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Labor Force Participation Rates and the Conservative Spin


I’m calling this the “conservative spin” on labor force participation rates because New York Times columnist David Brooks, an admitted conservative, has produced an op-ed column in today’s paper that interprets the drop in men’s rates as a consequence of their inability to behave rather than the Great Recession.

Brooks claims that “male labor force participation has been in steady decline for generations.”  In fact, rates peaked at over 97% in the early 50’s, and gradually declined to 90.5% in 2005.  Then, in a couple of years, rates dropped by 10%.  So, while there has been a gradual, “steady” decline in male labor force participation since the fifties, there was also a sudden, precipitous drop in the year 2008.

Concurrently, the number of people employed dropped from a high of 146.6 million in November 2007 to 138.0 million in December 2008.  That number now stands at 144.0 million, or 2.6 million fewer than six years ago.  The total number of people employed usually increases by 1 or 2 million a year, depending on economic conditions.   Thus one would expect that, without the recession, the total number of people employed would have increased to at least 152 or 154 millions by now.  This means that there is a deficit of eight to ten million jobs right now.

Brooks constructs a narrative about men’s inability to adjust to changing working conditions based on his misperception of a “steady decline” in working men.  He claims that “Some of the problem clearly has to do with changes in family structure.”  He blames “men raised in fatherless homes” as well as “some ineffable shift in the definition of dignity.”  He goes on to include the assertion that “many men simply do not want to put themselves in positions they find humiliating” as a partial explanation of why men don’t participate in the labor force.

Brooks claims that the explanations for the drops in men’s work rates are not complete, but he introduces his essay with a long discussion of the John Wayne film “The Searchers.”  He describes Wayne’s character in the movie as having the ability to work and survive on the “lawless frontier” but being unable to fit in to the civilized world.  He ignores Mr. Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Evans as a bitter, violent, and ruthless man who really couldn’t fit in anywhere.

Mr. Brook’s explanation for the drops in men’s participation in the workforce is inadequate to explain the actual data, which he misrepresents; one wonders if he really looked at the data or just the American Enterprise Institute’s summaries.

The primary (first on the list) explanation is “changes in family structure” which is code for single-parent (mother only) households.  The rise in single parent families is legendary and dramatic, too dramatic to explain the small, gradual decrease in men’s workforce participation rates over the last sixty years.  It also greatly precedes the sudden, precipitous drop in participation rates in the last eight years.

The reason Mr. Brooks uses this “reason” is that conservatives love to complain about single parent households and blame them on “welfare.”  The real reasons for the dramatic rise in unmarried parenthood among African-Americans over the last sixty years are not completely clear.  Rules limiting Aid to Families with Depend Children to households absent a father were eliminated but the rates of unmarried parenthood continue to rise.  Rates among Hispanic-Americans are relatively low, although one would expect them to be affected by the same welfare pressures.

The real reason for the sudden drop in male participation in the workforce is the Great Recession.  Approximately eight million jobs disappeared in 2008 and have still not been restored to the workplace.  Although the official unemployment rate has dropped from ten percent to under eight percent, many people have not gone back to work and have given up looking for work.

These people are not lounging around enjoying the beneficence of their long-term unemployment compensation.  They are eking out a marginal existence, unable to afford many of the things that they had enjoyed when they had work; some have become homeless.  Worst of all, much worse than their straitened circumstances, is the time spent doing nothing because there is no work available.  Time on your hands eats into your sense of confidence and self-assurance, destroying your image of yourself as a productive person.

The destruction of one’s self-image was much worse during the Great Depression, when men were considered the sole bread-winners of the family and one’s social status depended on one’s ability to support a family.  Nowadays, there is more social acceptability to the idea that women can support a family, even though a single paycheck can’t feed four people anymore.

As usual, Mr. Brooks buys in to the conservative world view and supports the attitude that single-parent families are to blame for male unemployment, rather than the economy as a whole.  It is convenient to blame the victim, but it ignores the reality that the Great Recession is still with us and that eight million jobs are still missing.

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