While many have described the problems of declining work among less-educated men in America, there have been few proposed solutions to a crisis affecting millions of men.
Today, more than 7 million men are not working. Back in the 1950s, labor force participation rates among prime-age men, or those aged 25 to 54, were about 98 percent. Today, the same rate is about 88 percent. For those with only a high school education, the rate is just 83 percent.
These men are generally not engaged in other productive activities like education or child-rearing. Instead, they mostly spend time in leisure activities, though not happily. Opioid use and dependency among them is rampant, and their mortality rates — what Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University call “deaths of despair” — are rising.
All of this harms the men, their families, and their communities. Their absence from the job market also hurts the U.S. economy. With many Baby Boomers retiring and increasingly restrictive immigration policies, America’s economy cannot grow with too few workers.
What causes the disappearance of so many men from work?
Those on the political left emphasize the loss of manufacturing jobs, which has left less-educated men facing lower wages and fewer job opportunities. They lack the postsecondary credentials now required for good pay, and often live in communities where any jobs are scarce.
But analysts on the political right stress increasing dependency on public benefit programs, such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), as well as Medicaid and food stamps through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). These programs provide important benefits for many in need, but can discourage work too.
We believe that both sets of explanations have merit and both need to be addressed.
But how can we do so? First, we need to build more skills among men through training programs in community colleges and apprenticeships. These should focus on sectors like health care, advanced manufacturing and information technology with good-paying jobs and high demand for those who lack a four-year college diploma.
Important opportunities for skill-building and employment will emerge if a federal infrastructure bill is funded by Congress. If so, we should reserve some specific portion of training and employment slots for the chronically unemployed or underemployed. Indeed, a recent infrastructure project at Port Covington in Baltimore did so as part of a local community benefits agreement.
To make work more attractive among those with low skills facing low wages, we support expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) while also fixing its significant error rate. The EITC provides large wage subsidies to low-income (often single) parents with children, and raises their incentives to take low-wage jobs. But the EITC currently provides very little to childless adults, including non-custodial parents paying child support. It should be made more generous to this population.
For others who are hard to employ or residing in depressed communities where few jobs exist, we need to create more jobs through subsidies to employers. Recent evidence shows that we can do so quickly and in large numbers, thereby raising employment among the disadvantaged and creating indirect positive effects, like lower crime.
We must also reduce the many barriers that those with criminal records face, by helping them reenter the labor market while encouraging employers to treat them fairly. Efforts to treat and prevent opioid abuse must be a top priority, with funding targeted to the regions where so many jobless adults reside.
We also need to reform public benefit programs to encourage more work. Ideas on how to reform our federal disability programs have been proposed by policy analysts on both the left and right. These ideas should be piloted and evaluated as soon as possible.
We also can do more to encourage food stamp and Medicaid recipients to work, prepare for work, or be productively engaged in a service activity. We do not support rigid work requirements imposed on recipients which terminate all benefits for small infractions. But we believe state administrators of both programs could be required to refer all healthy recipients to employment services. And we acknowledge that this will require additional funding to increase their administrative capacity.
Finally, we endorse a strong public commitment to work by our political, social and community leaders. A little stigma about non-work when work is available is a good thing. Every adult should be engaged in a productive activity in the job market, at school or at home.
No doubt this entire package of proposals will not please everyone. We had to overcome disagreements even among the three of us, as our political perspectives are quite different from one another. But we believe this set of practical proposals, many with a history of success, offers our best hope of addressing the crisis of non-work among men.
Robert Doar is a fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Harry J. Holzer is the LaFarge S.J. Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University. Brent Orrell is a Vice President at ICF International. This article is based on their newly released American Enterprise Institute paper, Getting Men Back to Work: Solutions from the Right and Left.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.