Most American men, both in and out of work, are in DEEP trouble. Why, and what can we do about it?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIt is no good to talk about “theology of work” and “faith-work integration” as if these topics somehow floated above the economic realities in which we live. Nobody has to remind us that those realities are pretty grim right now. But we can’t very well address them effectively with the resources of the church–or any other resources–unless we understand what’s going on in our economy.

Does this mean we need to be trained economists as well as pastors, seminarians, theology professors, engaged laypeople? Not at all. A chaplain or pastor can minister effectively in a hospital room without a medical degree. But it sure helps if said pastor has some idea of what challenges a patient might face within today’s medical system; what the patient’s prognosis is and what that will mean for their quality of life; and so forth. Just so with those Christians who today want to address work through eyes of faith.

This is one thing I respect highly about the Kern Family Foundation’s current grant-making activities in evangelical seminaries across the country: the foundation will not let seminaries get away with a surface-y, pietistic approach that majors on our individual gifts and vocations while ignoring economic realities. Indeed, the foundation and its seminary partners are now working toward a set of faith-informed “economic wisdom maxims” that are securely grounded in economic realities. I can imagine few more helpful enterprises in moving forward the faith-work conversation today.

Apropos all this, friend Collin Hansen, Editorial Director over at the Gospel Coalition, brought the following article to my attention. This piece by Jonathan Rauch in the top policy magazine The National Journal is sobering, to say the least. But the first step in solving a problem is knowing you have one. And right now, America has a very big one.

As the article’s title indicates, we are seeing now, and have been seeing for over a decade, a “no good, very bad outlook for the working-class American man.” The subtitle elaborates: “The U.S. economy is still a powerful engine, but workers aren’t seeing the benefit, less-educated men are struggling, and the rich have disconnected from everyone else.”  (This is the diagnosis; shortly I will re-post a sharp rejoinder on some of Rauch’s prescribed remedies, by the Kern Family Foundation’s Greg Forster.)

One thing I appreciate about this article–and I understand that this is true, at least at times, of other products of the Brookings Institution, with which Rauch is a “guest scholar”–is that its primary focus is improving the flourishing of Americans, NOT hammering home a partisan point. As a result, Rauch borrows parts of his analysis from liberal, and other parts from conservative, sources. By turns, Rauch turns to acute commentaries from both Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, and Charles Murray, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

(If the observation above is correct and Rauch actually is trying to hew a middle line, drawing from wisdom on both the Right and Left, then if Standard Operating Procedure holds, he’ll get slammed from both sides.)

Quickly now, because contrary to appearances, I do have a life outside of blogging, a few notes from Rauch’s piece. If you want to read it in its entirety (highly recommended), just skip down to the link at the end.

Meanwhile, I would summarize all that follows like this: “Men in and out of the American workforce  (and more and more are just outright leaving work altogether, as Rauch shows)–especially less-educated, less-skilled men, need large doses of hope, help, and motivation to work productively. Why? Not just to “stimulate the economy.” But to  allow individual workers to find social stability, marriage, a sense of responsibility and fulfillment, and indeed, although Rauch doesn’t address this, happiness.”

(Does God care about our happiness? If he didn’t, I would not be a Christian. Is that selfish? That’s a whole other discussion, but I argue that God makes us to desire happiness. And a significant Christian tradition lies behind that assertion.)

In brief, the article argues that we have a “transmission problem” in this economy. The engine is running, but the power is not reaching some of the wheels very well. “If economic strength means anything, it is that the economy can make almost everyone better off, thereby strengthening the country’s social fabric as well as its balance sheet. Such an economy unites rather than divides us.” But this is not happening well; and it is decreasingly happening. Even in the midst of a supposed recovery, we are not seeing the engine sending power to the wheels: that is, many working and non-working men are left out of the recovery altogether–seeing no benefit from it. And this only continues a trend line that extends back at least as far as WWII.

What we’re seeing is “not just one slipped gear but many: disruptions in long-established connections between productivity and earnings, between labor and capital, between top earners and everyone else, between men and work, between men and marriage.” Together, these slipped gears “are bringing the economy to a place where a large and growing group of people—indeed, whole communities—are isolated from work, marriage, and higher education.”

Sub-trends: a small percentage at the top of our economy (never mind the “highest 1 percent of earners” who “soared above and away from everyone else, practically occupying an economy of their own”) are seeing the gains, and almost 90% are not. Who lives in that top 10%? Investors and knowledge workers. Why? In part, because “a smaller share of the value that companies produce today comes from the physical goods made by people like factory workers, and a larger share comes from ideas and intangible innovations that people like software designers and marketers develop. Between the early 1980s and the mid-2000s . . . the share of a big business’s book value accounted for by its physical assets fell by half, from 75 percent to only 36 percent.” This is “the full flowering of the idea-based economy, which is great if you are a brain worker or an investor; otherwise, not so much.”

Thus, again, “less-educated workers are in trouble, and men are in trouble, and less-educated men are in deep trouble.” To get a sense of how extreme the trends are here, while “the per capita gross domestic product has more than doubled (adjusting for inflation) since 1969,” the earnings of men with just high school diplomas have dropped by around 1/4, and “men who didn’t finish high school have fared worse still: their incomes sank by more than a third, leaving their inflation-adjusted earnings stranded in the 1950s.”

One result: Since forty years ago, when “most men, regardless of education, could make a decent living, and holding a job was the unquestioned norm,” non-college-educated men have been leaving the workforce in droves.  And this is only accelerating: “[A] fifth of men with only a high school degree weren’t working in 2008, before the recession struck; today, a fourth of them don’t hold a job. Among men who didn’t finish high school, a third aren’t working. As a result of these trends, America today is pockmarked with neighborhoods where nonwork is the male norm.” 

What is life like for those men?

“If you are out of the workforce, economic growth can’t reach you, at least not directly. You might live off a girlfriend, receive welfare or disability payments, or dip in and out of the underground economy. But the performance of the economy as a whole becomes largely irrelevant. ‘A lot of these people will never work again,’ said Looney at Brookings. ‘Less-skilled workers are falling so far behind that they are going to place a huge strain on the social safety net in the coming decades.'”

The article goes on to look at sobering correlations between non-work and non-marriage, with a resulting downward trend in stable families, which in turn wreaks significant social and indeed economic havoc.The human face is well expressed:

“Work, for men, means more than money: It connects them to their communities, makes them more attractive as mates and more successful as spouses, and is a linchpin of their self-esteem. When they don’t work, their role in the community tends to wither, harming the places where they live as well as themselves. Their family lives suffer, too. More and more often, less-educated men are strangers to marriage.”

Why this last trend? Simply put, “To women, men who either can’t or don’t earn a decent living are less necessary and desirable as mates; they’re just another mouth to feed. This helps to explain why rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth have risn to hitherto unimaginable heights among the less educated.”

Is marriage, then, an end in itself? No: “The very fact of being married brings men a premium in their earnings, research shows, and makes them steadier workers, presumably because they have more stability at home. ‘Marriage is an institution that makes men more responsible in their pursuit of work and in their work-related duties,’ said Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project.”

The cycle then goes like this: “Nonwork makes men less marriageable; non-marriage makes men less employable; the cycle repeats. . . . Low-earning men are decreasingly able to form stable families. That, in turn, harms their children and communities.” In the words of Charles Murray, “Social capital disintegrates.”

And . . . a two-class system perpetuates and increases: “At the top [of the social structure] are families with two married earners, two college degrees, and kids who never question that their future includes a college degree and a good job; at the bottom, families with one (female) earner, no college, no marriage, and kids who grow up isolated from the world of work and higher education. And the two worlds are drifting apart.”

The liberals and conservatives, as usual, come at the problems from very different perspectives: “Liberals emphasize economic forces that are eroding less-skilled workers’ ability to make a decent living; conservatives emphasize cultural changes and government programs that make it easier to get by without working.” In other words, both agree that there are structural problems, but the liberals focus on oppression and injustice that prevent men from flourishing, and the conservatives on a cycle of dependence that fosters lack of responsibility among men.

When the two sides have gotten beyond fruitless bickering, they have offered many solutions–most of them involving bigger chunks of money spent by the federal government (but naturally: the National Journal is a magazine written for, and read by, policy wonks): Educate more people. Keep students in high school. Expand federal job training support. Expand vocational education for those not suited to college. Incentivize and facilitate continued work for people on disability benefits. Offer wage subsidies and/or raise the minimum wage.

It may even be necessary, at least in the conservative view, to “nudg[e] the culture back toward stigmatizing nonwork among men.” AEI’s Murray: “It is never rational not to take a job.” Comments Rauch: “Liberals may be squeamish about stigmatizing n onwork, but some men may need tough love.”

But in the end, we don’t know what’s going to work here. Why? because, as Murray says, “‘There’s pretty much no precedent’ for today’s double detachment from work and marriage among low-earning men.”

And in any case, throwing federal money around at an increasing rate is not the answer: “[I]n the political climate, before the fiscal cliff and after, most or all of the pricey ideas under discussion are probably a stretch.”

But we’ve got to do something. The government, perhaps, has got to do something. The church has certainly got to do something. Because the America of the (near) future, if these trends continue uncorrected, “might look like today’s America, only with a larger welfare state. But it might just as easily bring social unrest and class resentment of a magnitude the country hasn’t known before.”

The full article is available here. Again, I’ll be posting a response from Kern Family Foundation program officer Greg Forster shortly. Greg agrees with the analysis of the problem: The trends identified here by Rauch are actually happening. He disagrees, however, with the proposed solutions. Why? Because the primary reason the bottom 90% are seeing a reduction in earning capacity even as production increases in America is that workers are simply less productive–and not just because we’re shifting to an information economy, but also because we’ve lost our work ethic.

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