America’s labor participation rate has collapsed since the Great Recession and shows little sign of improving.
There are currently 23 million Americans of prime working age who are not working and according to Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys, 90 percent of this group say they don’t want to work.
Roughly half of this group has a perfectly justifiable reason for not working: “home responsibilities,” namely people at home raising their children.
But what about the others? Here a more troubling picture emerges. According to noted demographer Nicolas Eberstadt, for every unemployed American man between 25 and 54 years of age who isn’t working but is at least looking, there are another three who are neither working nor looking for work.
Plummeting workforce participation isn’t just a problem for men either, as U.S. female labor force participation has dropped precipitously since the turn of the decade.
According to the Brookings Institution, “Women with a high school education or less are overwhelmingly the largest group of Americans out of the labor force.”
Washington’s traditional answer to any employment problem is better training and education. That works for some. But better workforce development programs don’t do much for someone who doesn’t want to work in the first place.
According to Eberstadt, “If our nation’s work rate today were back up to its start-of-the-century highs, well over 10 million more Americans would currently have paying jobs.”
Ultimately, American policymakers are confronted with two difficult but fundamentally different challenges in putting more people to work.
- A growing slice of the working-age population would work if they could—but, by their own calculations, they can’t. Their wages would not cover the costs of childcare. Family obligations do not allow them to relocate to the places where jobs are plentiful. They simply haven’t developed skills sufficient to find a job. This group needs to be empowered with better training and better jobs that pull them back into the workforce.
- At the same time, an even larger slice of Americans could be working but aren’t. The explanations vary from case to case. Employers say as many as 25 percent of applicants can’t pass a drug test. This group needs a push to get them back to work.