Stephen Moore, a distinguished visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, asks “Is America hard at work? Or hardly working?
I ask this because Thursday’s Labor Department report for June found yet another 430,000 Americans of working age (16 and older) dropped out of the workforce.
Over the last year, only 1.3 million Americans of working age have entered the workforce, even as the population of this same demographic increased by more than 2.8 million. Just over 1 million members of this group found jobs. That’s right — of the new additions to the working age population, less than four in 10 found jobs.
The newspapers touted the reduction in the unemployment rate to 5.3 percent as a cause for celebration. Yet for every three Americans added to the working age population (16 and older), only around one new job (1.07) has been created under Obama. At this pace, America will soon officially have a zero unemployment rate. But that will only be because no one will be looking for work.”
A number of economists look past the “main” unemployment rate to a different figure the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “U-6,” which it defines as “total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of all civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers.”
In other words, the unemployed, the underemployed and the discouraged—a rate that still remains high. The U-6 rate has held firm in the double digits since June 2008. It most recently peaked at 17.1 percent in April 2010.
Here’s the story the media didn’t report. There are now more than 100 million Americans over the age of 16 that are not working. Usually when the economy picks up, American workers who have been laid off stampede back into the workforce to earn a paycheck. Now we have a better job market with fewer workers.
This is partially explained by baby boomers retiring. But the largest reduction in the workforce has been among the millennials. Today the labor force participation rate for the 16 to 24 age group is 55.1 percent, down from 60.8 percent a decade ago and more than 66 percent back in the late 1990s. We’re headed toward becoming Greece, where half the young people don’t work.
No one knows for sure why the labor force has shrunk so much under Obama. But it’s a good bet that policy mistakes have played a big role.
Minimum wage increases are pricing the young out of the workforce. Welfare programs are effectively paying people not to work. Too many Americans have high school and even college degrees that are next to worthless to employers.
Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and other Republicans say that America could and should strive for 4 percent growth — up from the pitiful 2 percent of the last six years. But this will certainly require a growing workforce. We need at least 10 million more Americans working to get growth up to 4 percent — which happened under presidents Reagan and Clinton. And to get there we need national policies that reward work and discourage idleness.
Which brings us to the paradox of the American economy. We have 10 percent of the workforce unemployed, in part-time work or dropped out of the workforce at a time when businesses say they can’t find willing workers. Wages were flat last month — so higher pay isn’t going to induce a stream of workers into jobs.
Some say the problem is we are such a rich nation that Americans value leisure more than work. I doubt that’s the problem. If the great American work ethic is gone, it’s only because dumb anti-work government policies have stolen it.
Stephen Moore is a distinguished visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of “Who’s the Fairest of Them All?”
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