In the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, Jason Furman tackled the important but oft-overlooked issue of prime-age men dropping out of the labor force. In the Philadelphia Inquirer on the same day, Amy Wax and I tackled the important but oft-overlooked issue of prime-age men dropping out of the labor force. How redundant! And yet the op-eds could hardly be more different.
Furman’s prescriptions — wage subsidies, job training, unemployment insurance, work programs, Medicaid expansion, lenient criminal sentencing — are a mixed bag to me, but what’s not on his list is more interesting. How about paring back disability and welfare programs that discourage work? No, Furman says, because relatively few men directly receive those benefits in the first place. This is not an adequate answer. It’s true that means-tested benefits are aimed more toward women with children, but it was once considered a man’s responsibility to provide for his family. When the government encroaches on that role, it could undermine his incentive to work, especially if the only work available is arduous and unpleasant.
How about restricting low-skill immigration to encourage recruitment of Americans? No, Furman says, because — well, actually, he does not mention immigration at all, not even to dismiss its importance. Omitting the i-word in discussions of labor-force dropout is an unfortunate habit on both the left and the right. Amy Wax and I wrote our Inquirer op-ed (based on a much longer essay in American Affairs) to show that employers turned to immigrants as the native work ethic declined. As evidence, we point both to the much higher labor-force participation of low-skill immigrants compared to low-skill natives, as well as to the near-universal preference expressed by employers for immigrant labor. Restricting the flow of foreign workers would generate a major incentive for business owners, politicians, and opinion leaders to reintegrate American men into the labor force. It is, in our opinion, a crucial part of any reform strategy.
Unfortunately, immigration still enjoys a protective halo from many policy experts. For example, none other than Jason Furman was chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) in 2016, when it released a report about getting prime-age men back to work. Bizarrely, the end of that report praised immigrant replacement of native workers:
Although it would not directly boost the labor force participation rate of native-born workers, immigration reform would raise the overall participation rate by bringing in new workers of prime working age, offsetting some of the macroeconomic challenges associated with the long-run decline in prime-age male participation.
Furman and the CEA, much like the Washington policy establishment in general, seem unwilling to classify any effect of immigration as undesirable.