With the unemployment rate at 3.7%—the lowest it's been in almost 50 years—perhaps it's a strange moment to be raising an alarm about a decline in the centrality of work in American culture.
Yet that warning has arrived, both in a new book by Oren Cass, "The Once and Future Worker," and in a new report, "Work, Skills, Community," by the "working class study group" of Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Brookings Institution.
The "Work, Skills, Community" report says, "the Great Recession of 2007-2009 seemed to lead many workers, especially men, to leave the economy on a permanent basis…among men, work levels are falling to historic lows."
What are these men doing instead? "Well over half of prime-age nonworking white males receive some kind of disability benefit, and Medicaid likely allows many of them to fill painkiller prescriptions at minimal cost," the report says. The report describes what economists call "inactive men," who spend about two extra hours a day "socializing, relaxing, and engaging in leisure," including "watching TV and movies."
The persistence of unworking men at a moment of low unemployment is something that Cass, who was domestic policy director of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and who was also a member of the study group that produced the report, links to "deaths of despair"—the increase in fatalities from drugs, alcohol, and suicide.
If that is the scene now, when the economy is strong, imagine how bad things may get in the next downturn.
Both the Cass book and the "Work, Skills, Community" report are full of proposals for fixing the problem. They would subsidize low-income work either through an expanded earned income tax credit or through a more direct "wage subsidy." They'd reform education to emphasize job skills and vocational training. They'd ease environmental reviews that stall job-creating building projects. They'd modernize some safety net programs to link them more closely to encouraging work.
What's remarkable upon reflection, though, is how many of the current problems seem to have been created by previous federal programs.
The bipartisan study group report raises the concern that people with mild but not insurmountable disabilities "will leave the labor market" to qualify for government benefits.
It also notes that "many of the nation's largest means-tested programs, including Medicaid and food stamps, penalize marriage among households that receive benefits."
The book by Cass reports that phase-outs of federal subsidies and benefits create the equivalent of a 75% marginal tax rate on a single mother whose pre-tax earnings rise to $40,000 from $20,000.
Government action risks unintended consequences and can create perverse incentives. Understandably, then, these experts conclude that improvements depend a lot on the active participation of those who are able.
The study group report finds, "the change that's needed starts with a renewal of norms: that the able-bodied should work, that parents have a responsibility to provide for their children, that relying on government benefits is a last resort, that drug addiction is a bad choice for anyone and unacceptable for parents of young children."
"In the end, there will be no renewal unless more working-class Americans begin to make different choices about how to live their lives." Or, to put it another way, "the hard work of rekindling social norms must be done by working class families themselves. There is little government can do."
It's a humility that doesn't come from a place of uncaring, but rather from the grim experience of decades, and trillions of dollars, of federal anti-poverty spending.
As Cass puts it, "Government benefits helped to address many of the immediate material needs of low-income households, but they appeared to provide no upward lift—if anything, their effect has more likely been corrosive."
President Kennedy, in his inaugural address, claimed "man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty." One of the members of the "working class study group," Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute, is the son of a hero of the Kennedy administration, the civil rights lawyer John Doar. In the arc from "abolish all forms of human poverty" to "there is little government can do," one might be tempted to read the decline of liberalism, or at least its diminished ambitions.
If there's some truth in that, though, it's also probably a bit too facile. For in the report's language that "blue-collar men and women have agency, and they bear some responsibility for the situations in which they find themselves" is also an echo of Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you." The idea that the best cure for poverty lies in work rather than dependence, in a job, not welfare, seems less liberal or conservative than just plain American.