Economy & Business

A Moral Disability

Dispiriting findings on long-term unemployment

When I was a kid, I didn’t have any more appreciation for those “We Had It So Hard” stories you get from your parents and your grandparents than any other callow schoolboy does. But one of them stuck with me.

The elderly, highly regarded gentleman in question had moved to West Texas with his parents in the 1920s where they lived under what were essentially pioneer conditions, hunting rabbits for meat and foraging what other food they could, sometimes even eating green tumbleweeds. If you don’t know what the wind is like in West Texas, it will sound absurd, but, at one point, their house literally was blown away. There was no high school where they were — the place was called Sand — but there was one in a town 15 miles away, so he walked there and went to work at a filling station, a job he kept through high school. He was later accepted as a student at Texas Tech, the campus of which was a little more than 60 miles away. Again, he walked, not knowing where or how he’d live when he got there. The only business he knew was running a filling station, so he and another student started one, and he later used some of the money he made to open a movie theater. What followed was a successful business career and then a career in politics, culminating with his election as Texas governor Preston Smith.

We Americans have always been in motion. The pilgrims in their ships, the pioneers in their wagons, the Okies bound for California however they could get there, Preston Smith and his much-used shoes. It isn’t always great. But it isn’t all that bad, either, especially when you are young: I am sure that many of you reading this have had the experience of moving into an apartment you’ve never seen because you didn’t have the money to go scouting when relocating for a new job. Sometimes it’s better than expected, sometimes not –but it is always a surprise.

I am not among those who believe that poverty builds character — I can do without that kind of character — but I do sometimes almost feel sorry for those friends of mine who’ve always had it a little too good, who don’t have any funny stories about roadside misadventures caused by having a crappy 22-year-old car, the semester they spent semi-homeless, the people they met working on a farm or doing day labor. I don’t want to have those kinds of adventures now, and I didn’t want to have them at the time, either, but sometime between then and now I became glad that they had happened.

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And that is what is particularly despair-inducing about the latest research on long-term unemployment from Express Employment Professionals, a large international staffing agency. If you’ve been following my reporting and arguments about the condition of the white underclass — and the emotionally incontinent response to it from some quarters — none of this will be exactly surprising. But lament in confirmation.

The largest age cohort in this study of long-term unemployment turns out to be young people, those aged 18 to 29, who account for 33 percent of the jobless in this survey. A large majority — 61 percent — say they are “not at all willing” to relocate for a job, while only 4 percent say they already had done so. Some 17 percent of them have college degrees, and, among those with degrees, more than half said they wished they’d done something else, concentrating instead on vocational training rather than on graduating from college. A large majority of them say that they would rather remain unemployed than work for minimum wage, and half of them haven’t had a job interview since 2014. Given a choice between Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, they are almost evenly split, with Mrs. Clinton enjoying a very slight advantage.

Where will they go? Nowhere, apparently. What will they do?

#share#Houston has in recent months been hammered by low oil prices, and for a quarter it was neck-and-neck with Philadelphia at the bottom of the job-creation rankings. But there is work to be had, and some of it is surprisingly attractive. A developer of multifamily housing seeks a construction manager for a $125,000 salary and additional compensation. A convenience store seeks a manager and offers benefits including medical, dental, and vision insurance, a 401(k), a flexible-spending account, financial assistance for parents adopting children, and tuition reimbursement. I’ve never wanted to do anything other than what I do right now (I am very lucky that way), but I don’t think that I’d feel ashamed to earn $125,000 a year in construction, especially in a city where that kind of money goes a very long way. That’s house-with-a-pool money. Las Vegas, Tulsa, Kansas City, Tallahassee: Have a look at the help-wanted ads, and you might be surprised.

But that doesn’t do you any good if you aren’t willing to go where the work is.

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Paul Ryan has just introduced a welfare-reform proposal, and it is a pretty good one. We already knew what was going to be in it — work requirements and time limits for able-bodied adults — because there are only so many meaningful avenues of reform. We also know what the Left’s response is going to be: that this is cruel, callous, punitive, etc. But there are really only two choices: Get people moving toward economic self-sufficiency or sustain them forever in the soul-killing state of dependency. There isn’t a third option. Not really.

Get people moving toward economic self-sufficiency or sustain them forever in the soul-killing state of dependency.

This is only partly about money. We are a very, very rich society, and we can afford to provide decently for people who cannot care for themselves, including children and those who are physically or mentally disabled. But that isn’t our problem: Our problem isn’t people who are physically disabled but people who are morally disabled, people who wouldn’t take a bus 15 minutes to work at a gas station, much less walk 15 miles to do so. I met Preston Smith at the unveiling of a statue of him, in commemoration of his work in public service. “I didn’t know this was how it was going to turn out,” he said. If we could see the end of the path at the beginning, we might set out with a little more resolve. But we can’t. And where we once had the faith and the confidence to help carry us through the unknown, we now have an overabundance of caution, an anchoring pessimism that fixes us in place like bugs on pins.

That’s the strange reality of what has transpired in these United States: We are so much richer than we were 50 years ago, but so much poorer.


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