Where's the Muscle?

For almost a decade now, one of the central questions in U.S. labor and social policy has been, “What happened to the men?” Since 1960, the male labor force participation rate has plummeted twenty percentage points. Today, over ten percent of the prime-age male labor force does not work, one of the highest percentages of nonwork in all OECD countries.

There is a common narrative amongst economists and policy makers to explain this problem. As routine manufacturing work declined, the availability of middle-skilled jobs shrank or moved due to off-shoring and internal-U.S. manufacturing shifts from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Southwest. Rather than upskilling or entering more readily available lower-skill employment, many male workers dropped out of the workforce or never entered the job market in the first place. By 2017, between 7 and 10 million prime-age men, aged 24 to 54, were “not in labor force” (NILF). According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analysis, 40 percent of nonworking men are out of the workforce for health reasons, leaving somewhere between 3.5 million and 6 million at least theoretically available to work. Over 90 percent of these men do not have a college degree.

One of the soft spots in the disappearing-jobs storyline is the fact that job openings have been gradually rising across the economy since 2008, including in the manufacturing sector, and have accelerated significantly over the last year. We now have 11 million open jobs, and, crucially, 1 million open manufacturing jobs, up from 200,000 before the pandemic. This trend extends to other occupations that have traditionally attracted non-college-educated males. Construction openings are up and projected to go even higher, particularly in the commercial sector. Meanwhile, the economy has hit a “molecule crisis” of all types of elements and other raw materials caused by disruptions to global supply chains. The net result is spiking demand for workers to do the labor-intensive, middle-skilled work that, if you adhere to the common narrative, has been in decline. The jobs are there. The question is, “Are men willing to take them?”

The answer to this question appears to be “no.” Prior to the pandemic, just 14.8 percent of non-working, prime-age men expressed an interest in getting a job. According to an analysis by my AEI colleague Nicholas Eberstadt, these men have distressingly low levels of any kind of work engagement. Unlike out-of-workforce women who are overwhelmingly engaged in home-based work and care activities for children and other family, NILF men, on average, spend only about 43 minutes a day doing any kind of work or looking for work. Time studies of this population show they are heavily engaged in various forms of screen-based entertainment; about 1 in 4 report watching 21 hours of television or more each week. 

For a significant portion of nonworking men, criminal records play a role in discouraging employment. A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that the majority of unemployed men ages 30 to 38 have been arrested at least once, 40 percent have been convicted, and 20 percent have been incarcerated.  Multiple studies show that having a criminal record reduces the likelihood of successfully securing employment post release.

Work disengagement is associated with a wide variety of social ills including declining marriage rates, increasing death rates, single parenthood, and child poverty. One study found that a decline in manufacturing increased local opioid prescriptions. Furthermore, families of nonworking men are deprived of economic support, often and especially in the cases of separated parents with child support debts. Falling male work participation is a loss for children, communities, and men themselves. Today’s nonwork situation has provoked a range of arguments that are reminiscent of concerns historically expressed over welfare dependency in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the run-up to 1990s welfare reform, progressives and conservatives debated the reasons for declining work participation, especially among minorities. Progressives gravitated toward structural explanations such as geographic mismatches, racial discrimination, and lasting impacts of inter-generational poverty. For instance, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson argued strenuously in the 1990s that it was wrong to blame unemployment among Black men on a “culture” of non-work when it was, in his view, mainly the result of a shift in available employment. Jobs were moving out of the cities to suburban areas distant from where many Blacks lived. Black men weren’t fleeing jobs, he said; jobs were fleeing from Black men. 

As work participation among white, non-college educated men fell, many on the populist right discovered, suddenly, the importance of structural barriers to work.

Conservatives tended to reject structural explanations and instead focused on shifting attitudes toward work. There was no longer a clear social expectation that all able-bodied men should work, nor did people value the self-respect work engenders in the same way. AEI scholar emeritus Charles Murray claimed nonwork had to do with a decline in “industriousness.” During the Clinton Administration and under a Republican Congress, this view won out and was enshrined in public policy. The 1996 welfare reform bill ended the lifetime entitlement to welfare and substituted a five-year time limits on public benefits. Aid recipients were expected to be looking for work or training with the goal of transitioning to full-time employment, albeit with ongoing public subsidies in the form of income tax credits and childcare vouchers. Under the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, welfare caseloads and child poverty rates fell and incomes rose as former welfare recipients, mainly women with young children and disproportionately minority, entered the workforce. 

Now, fast-forward to 2015. Progressives largely remained where they were in the 1990s, continuing to argue that work requirements for public benefits are akin to “blaming the victim” when “systemic” factors are really to blame for nonwork. What’s needed, they say, is increased spending on education and social services to build the capacity of low-income individuals and communities to better prepare for work and to “make work pay.” When employment is not achieved, public benefits should replace wages, perhaps up to and including a universal basic income. Progressives may be wrong, but at least they are consistent. 

The same cannot be said for conservatives. As work participation among white, non-college-educated men fell, many on the populist right discovered, suddenly, the importance of structural barriers to work. Populist conservatives decried trade deals for causing de-industrialization (the best scholarship places most of the blame on automation rather than trade) and called explicitly for greater government economic intervention to increase the availability of middle-skill manufacturing and other labor-intensive jobs. The new conservative message is that NILF men are at home because of a shortage of opportunity. To the extent work-ethic and cultural factors are mentioned, populist conservative thought tends to link them to structural forces impeding access to work: social dysfunction contributing to opioid addiction, the collapse of marriage, and decline of communities as a whole. In other words, in the populist understanding of NILF males, it’s systems, structures, and policies that have failed rather than the men themselves, making these voices sound remarkably like the progressive left rather than traditional, culture-focused conservatives.   

Like most of our polarized social and political debates, the issue of nonwork among men has both structural and cultural elements, and progressive and conservative populists have gotten some things right. The geographic shift of middle-skill jobs, domestically and abroad, creates barriers to employment.  Laid-off workers can retrain or relocate, but both alternatives are complicated and expensive, in financial and personal terms. In many cases, workers are attached to their communities and do not want to leave. In others, they are bound to stay as caregivers for other family members. Retraining takes time, is costly, and becomes more challenging as we age.

Geographic mismatch and reskilling are challenges we must work through over time, with the help of policies that seek to rebuild what Brookings scholar Fiona Hill calls “ladders of opportunity.” These types of structural reforms are vital and time-consuming. Applying the logic of welfare reform, however, we need to do what can now to shift social and cultural expectations for male work engagement in a more pro-work direction

Creating policy incentives for NILF men to work can be difficult because there is no program comparable to TANF for men. The time limits and work requirements of the 1990s welfare reform fell squarely on women because cash benefits and other supports are intended to ensure that families don’t fall into destitution. These programs particularly impact custodial parents, who are overwhelmingly women. Many of the men we would like to see working again—especially those with kids that taxpayers are supporting through public programs—are indirectly benefiting from federal programs by living with family or friends who receive government payments. 

For everyone’s good, we must try harder to prevent able-bodied men, or men with disabilities that can be made fit for work, from becoming permanently dependent on cash assistance.

There are, however, several federal programs that might be adjusted to leverage greater male workforce participation. The first is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Between 3 and 5 million male single-person households (not elderly or disabled) receive SNAP benefits. Unlike TANF, SNAP has no time limit or work requirements, a stance which should be reconsidered especially for non-custodial parents, to signal to men that public subsidies are intended as short-term support rather than a long-term lifestyle. While previous efforts to impose a work requirement have failed the concept needs to be revisited. SNAP also has an Employment and Training (E&T) program connected to it that provides SNAP recipients with job search support, employment skill training, education, and work experience opportunities. SNAP E&T has not been well implemented and might benefit from transfer to the U.S. Department of Labor which oversees the nation’s other employment and training programs in order to reshape and reinvest in this program to best support the return to work. Regardless, applying a principle of “help and hassle,” that is insisting on work preparation and work in exchange for benefits, could prod more able-bodied men (and women) toward gainful employment. 

The second program is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) which has, for many, effectively become an open-ended welfare entitlement for NILF men. SSDI provides income support to 1.6 million prime-aged. Overall, since 1985 the male SSDI caseload has grown from 1.8 million to 4.1 million. It is likely that some portion of the men currently on SSDI could, with adequate support, training, and accommodation, return to the labor force. What’s needed are changes to the way the program is administered that will help divert marginally disabled cases away from it. 

Tighter initial screens for disability would be a good place to start. For everyone’s good, we must try harder to prevent able-bodied men, or men with disabilities that can be made fit for work, from becoming permanently dependent on cash assistance. More rigorous periodic reviews of disability status to recertify program eligibility might identify others whose conditions are sufficiently improved to allow work participation. Diversion of SSDI applicants to training and reemployment services, perhaps including time-limited income supplements, and case management similar to TANF would, in the long-term, be cheaper and better (for men and society) than warehousing men on SSDI when they don’t need to be there. The Ticket to Work program offers these employment-focused policies in voluntary forms, so the question arises whether it could be used in a more rigorous fashion to mandate return to work among the able-bodied.

Given the high prevalence of opioid and alcohol abuse disorders among NILF men, we need to revisit the connection between substance abuse treatment and work requirements. For men whom courts remand for mandatory substance abuse treatment, work requirements, scaled to fit the treatment framework, should be incorporated into recovery plans. Dr. Scott Wetzler, a clinical psychologist at Einstein Medical Center in New York, has been implementing such programs for TANF recipients over the past decade. He has compiled evidence showing how the incorporation of work mandates into substance use disorder (SUD) treatment actually improves outcomes for treatment and employment. Unless there is a compelling reason for a man undergoing SUD treatment not to work, the default should be to require work or preparation for work similar to what is required for TANF recipients.    

Finally, for justice-involved populations, boosting employment should start with intensive, evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy programs during incarceration to help them prepare for life after prison, including employment. Individualized programs based on risk, need, and work history should be paired with strong case management and strategies that boost personal agency. As my AEI colleague Joe Fuller points out, there is also a need for employers to reform hiring practices to more intentionally tap into individuals with criminal records.

America has a manual labor shortage crisis and, simultaneously, a crisis of male disengagement from work, making this an ideal time to renew the push to get NILF men back into the workforce. It is time to stop making excuses for the way men have withdrawn as contributing members of their families and the broader communities in which they live. Nearly 30 years ago, federal welfare policy written chiefly by conservatives told women on public benefits that their dependency was harmful to them and to their families. Conservatives insisted, as a matter of social norms and policy, that they return to work. We need to take a hard look at existing policy incentives, which demand paid employment of women who receive public benefits, while largely exempting NILF men, whether they receive public benefits or not. If we permit this inequitable treatment to continue, conservatives must be pressed to explain why the sauce with which American society has doused the geese is somehow unsuitable for ganders.