The recent news on jobs has been great. But the White House seems determined to torpedo it.
The official unemployment rate is the lowest since 1969 and the number of job openings remains high, indicating continued high demand for workers, and wages are increasing. As a restaurant industry lobbyist told the Indianapolis Star recently, “It’s an employee market today. It’s not an employer market. And that’s not going to change for the foreseeable future.”
This is the precondition for drawing more people into the labor market who are currently neither working nor looking for work. And it is sorely needed; the share of prime-working-age men who need to be drawn back into the job market remains unprecedented. As Jason Richwine wrote recently, “With one in nine prime-age males still sitting idle, terms such as ‘full employment’ and ‘labor shortage’ ring hollow. There is much room for improvement.”
A tight labor market isn’t the only thing needed to draw idle men back into the workforce. Changes in welfare and education policies, among other things, would help too. But if a tight labor market isn’t sufficient in itself, it is indispensable.
So what is the White House doing in response to the good economic news? It is taking steps to loosen the labor market, to move toward a buyer’s market in labor (benefitting employers) rather than a seller’s market.
First up is the announcement that the administration will increase the admission of non-farm seasonal workers by 30,000. This is the H-2B visa program, used by landscapers, carnivals, oyster-packers, hotels (including Mar-a-Lago), and others. The equivalent program for farmworkers (called the H-2A visa) also undermines American workers, but since there really are fewer Americans picking fruit, the program’s main effect is to retard mechanization. The H-2B program, on the other hand, is routinely used to fill the kinds of jobs that Americans do every day. BuzzFeed (yes, that BuzzFeed) has done extensive reporting on both the farm and non-farm parts of the visa program, and has written that “many businesses go to extraordinary lengths to skirt the law, deliberately denying jobs to American workers so they can hire foreign workers on H-2 visas instead.”
The H-2B visa shouldn’t exist at all, but at least it’s capped at 66,000 per fiscal year. But for the past several years, Congress has sought to placate lobbyists while shirking responsibility by authorizing, but not requiring, the executive branch to increase the cap for “returning workers” – those who entered on such visas in the past few years. This authorization is usually tucked into spending bill, and in the past couple of years DHS allowed an increase of 15,000. This week, the administration is expected to formally announce a doubling of that to 30,000 extra foreign workers for this year, representing a nearly 50 percent increase in the H-2B program.
Sen. Tom Cotton decried the increase in guest workers, noting that “We should be setting immigration policies that support wage growth and employment for Americans instead of encouraging a race to the bottom by importing low-cost labor.”
Also this week, the White House is briefing Republican senators on the immigration plan put together by Jared Kushner. The plan hasn’t been released yet, but it’s expected to not reduce the number of green cards, at about 1.1 million a year (with changes to the mix of family vs. skilled visas), and to further increase the importation of guest workers, in line with the president’s announced desire for immigration in “the largest numbers ever.”
The details of the proposal will come out soon, and no doubt it will include many necessary and beneficial changes. But how increased importation of foreign workers is consistent with the administration’s “Buy American, Hire American” approach is not clear. Nor is it clear how any of this is supposed to motivate voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan to come out and vote for Trump’s reelection next November.