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Breadwinners, Breadlosers

Trumpland’s “inner-city” problem
statue of men in unemployment line

Like a malevolent Mr. Magoo, Donald Trump continues to barrel incompetently, obtusely, and conveniently into economic windfalls. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently reported the lowest unemployment rate since 2007. At 4.6 percent, the American economy is at “full employment” by most economists’ standard. Trump will undoubtedly tout these monthly job numbers as they remain strong, or even improve, in 2017. (He will also, undoubtedly, withhold due credit to his predecessor.)

But behind these numbers, the decades-long trends most vexing Trump’s heavily low-educated, white supporter base in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will proceed in earnest. Automation will continue to put downward pressure on manufacturing jobs, regardless of whether corporations are also offshoring to Mexico and China—and notwithstanding Trump’s cronyistic tax-credits bribing companies to keep a few jobs here in the near term. With time, technological unemployment will bleed into other economic sectors; we’ll just have to wait and see which ethnicity or country Trump blames when non-exportable jobs like truck-driving are also rendered obsolete. And, lastly, the portion of the population counted out of the labor force altogether will continue to grow, as it has since World War II.

It’s Draining Men

According to the BLS, 95 million people—37.3 percent of the working-age population—are not working or looking for work. This number has been inching up for decades, but it has increased disproportionately for men, with 28.5 percent of the male civilian noninstitutional population above the age of twenty now out of the labor force. A number of sources have shed light on this trend in the past year, including an Obama White House Council of Economic Advisers report; Men Without Work, a new book by American Enterprise Institute economist Nicholas Eberstadt; and a paper by Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger.

Work-obsessed cultures impose a heavy social stigma on non-workers. So prime-age, non-working men are hardly laughing their way to the sofa.

Much of the overall trend in men leaving traditional paid employment is explained by older men retiring (and living longer), and younger men spending more time in school. But even accounting for these population segments, the portion of prime-age (twenty-five to fifty-five years old) working men in the labor force has declined. Opinions differ on the reasons. According to Eberstadt, whose data-laden book maintains a tone of subdued hysteria, it represents an epidemic of shiftlessness, whereby millions of men “have relinquished what we think of ordinarily as adult responsibilities not only as breadwinners but as parents, family members, community members, and citizens.”

Eberstadt does not hide his contempt for men who have supposedly chosen “to sit on the economic sidelines, living off the toil or bounty of others,” and he justifies his feelings by attributing the trend to social, rather than economic, causes. What he sees in all the available data is “an almost revolutionary change in male attitudes toward work and dependence in postwar America.” That is to say, his is a standard jeremiad against the modern welfare state, which he regards as so generous as to have created a sub-society of laggards who are shamelessly milking the public for all they can—the conservative bête noire primus inter pares.

To his credit, Eberstadt hands one of the book’s final chapters over to Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who points out that it is predominantly less-educated men who have fallen out of the labor force—and not by choice, but because there is less demand for their labor in a service economy. Moreover, he notes, it makes little sense to blame the lure of welfare benefits for the trend, given that these require recipients to actively seek employment.

Eberstadt, using American Time-Use Survey (ATUS) data, examines what non-working men do in their free time and finds, unsurprisingly, that they engage in “socializing, relaxing, and leisure.” He points specifically to the extra time (as compared to employed and unemployed men who are looking for work) non-working men spend watching TV as proof of their malign parasitic intent, and suggests that they have “a fundamental difference in mentality.”

The problem with this conclusion is that it does not account for the spike in TV-watching on “weekend days and holidays,” when employed people also have free time. It would appear that all Americans are, in fact, fundamentally similar when they’re not working: they waste their time watching TV. He also does not account for self-reported levels of subjective well-being, which the ATUS began surveying a few years ago, and which generally shows TV-watching to be unfulfilling. And as Krueger points out (using Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale data), non-working men “over the course of the day” are “less happy, more sad, and more stressed” than even unemployed men who are actively seeking work.

Work-obsessed cultures impose a heavy social stigma on non-workers, as evidenced by the absence of pillory against retirees. So prime-age, non-working men are hardly laughing their way to the sofa. What’s more, Krueger observes that “nearly half of prime-age men who are not in the labor force may have a serious health condition that is a barrier to work.” Almost half of this cohort, he writes, takes “pain medication on a daily basis, and in nearly two-thirds of cases they take prescription pain medication.” This aligns with Eberstadt’s own finding that, “By all indications, disability payments are an increasingly important source of support” for non-working men. But when Eberstadt writes that, “These men have established a new and alternative lifestyle to the age-old male quest for a paying job,” one can only conclude that he thinks millions of disability claimants are exaggerating or faking their conditions. This bad-faith assumption is one we’ve seen before.

Marshal the Scapegoats

The white-supremacist nostalgia that fueled Trump’s campaign certainly harkens back to the 1950s, or even the 1920s. But another decade that featured prominently this election season was the 1990s, owing in large part to all the talk about NAFTA, “the inner cities,” “law and order,” and cameo appearances by retro-chic misers such as Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and David Duke. Sure, many Trump voters, when questioned by reporters, struggle to articulate any real basis for their support. But many others complain about such 1990s throwbacks as “food stamps, free health care, Section 8 housing, [and] welfare checks.”

The new “workfare” regime shunted a cohort of previously untapped workers into the low-wage labor market to fight for scraps with other workers.

After running on “the economy, stupid” during the 1990-1992 recession, former President Bill Clinton helped soothe Americans’ hurt feelings by signing the bipartisan Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (or, “welfare reform”), which barred immigrants from receiving welfare benefits, and told single, disproportionately black mothers that, rather than stay home and raise their children, they needed to get paying jobs (or, in today’s slick parlance, “lean in”).

In a 1999 retrospective essay, Mimi Abramovitz and Ann Withorn observed that:

The implication that any job is better than welfare, that it is better to be working poor than welfare poor, denied the realities of poor women’s lives. The stress and invisible poverty that accompanied low-waged employment could actually worsen the plight of single mothers and their children.

Meanwhile, the new “workfare” regime shunted a cohort of previously untapped workers into the low-wage labor market to fight for scraps with other workers. Thus, in an increasingly automated and globalized economy, job security and wages decreased as the labor supply increased. Consequently, Abramovitz and Withorn write, “evaluators consistently reported only ‘modest’ income and employment gains and a slight, if any, drop in the welfare rolls.”

Indeed, as Harvard historian William Julius Wilson pointed out in 1998, even when low-skilled workers were forced to seek employment to satisfy the welfare-benefits requirement, there often were not jobs to be had (especially in geographically remote or marginalized communities). The “relative demand for unskilled labor” was in decline, owing to factors such as “the computer revolution . . . the rapid growth in college enrollment that increased the supply and reduced the relative cost of skilled labor . . . [and] the growing internationalization of economic activity.”

All of these major economic and technological forces—the very ones predominantly white Trump voters are said to be rebelling against—were already at work in the 1990s, but their negative effects were borne heavily by African Americans, who constituted a disproportionate share of the low-skilled labor force. Wilson went on to describe the conservative view toward work and welfare twenty years ago:

When American conservatives try to account for the high welfare rates of the jobless inner-city poor they maintain that it reflects the shortcomings of individuals, including their lack of work ethic. There is little or no appreciation for the harmful behavioral effects that emerge when lack of job opportunities results in persistent joblessness.

This would seem to describe Eberstadt’s book, the subjects of which, it must be said, are also disproportionately African American. But they will soon have company. As the long-term, structural displacement of lower-skilled, lower-educated workers continues to hit rural and suburban America just as hard as it hit the “inner cities” of yesterday, one wonders if we’ll have a chance to revisit the simplistic notion that working is simply a matter of willpower.

Fear and Bloviating

Sooner or later, developed countries are going to have to reassess their obsession with full-time employment—and GDP growth—for its own sake, and such an exercise will inevitably demand a revalorization of the welfare state itself. In time, labor-market disruptions will become more severe, even in the most optimistic techno-utopian scenarios. One could hope that, as more segments of society feel their labor becoming obsolete—or their incomes declining to the point that they may as well not work at all—they will realize that simply wanting to work is not enough. One could also hope that this new understanding will end the cultural stigmatization of non-workers.

Sooner or later, developed countries are going to have to reassess their obsession with full-time employment for its own sake.

Of course, the opposite is more likely—that the economic conditions that allowed for Trump’s illiberal message to resonate will obtain indefinitely. For example, most Americans’ wages have declined or been stagnant for decades, irrespective of business cycles. Income peaked in 1999 for the bottom quintile of households, and in 2000 for the second and third quintiles; meanwhile, the top two quintiles saw their best years as recently as 2015. This growing disparity is readily apparent to workers, and undermines social cohesion. [*]

In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Harvard economist Benjamin J. Friedman demonstrates that, throughout history, whenever wide-scale per capita income growth has been tepid or declined, societies have become less tolerant toward immigrants, less willing to fund social safety nets, and “less generous toward . . . the economically disadvantaged.” In the United States, periods of stagnation gave rise to the 1880-1895 populist period and the 1920-1929 Ku Klux Klan resurgence, while periods of widespread, shared income growth ushered in the Progressive era and the Civil Rights movement.

Public attitudes seem to be shaped not by one’s respective income but by status anxiety, which may explain the large segment of Trump supporters who make well above $50,000 per year. As Friedman describes it, “whether most people think what they have or how they live constitutes ‘more’ or ‘less’ depends on how their circumstances compare to two separate benchmarks: their own (or their family’s) past experience, and how they see people around them living.” As it happens, David Leonhardt, detailing the work of Stanford economist Raj Chetty, reports that the likelihood of making as much as one’s parents has been declining for each generation since 1940.

This doesn’t mean that poor wage growth automatically turns people into racist troglodytes; but it is one factor “shaping how people regard one another, collectively as well as individually.” To take an example familiar in this election cycle: at the start of Bill Clinton’s first term, in 1993, “64 percent of Americans polled said that immigrants mostly hurt the economy, while only 26 percent said they mostly helped.” But, after the late-1990s recovery, Friedman writes, “by 2000, a 44-40 majority held the opposite view.”

Trump ran on this Clinton-era consensus, which bizarrely situates unemployment and stagnant wages as a cause, rather than a symptom, of neoliberalism’s ravages.

During that 1990s nadir, the two major American political parties came together to pass welfare reform, forging a “new consensus” whereby obtaining full-time paid employment became the primary obligation of citizenship. They did so, Abramovitz and Withorn write, by encouraging “the increasingly anxious middle class to blame social programs, the deficit, and the poor, instead of the profit-driven policies of business and the state, for a falling standard of living.”

Trump ran on this Clinton-era consensus, which bizarrely situates unemployment and stagnant wages as a cause, rather than a symptom, of neoliberalism’s ravages. In Men Without Work, Eberstadt muses that, “An earlier era had terms for sturdy men who chose to sit on the economic sidelines, living off the toil or bounty of others. None were kind or forgiving.” He doesn’t specify any of those terms, but in the coming years, we may have a new one at our disposal: the Trumpjugend.


[*] Even if Trump pursues fiscal-stimulus through massive infrastructure spending to such an extent as to expand the economy and boost demand for lower-skilled labor, then some cohort of the millions of workers who have left the labor force may be lured back, which could reduce workers’ bargaining power.