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What's Wrong with These Men? Why Aren't They Working?

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Message Frank Stricker
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There is a group of adults who do not have jobs, are not recorded as looking for work, and are not counted as unemployed. They are men in the prime working ages of 25 through 54. Most of the men in this age group are in the labor force, but seven million are not and they have received a fair amount of attention in recent years. The labor force participation rate of men in this age group has fallen since the 1960s from 98% to 89%. Declines were substantial in the weak labor markets of the early 1970s, the 1980s, the early 1990s, and the 2010s. About half of these non-participants report that they are ill or disabled and have to take prescription medications every day. More of them are in school or retired or performing home responsibilities than in the past. It must be true, too, that some of them refuse to work for very low wages. Many have no college education. If these men were hired in the retail, hospitality or restaurant sectors, they would earn, on average, ten dollars an hour. Many jobs in this sector are part-time. If you work a full year of 30-hour weeks earning $10 an hour, your gross annual income would be $15,600. That's poverty, and remember, if $10 is the average, millions of people are earning less. Economic analyst Frank Lysy says that much of the problem of non-participation is just Economics 101:"if you want more people in paying jobs, pay them better."

Some of the seven million non-participants have looked for work in the past and been rejected because of their race, or because they have prison records, or both. Men with criminal records are 34% of all nonworking men who are 25 to 54 years old. Sociologist Devah Pager found that men who reported criminal convictions were 50% less likely to receive a callback or job offer and Black men's chances were worse. If we want more men to work, we have to make it easier for ex-prisoners to get jobs. And we need to stop jailing so many people.

Given the barriers some people face and the mediocre results for many of those who do get work, it is not hard to see why some prime-age men don't bother. Lousy wages lower the cost of not working. They may also be a reason to engage in criminal money-making. Ditto, if decent jobs are out of reach, then disability benefits, even though they average just $1,166 a month, look better. (Gross income for 120 hours of work a month at $10 an hour is $1,200.) Similarly, for prime-age women who are not participating in work or the job search, more affordable child-care options and more high quality jobs would make working outside the home more attractive.

In general, if there were real full employment--more vacancies than people who needed jobs and an unemployment level of around 2%-- and if wage levels were increasing substantially every year for many years, more people would work. Also employers would be a little more desperate for workers and they might not be so quick to eliminate whole categories of applicants.

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It is not good social policy that every prime-age adult should be working all the time, but if people want a decent job, they should have a shot at it; and if pundits and policy makers claim to be worried about non-participation among prime-age men, they should be active in these areas: reversing the incarceration mania and getting both a $15 federal minimum wage and real full employment.


In addition to government statistics, important sources for this topic include Frank Lysy, "The Structural Factors Behind the Steady Fall in Labor Force Participation Rates of Prime Age Workers, posted October 14, 2016, 10/14/the-structural-factors; Jim Puzzanghera, "Job Market Mystery: Where Are the Men?," Los Angeles Times (LAT hereafter), November 21, 2016, A8; Binyamin Appelbaum, "Out of Trouble, but Criminal Records Keep Men Out of Work," New York Times (NYT hereafter), February 28, 2015, accessed 12/4/2016 at; Don Lee and Samantha Masunaga, "Nothing in the Works," LAT, September 7, 2015, A8; June Zaccone, "The Labor Force Participation Rate and Its Trajectory--Why It Matters," National Jobs for All Coalition, Special Report 5, June 2015, at; David Leonhardt, A Unemployed, and Skewing the Picture, @ NYT, March 5, 2008, updated March 7, and accessed online 9/29/2008; David Streitfeld, "Disparate Jobs Data Add Up To a Mystery, @ LAT, August 23, 2004, C1, C5; A Workers or Shirkers, @ The Economist, January 29, 2005, 28.

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ProfessorEmeritus of History, Labor and Interdisciplinary Studies, California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Author of Why America Lost the War on Poverty--and How to win it (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2007)

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