Men Not Working

by Russ Roberts on July 31, 2006

in Work

Lou Uchitelle and David Leonhardt at the New York Times have an interesting piece on the phenomenon of men dropping out of the labor force for extended periods of time because they can’t find a job they think is worthy of them. They interview a Mr. Beggerow who explains:

“I have come to realize that my free time is worth a lot to me,” he
said. To make ends meet, he has tapped the equity in his home through a
$30,000 second mortgage, and he is drawing down the family’s savings,
at the rate of $7,500 a year. About $60,000 is left. His wife’s income
helps them scrape by. “If things really get tight,” Mr. Beggerow said,
“I might have to take a low-wage job, but I don’t want to do that.”

of men like Mr. Beggerow — men in the prime of their lives, between 30
and 55 — have dropped out of regular work. They are turning down jobs
they think beneath them or are unable to find work for which they are
qualified, even as an expanding economy offers opportunities to work.

13 percent of American men in this age group are not working, up from 5
percent in the late 1960’s. The difference represents 4 million men who
would be working today if the employment rate had remained where it was
in the 1950’s and 60’s.

How are these men financing their leisure? Some are using home equity or relying on the earnings of their wives. But a lot of them are being subsidized by the rest of us:

But the fastest growing source of help is a patchwork system of
government support, the main one being federal disability insurance,
which is financed by Social Security payroll taxes. The disability
stipends range up to $1,000 a month and, after the first two years,
Medicare kicks in, giving access to health insurance that for many
missing men no longer comes with the low-wage jobs available to them.

federal entitlement program is growing as quickly, with more than 6.5
million men and women now receiving monthly disability payments, up
from 3 million in 1990. About 25 percent of the missing men are
collecting this insurance.

The ailments that qualify them are
usually real, like back pain, heart trouble or mental illness. But in
some cases, the illnesses are not so serious that they would prevent
people from working if a well-paying job with benefits were an option.

disability program, in turn, is an obstacle to working again. Taking a
job holds the risk of demonstrating that one can earn a living and is
thus no longer entitled to the monthly payments. But staying out of
work has consequences. Skills deteriorate, along with the desire for a
paying job and the habits that it requires.

And it’s not just happening in the US:

This same trend is evident in other industrialized countries. In the European Union, 14 percent of men between 25 and 54 were not working last year, up from 7 percent in 1975, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Over the same period in Japan, the proportion of such men rose to 8 percent from 4 percent.

these countries, too, decently paying blue-collar jobs are
disappearing, and as they do men who held them fall back on government
benefits for income. But the growth of subsidies through federal and
state programs like disability insurance has happened largely without
notice in this country while it is a major topic of political debate in

“We have a de facto welfare system as Europe does,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist at the University of Notre Dame. “But we are not proud of it, as they are.”


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