The Party of Work
It was once the Republicans, and it should be again

(Roman Genn)


Reihan Salam

The Democratic party has long prided itself on being the party of workers. But an extraordinary thing happened the last few weeks in the debate over Obamacare. When the Congressional Budget Office said the law would reduce the number of full-time-equivalent workers by 2.5 million by 2024, Democrats considered it not a bug but a feature. The law was liberating people from the constraints of working.

This tack suggests an opening for Republicans. As the party struggles to forge a new, more appealing identity, it should endeavor to become the party of work.

During Andrew Jackson’s presidency, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the central role of work and aspiration in American life: “The first thing that strikes one in the United States is the innumerable crowd of those striving to escape from their original social condition.” Some years later, the Republican party was established with this idea of social mobility through work at its ideological core. Flash forward to the present and very few Americans associate Republicans with the dignity of labor.

As some party leaders are beginning to realize, Republicans have been overinvested in debt reduction as an agenda item and in entrepreneurship as an ideal. Both are important things, and they are worthy of being pursued and celebrated, respectively. But they have limited political salience. For all its importance, the federal debt is a bloodless green-eyeshade issue, and, as our colleague Ramesh Ponnuru often points out, most people aren’t and never will be entrepreneurs.

Work is different. It stands for a constellation of values and, like education, is universally honored. Even Democrats usually try to associate themselves with it. Every night during prime time of their 2012 convention — after the encomiums to abortion were over — Democrats invoked hard work. The high point of the convention was a moving portrayal by Michelle Obama of her father struggling to get up and go to work every day despite his multiple sclerosis.

For Republicans, who will always be the party of social orderliness compared with the Democrats, work is the most basic cultural issue, and one that is an easy sell compared with others; whereas it is difficult, for example, to talk about the central importance of marriage before childbearing to personal advancement.

Work is a proxy for all sorts of desirable habits and attitudes. Work means responsibility. It requires diligence, punctuality, and sociability.

It is no accident that the biggest Republican political and policy triumph since the 1980s is welfare reform. It was a change that put Republicans on the side of personal responsibility and work, and one that was hugely successful because it moved welfare recipients into the job market.

The Republicans should be the party of work, in multiple senses. They should extol work and demand it; they should advance a broad job-creation agenda and narrowly tailored measures for the long-term unemployed; and they should fight every government disincentive to work.

Worklessness is a central challenge of our time.

In October of last year, America’s labor-force-participation rate, which reflects the number of Americans with jobs or actively looking for jobs, fell to its lowest level since 1978. Some of this is due to the aging of the population and rising higher-education enrollment. But when we take account of the surge in part-time employment, we see that full-time-equivalent employment is well below trend.

One consequence of stagnant employment growth has been the emergence of a heartbreakingly large phalanx of long-term unemployed: 3.6 million people who have been looking for work and haven’t found it for six months or more. When we factor in workers who want full-time work but who’ve had no choice but to work part time for months, and in some cases years, the number is larger still.

The numbers are even more disturbing when we focus on adult men. Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, writes, “Over the past 60 years, the employment[-to-population] ratio for adult men has plummeted by about 20 percentage points. Which is to say: If America’s male employment ratios were back at their Eisenhower-era levels, well over 20 million more men would be at work today.”

What are the effects of worklessness?

As one would expect, it blights people’s economic prospects. “Even in good economic times,” Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation write, “the average poor family with children has only 800 hours of total parental work per year — the equivalent of one adult working 16 hours per week. The math is fairly simple: Little work equals little income, which equals poverty.” In Expanding Work Programs for Poor Men, Lawrence M. Mead, a professor of politics at New York University, observes that the worklessness problem persisted even during the tight labor markets of the late 1990s. Worklessness contributes to poverty when we are at the peak of the business cycle as well as the trough.

As for long-term unemployment, we know its devastating effects on workers. Besides the tremendous financial blow, it erodes their skills, and employers are less likely to hire people who have been out of the work force for a long time. More fundamentally, it eats away at people’s sense of identity and even increases the odds that they will commit suicide. Work is good for people.

One of the most disturbing developments of the past 40 years is that though the United States as a whole has grown more affluent, poverty and worklessness have grown more concentrated. Even as racial segregation has declined, the physical separation of the jobless poor from the rest of society has continued apace.