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Flawed Employment Numbers


It makes no sense that unemployment rates don’t count those who have given up on finding a job because they can’t get one, they are taking care of sick family members, they have chronic pain issues, or whatever. Those people are still unemployed! Here’s a good dive on who the tens of millions of working age Americans not looking for a job are.

The millions who don’t show up in the statistics are often overlooked or dismissed because they’re not employed or job seeking. But a fresh analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project reveals why a growing portion of “non-labor-force participants” are deciding work isn’t worth it. Why would anyone, after all, deliberately abandon the one activity that, above all, defines an American’s social status? These individuals seem to have opted out, but often it is the labor system that is turning away from their communities.

Their social profile is predictable and sadly familiar: Nonworkers generally skew older and poorer, particularly “prime age” men, aged 25 to 44. Many experience long-term disability; many, especially “prime age” women, are caring for others, rather than working for wages.

Researchers found that “More than 70 percent of labor force nonparticipants report that caregiving, disability, or early retirement kept them out of the labor force.” Despite not working, they’re subsisting, often barely, mostly on earned income from previous jobs or from another family member. A small percentage depend on public benefits or early-retirement income. Another 1.3 million have zero earnings and no fixed-income resources.

Though much of the media’s post-Trump spotlight has been trained on the grievances of “the white working class,” the real non-worker profile complicates gender stereotypes: Among non-workers, caregiving needs are a driving factor for multitudes more women than for men—36 percent of women cite caregiving as the primary reason for not formally working, compared with just 3 percent of men. The gap isn’t easily explained merely by cultural preference, much less “tradition,” since many many seem to be forgoing paid work to provide services to children, elders, or relatives with disabilities. The cost of employing professional home health aides or home care is out of range for many lower-income families. So non-working women might not bring home a weekly paycheck, but their days are still filled with work—just the unpaid, under-appreciated kind that has disproportionately always fallen upon women.

For non-working men, it’s a sad story in a different way. A higher proportion of non-working men are stuck in the lowest income bracket, compared with women. It’s not possible to discern from the data snapshot how many non-working men are considered “drop outs,” or how many were never in the workforce. But many reported having some earnings in the previous year, which suggests a temporary slump of unemployment followed by an eventual dropout.

Another recent study, by economist Alan Kruger, focused on so-called labor force “leavers,” draws a bleaker picture of the rupture and decline in workers’ life trajectories. The many so-called “discouraged” workers, who gave up job searching after many rejections, experience extraordinary rates of stress, social isolation and emotional misery—a collective pathology that experts often term “despair”. There are now signs that this long-term mental-health crisis is becoming a public health epidemic, as a new normal of prime-age adults, once considered the basis of the middle class, slide into frustration and social isolation.

These are huge issues, failures of the American state. By not including these people in unemployment numbers, it makes the economy look much better than it actually is. Between that and the stock market, one might think that the economy is pretty good! But for huge numbers of Americans, it is not good. And for some of them, Donald Trump became an answer for that. It’s high time we start taking these problems much more seriously than we do currently.

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