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Free Minds & Free Markets

Getting Paid Not to Work

A new book and academic report look at the under-employment of men since the Great Recession. Federal programs bear much of the blame.

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.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.

Photo Credit: Westend61 GmbH/Newscom

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  • Oh no she di'int||

    "Getting Paid Not to Work: New at Reason"

    Judging by the work product lately, it's not so new at all.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "Well over half of prime-age nonworking white males receive some kind of disability benefit

    I hope these books are just driving this point home, because this has been known for quite some time. I believe even NPR noted the explosive (and concerning) rise in social security disability payouts over the last 25-30 years.

    If that is the scene now, when the economy is strong, imagine how bad things may get in the next downturn.

    A normal downturn would provide a much-needed reset, forcing those prime-age men back into work. But I'm not sure what a normal downturn looks like. The last downturn was anything but normal and seemed to only succeed in driving people away from work, because the government was able to print enough money to continue throwing around.

    "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."

    So... they just went full on alt-right.

  • John||

    And why is the rate of white males versus all males relevent here? Is the white male rate abnormally high? If so, I would like to know by how much. If not, then why cite the white male number rather than the rate of males in general? Is it only a problem when white males hang out on welfare but okay when other males do?

    That is just a very odd sentence.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    And why is the rate of white males versus all males relevent here?

    My best guess? There's not a long history of able-bodied white males being a standout as out-of-work welfare recipients, and whatever trend we're seeing represents something relatively recent-- ie, the last 15 years or so. But that's just a wild guess.

  • John||

    So the assumption is that white males doing this is a problem because it is just a given this is how minority men roll? That is pretty racist isn't it?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Depending on the point of the phrase-- it might be racist. "When the white men stop working, all is lost!"

    I honestly have no idea why they cared about non-working whites.

  • Longtobefree||

    Because talking about non-working black men is racist these days.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Good point, John.

  • Fats of Fury||

    There should be a federal bounty on catching SSD scammers, even a 50 grand reward for catching these shitheads would pay for itself. Everyone receiving these benefits need to report every year to prove their eligibility.

  • JoeBlow123||

    People in the military openly talk about scamming the government to get disability. Pisses me off pretty good, bunch of entitled worthless dirtbags. I think it is a societal cancer, it is prevalent everywhere.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Really? I've never heard other vets talk like that.

  • Rock Lobster||

    The term, "alt-right," like the more sophisticated and conspiratorial "white patriarchy" and "one-percenter," is a canard, a construct of leftist idealogues who need an oppressor to justify their "resistance," without which they have no reason to exist. Which term is used depends on the objective of the moment, but all are merely rhetorical props representing the enemy in the eternal "struggle."

    In reality, however, both the actual number and political clout of genuine, no-shit white supremacists is so small and culturally toxic as to be effectively non-existent outside the realm of internet trolls. The "racist under every rock" mentallity is relentlessly pushed by those with a vested interest in promoting the larger narrative of identity politics and its corollary hierarchy of virtue according to victimhood. And white folks, it seems, are easy and natural targets. But hey, you have to break a few eggs for that ever elusive Utopian omelette. By any means necessary, indeed.

    The only way to stop discriminating on the basis of race... is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. And it is fallacious to smear the values of individual liberty, individual responsibility, and self reliance and the common sense that making bad choices results in bad outcomes--all of which apply to every person, regardless of the color of their skin--as racist in any way, or as you deem it, "full on alt-right." This is as stupid as it is evil.

  • Ron||

    Taxes have become so high many men have not quit working they just started working under the table. If illegals can do it and still buy homes and get new cars why can't legal men do it. Prime example i made a little more last year than I did the year before. the increase in taxes took 42% of my increase and now my insurance will go up as well. why should i work harder legally when i see little if any of the gains, it is not worth the stress and legal liabilities that it puts me in.

  • John||

    That is a whole lot of it. Why work and pay taxes like a schlub when you can go on disability and work under the table for cash? Unless you are a very highly paid worker, chances are you will be better off doing that. And like all things, you get more of what you reward.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Taxes have become so high many men have not quit working they just started working under the table.


    Blame your state then, because federal rates have been on a downward trend for all quintiles since the 80s.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    The payroll tax went up under Reagan and hasn't gone down. That's the working class tax.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Without bothering to dispute your claim, you're arguing that taxes "have become so high […]" in the eighties?

  • John's broseph||

    Most men don't work hard so they can consume more goods. They work to impress a woman or provide for children. Honestly most men in isolation would live in a manner that would shock women. By themselves they will do just enough to get by, and not an inch more.

    But we're now in the process of removing those two incentives from men's lives, they compete against women in the job market (no woman wants to date, let alone marry, a man who makes significantly less than her). And if they aren't getting laid then that means no children to provide for either.

    Yes government incentives allow for more men to be layabouts, they also make them worth less to women.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    I once said to my wife of 30 some years "I have to take care of you". She got offended and told me she took care of herself before she met me and she could do it now. I had to explain that I had no doubt that she could but that wasn't my point. I have to take care of her because I'm wired up to do that. My father did it. My grandfather did it. Our son is doing it. It's what we do. If you take that away from me I can't think of a good reason to get up in the morning. The government and culture have steadily eroded men's ability to do the one thing that makes their life make sense.

  • frankania||

    Gaear is right. All money and taxes aside, I could not live without "doing useful stuff" even like cutting the grass, washing the car, dishes, clothes, etc. I get depressed just sitting around, playing solitaire, watching tv, or whatever. I have worked since the age of 10 (illegally) and am 78 now, and still busy!

  • Qsl||

    Anecdata- most of the married folk (both men and women) in my sphere are pursing (or have) advanced degrees even quite late in their careers, trying to position themselves into high profile positions. They are putting in the majority of overtime hours. They are also the ones most likely to be in debit to their eyeballs.

    The single ones can barely make it in on time. Have no intention of advancing beyond happy accidents. And are the least tolerant of office politics.

    While government largesse certainly plays a role, it doesn't quite capture the depth of what is going on work wise.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    White males are to blame for everything and they need to pay more taxes because other people need more free stuff...

    That sure makes me want to get up at 5am every morning to go to work...

  • sharmota4zeb||

    +1

  • Longtobefree||

    Well, then do it for us old farts who put in our 45 years and have figured out how to scrape by on 50% of what we made slaving 45 - 60 hours a week rearranging ones and zeros.
    (It turns out to be fairly simple. I can fix all my meals at home because I do not work. I do not have commuting expenses, which also lowers car insurance, I have two pairs of jeans, one pair of shoes, 5 polo shirts, and 15 t-shirts, and I pay no income taxes because 'Florida')
    Note that all the reasons I can get by on half also applies to the non-working males that the author is so worried about.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    I just got my 45 year plaque last month. It will go on the outhouse wall at the cabin along with all the rest...

    Living on half of what I make now (also 45-60 hours a week rearranging ones and zeroes) might be feasible in a few more years if the economy doesn't crash again.

    Congratulations on making it to retirement!

  • Alan Vanneman||

    " "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,"

    If they are collecting "some sort of disability benefit", that "suggests" that, despite being "prime-age", they aren't able to work full time. As for "Medicaid likely allows many of them to fill painkiller prescriptions at minimal cost," that's speculation, not science. There's a difference. Also, I thought Reason wanted people who need painkiller medication to be able to obtain it. Or are disabled poor people just supposed to, you know, suck it up?

  • I just plotzed on my keppe||

    "If they are collecting "some sort of disability benefit", that "suggests" that, despite being "prime-age", they aren't able to work full time"

    Not really it just shows that they meet eligibility guidelines for a government program, which may or may not have anything to do with their ability to work.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Exactly this. They simply meet the ever-sinking definition of "disability".

  • Ken Hagler||

    Unemployment isn't the lowest it's been in almost 50 years, though. The government changed the way the employment rate was calculated in the 1990s to ignore most unemployed people. If you calculate the unemployment rate today the way it was almost 50 years ago, it's something like 21%.

  • Rich||

    "inactive men," who spend about two extra hours a day "socializing, relaxing, and engaging in leisure," including "watching TV and movies."

    Emphasis added. I have no idea what this means. Is it that "active men" spend those hours "working"?

  • Dillinger||

    does H-n-R count if I'm @job?

  • Fats of Fury||

    Ah! From the pic I see Pajama Boy is dressing as an adult now. Moved on from the cocoa too.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    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.

    In all fairness, please explain why the doctors who write those prescriptions and bill Medicaid/Medicare for those services are classified as working by the federal employees who we hire to tell us how well the economy is doing so that the paid elected federal office holders in the White House and on Capital Hill can shape the economy via tax policies, trade negotiation, immigration policy, and regulations based sound economic data.

    This is the natural long term consequence of teachers working in government schools inventing dislexia in response to Carter creating the Department of Education.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    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."

    The norm since the 1990's has been for boys in "good" school districts to take Ritalin so that their low standardized test scores don't lower housing values by being included in the average school test score before they graduate and become art majors while boys in "bad" school districts work the night shift at a warehouse so that their parents can afford the rents in areas with high property tax rates to pay for the cops who enforce unnecessary regulations and try to tackle a relatively high crime rate. This leads to a society full of men who get paid by the feds to play video games 7 days a week, men who get paid a ton by the feds to talk to those men about their feelings the way a girlfriend would gladly do for free, and men who break their backs working 6 days a week at a warehouse when a 2 day per week job at a warehouse is a great substitute for a gym membership.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    This comment section has 23 comments excluding the ones I wrote in the past few minutes. Of those 23 comments, 11 were written between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. That's 50% of the comments on a libertarian post about the lack of people working. Maybe it's time to measure unemployment rate with Bayesian statistics.

  • Longtobefree||

    Or maybe they are paid posters?
    Or maybe they are just effective workers with a few minutes each hour to clear their minds for the next task?
    Or, more likely on a Libertarian site, maybe they are in business for themselves and work when they wish, within the contract constraints?
    And in your case?

  • Jayburd||

    Maybe they are federal employees watching pornography and commenting.

  • Jayburd||

    They finally did an article on h&r commenters.

  • Rock Lobster||

    No big mystery here. If you subsidize something--not working, for instance--you'll have more of it.

  • DevilDog943||

    And this;

    "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."

    ensures that the 'pool' of subjects never gets full. For those who believe that dependency on government for life, it is a great thing.

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