Working, in America, is in decline.
The share of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s, to 16 percent. More recently, since the turn of the century, the share of women without paying jobs has been rising, too. The United States, which had one of the highest employment rates among developed nations as recently as 2000, has fallen toward the bottom of the list.
According to a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll that provides a detailed look at the lives of the 30 million Americans 25 to 54 who are without jobs.
Many men, in particular, have decided that low-wage work will not improve their lives, in part because deep changes in American society have made it easier for them to live without working. These changes include the availability of federal disability benefits; the decline of marriage, which means fewer men provide for children; and the rise of the Internet, which has reduced the isolation of unemployment.
At the same time, it has become harder for men to find higher-paying jobs. Foreign competition and technological advances have eliminated many of the jobs in which high school graduates once could earn $40 an hour, or more. The poll found that 85 percent of prime-age men without jobs do not have bachelor’s degrees. And 34 percent said they had criminal records, making it hard to find any work.
The resulting absence of millions of potential workers has serious consequences not just for the men and their families but for the nation as a whole. A smaller work force is likely to lead to a slower-growing economy, and will leave a smaller share of the population to cover the cost of government, even as a larger share seeks help.
“They’re not working, because it’s not paying them enough to work,” said Alan B. Krueger, a leading labor economist and a professor at Princeton. “And that means the economy is going to be smaller than it otherwise would be.”
The trend was pushed to new heights by the last recession, with 20 percent of prime-age men not working in 2009 before partly receding. But the recovery is unlikely to be complete. Like turtles flipped onto their backs, many people who stop working struggle to get back on their feet. Some people take years to return to the work force, and others never do. And a growing body of research finds that their children, in turn, are less likely to prosper.
“The long-run effects of this are very high,” said Lawrence F. Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard. “We could be losing the next generation of kids.”
For most unemployed men, life without work is not easy. In follow-up interviews, about two dozen men described days spent mostly at home, chewing through dwindling resources, relying on friends, strangers and the federal government. The poll found that 30 percent had used food stamps, while 33 percent said they had taken food from a nonprofit or religious group.
They are unhappy to be out of work and eager to find new jobs. They are struggling both with the loss of income and a loss of dignity. Their mental and physical health is suffering.
Yet 44 percent of men in the survey said there were jobs in their area they could get but were not willing to take.
Men today may feel less pressure to find jobs because they are less likely than previous generations to be providing for others. Only 28 percent of men without jobs — compared with 58 percent of women — said a child under 18 lived with them.
What Nonworking Men Say
Among every 100 men ages 25 to 54 who do not work:
|64||Want a job|
|45||Have looked for a job in the last year|
|25||Have looked for a job, and would be willing to take one that pays minimum wage|
|44||Think there are local jobs they could obtain, but they are not willing to take|
|34||Have been convicted of a crime|
|17||Say their physical health is poor|
|43||Say not working has been bad for their mental health|
|48||Say health problems or disability is a major reason they are not working|
|19||Say family responsibilities are a major reason|
|35||Say a lack of good jobs available is a major reason|
|30||Receive food stamps|
|4||Receive unemployment benefits|
|22||Get money from a spouse or other employed person in their house|
|20||Get income from temporary work or odd jobs|
|90||Have ever had a full-time job|
|25||Have had a full-time job, and earned more than $40k in their last job|
|22||Have missed a rent or mortgage payment because they stopped working|
|13||Have had utilities turned off because they stopped working|
|45||Say they are financially secure|
|25||Are mostly happy about not working|
|30||Think it’s very likely they will be working in 1 year|
|42||Think it’s very likely they will be working in 5 years|
Source: The New York Times, CBS News and Kaiser Family Foundation poll, conducted Nov. 11 to 25, with 363 nonworking men (and 639 nonworking women, not shown) ages 25 to 54.
A study published in October by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies estimated that 37 percent of the decline in male employment since 1979 could be explained by this retreat from marriage and fatherhood.
There is also evidence that working has become more expensive. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institute found that prices since 1990 had climbed most quickly for labor-intensive services like child care, health care and education, increasing what might be described as the cost of working: getting a degree, staying healthy, hiring someone to watch the children. Meanwhile, the price of food, clothing, computers and other goods has climbed more slowly.
Mr. Katz, the Harvard economist, said, however, that some men might choose to describe themselves as unwilling to take low-wage jobs when in fact they cannot find any jobs. There are about 10 million prime-age men who are not working, but there are only 4.8 million job openings for men and women of all ages, according to the most recent federal data.
Millions of men are trying to find work. And among the 45 percent of men who said they had looked in the last year, large majorities said that to get a job they would be willing to work nights and weekends, start over in a new field, return to school or move to a new city.
In 1968, the federal minimum wage was $1.60 per hour, which translates to approximately $10.90 in 2013 dollars. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which translates to $15,080 for a full-time, year-round worker. The last time the Federal Minimum Wage was raised was in 1997. So as the cost of living has increased, people who are employed at the bottom step of the economic ladder have not had their wages increased as many companies have experienced growth and profits. Obviously, there is a growing gap between these people and the rest of society and somewhere along the way, there will be a break.