occurs. And disability programs, which replace only a fraction of the wages sick and hurt men have lost, are not a major factor in public debt. Manual work in the service economy damages joints, backs, and heads just as manual work in the higher-paid industrial past did. If there is fraud, find it and prosecute it. But if not, employers’ and employees’ contributions to Social Security disability insurance should be raised to meet the needs of the disabled.
Public policy should offer incentives to those who have left work and a path back to legitimate employment for those blocked by a criminal record or discrimination. The best incentives are a choice of jobs and rising pay. Until recently, the U.S. economy created about 200,000 jobs a month while wages stagnated. These trends increased prime-age men’s employment ratio from 81 percent in September 2009 to 85 percent in October 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployed men (those without a job and looking for work) found employment, but prime-age men’s labor force participation fell slightly from 90 percent in September 2009 to 89 percent in October 2016. The increases have all been so recent that we can only say that they did not immediately increase labor force participation.
As states release more men from prison, both ex-felons and would-be employers will need a way to come together. Opening the gates and setting the former inmates free will not, by itself, create demand for their labor. Matching men released from prison with employers willing to hire them will be a challenge. Most prisoners have only a high school education or less. While some earn credentials in prison, most will need a way to demonstrate that they are ready, willing, and able to work, and a third party to vet them.
When Eberstadt gets to his policy recommendations, his often-original book gets conventional and familiar. He pushes tax and benefit cuts and is vague on the path that might lead from tax cuts to higher employment. The argument is too thin to convince anyone who does not already believe in tax cuts as an all-purpose fix. Evidence from a state where tax cuts worked would help here. My casual reading suggests that Kansas’s crumbling state economy contradicts his argument, as does California’s ongoing boom. Cutting benefits could spur men who are faking disabilities to seek work, I suppose. But Eberstadt shows no evidence that men on disability are cheating. If they are suffering as much as Krueger’s data indicate, cutting benefits would harm men who need help without changing employment trends.
Eberstadt is right to point to a serious issue, but to make progress, we need to calibrate the scope and scale of the problem correctly. A 10-point drop in men’s prime-age employment ratio from a historic peak is consequential, but hardly the “death of work.”
Eberstadt and I are demographers. We write with numbers and think our graphs are pictures. We can talk to each other in this language. But when I read the data, specific people come to my mind. One is a guy who, in the 1990s, hoped to ride the dot-com boom to a six-figure income. Obsessive computer coding led to overmedication and, now, disability checks. The other is a neighbor who fought in the first Iraq War. He leans on his walker down by the bodega and talks to any passerby who will listen. People-you-know is a lousy sample, but their stories make me doubt that men out of work chose their path.
We have to respond to falling employment among working-age men, but we cannot rely on the usual prescriptions. The idle among them need incentives, the injured need care, and the formerly incarcerated need just one employer willing to give them a break—and maybe some legal protection to make that break more likely.