Beats Working

Disability, early retirement, going on the dole—that’s the new economy:

From the mid-17th century to the late 20th century, the American economy grew roughly 3.5% a year. That growth rate has since declined significantly. When the final figures are in for 2012, the annual rate of real output growth for the first dozen years of this century is likely to be about 1.81%.

What accounts for the slowdown? An important part of the answer is simple: Americans aren’t working as much today. And this trend reflects more than the recession and sluggish economy of the past few years.

The national income accounts suggest that about 70% of U.S. output is attributable to the labor of human beings. Yet there has been a decline in the proportion of working-age Americans who are employed.

In recent decades there was a steady rise in the employment-to-population ratio: For every 100 working-age Americans, there were eight more workers in 2000 than in 1960. The increase entirely reflects higher female participation in the labor force. Yet in the years since 2000, more than two-thirds of that increase in working-age population employed was erased.

The decline matters more than you may suppose. If today the country had the same proportion of persons of working age employed as it did in 2000, the U.S. would have almost 14 million more people contributing to the economy.

Before I let the author have his say, let me observe that some—some—of the drop in the employment ratio is due to the expected retirement of baby boomers. Those born in 1946 would have turned 65 in 2011. That trend will continue for the next 15 years or so.

But at this point it doesn’t explain much. Many people work after 65, or would if they could. And the percentage of people born in 1946 (and now ’47) is too small to explain a labor participation rate at historic lows.

Our author:

[T]he phenomenon is due mainly to a variety of public policies that have reduced the incentives to be employed. These policies include:

• Food stamps. Above all else, people work to eat. If the government provides food, then the imperative to work is severely reduced. Since the food-stamp program’s beginning in the 1960s, it has grown considerably, but especially so in the 21st century: There are over 30 million more Americans receiving food stamps today than in 2000.

The sharp rise in food-stamp beneficiaries predated the financial crisis of 2008: From 2000 to 2007, the number of beneficiaries rose from 17.1 million to 26.3 million, according to the Department of Agriculture. That number has leaped to 47.5 million in October 2012. The average benefit per person jumped in 2009 from $102 to $125 per month.

Compare 2010 with October 2012, the last month for which food-stamp data have been reported. The unemployment rate fell to 7.8% from 9.6%, and real GDP was rising steadily if not vigorously. Food-stamp usage should have peaked and probably even begun to decline. Yet the number of recipients rose by 7,223,000. In a period of falling unemployment and rising output, the number of food-stamp recipients grew nearly 10,000 a day. Congress should find out why.

Congress knows why—and Congress approves. These numbers get Congress reelected.

• Social Security disability payments. The health of Americans has improved, and the decline in the number of relatively dangerous industrial production and mining jobs should have led to a smaller proportion of Americans unable to work because of disability. Yet the opposite is the case.

Barely three million Americans received work-related disability checks from Social Security in 1990, a number that had changed only modestly in the preceding decade or two. Since then, the number of people drawing disability checks has soared, passing five million by 2000, 6.5 million by 2005, and rising to nearly 8.6 million today. In a series of papers, David Autor of MIT has shown that the disability program is ineffective, inefficient, and growing at an unsustainable rate. And news media have reported cases of rampant fraud.

• Extended unemployment benefits. Since the 1930s, the unemployment-insurance system has been designed to lend a short-term, temporary helping hand to folks losing their jobs, allowing them some breathing room to look for new positions. Yet the traditional 26-week benefit has been continuously extended over the past four years—many persons out of work a year or more are still receiving benefits.

True enough, the economy isn’t growing very much. But if you pay people to stay at home, many will do so rather than seek employment or accept jobs where the pay doesn’t meet their expectations.

I know we extended it to 99 weeks—almost two years—didn’t the fiscal cliff swindle just extend it again?

Yes, we did:

The agreement extends for another year 47 weeks of federally financed emergency unemployment benefits, at a 10-year cost of $30 billion. These payments are in addition to up to 26 weeks of benefits paid by state governments, providing a maximum of 73 weeks—a year and a half—of benefits. Although seemingly reasonable on humanitarian grounds in the current sluggish economy, these extensions come with an economic cost. They encourage the unemployed to delay their job searches or spend too much time searching for jobs they are less likely to find, remaining out of work longer than they would otherwise. A maximum of 50–60 weeks of unemployment benefits would be more appropriate given the state of the economy.

We don’t even mean 73 weeks, as the endless extensions prove.

Last point the author makes:

Taxes are part of the story too: Today’s higher marginal tax rates on work-related income could well lead to further reductions in work effort by those taxed, as well as to slower economic growth.

Most Americans recognize the need to reduce government spending to rein in the national debt. But there is another reason to cut government spending for specific programs: If more people have less incentive to stay out of the work force, they might seek jobs and help spur economic growth.

While true (even left-wing economists admit there disincentives to work), it’s a political albatross to tell people that the seeming endless fountain of government “benefits” come with a cost—a personal cost as well as a fiscal cost.

Last word, as ever, to Mark Steyn:

And finally please don’t waste another four years obsessing over whether Barack Obama is a secret Muslim Kenyan Commie or whatever. He may be all those things, but the lesson of November 6 is that a majority of the American people agree with him. He’s not the exotic other, he’s all too typical. That’s the problem.

1 Comment »

  1. Buck O'Fama said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

    This quote sums it up perfectly: “The real debt danger is from people’s sense of entitlement. And their unwillingness to make difficult choices. Ultimately, a representative government is reactive, not proactive. Things are the way they are because the majority of the people insist on it.”

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