No country for young (and undereducated, unemployable) men

Published in The News Tribune, March 28, 2012

Over the last six months Washington’s unemployment rate has fallen from 9.3 to 8.2 percent.  That’s terrific news. The same is occurring in states across the nation as employers are now hiring at a record pace.

Yet as some pessimistic sage surely said, every silver cloud has its dark lining.

The problem with our labor market is one I’ve been highlighting this month:   too many citizens have inadequate job-market skills with few options for upgrading them, and receive too little support for navigating what for them is an unstable job market.

Having countless low-skilled, poorly-educated, and  — I’ll add – male citizens with dismal job prospects is one of our more challenging economic problems, one we should no longer ignore.

Growing competition from the near endless supply of low-skill workers abroad is why Americans caught in this market find insecure and low-paying jobs.  Just take a look at what’s happened to wages.  Over the last generation, real earnings among young men with a high-school degree have fallen by 25 percent.  In fact, the additional earnings one can expect from finishing high school – called the “high school premium” — has narrowed considerably from $10,000 per year to a mere $4,000.  Graduating from high school no longer protects one from the dim job prospects dropouts face.

The increased competition also shows up in low-skill workers’ ability to find and keep a job, especially during hard times.  By far those hardest hit during the recession have been poorly educated, young adult males.

Facing a lousy job market with frequent and long bouts of unemployment, many men simply give up on finding a job.  Nowadays a full one-fifth of males in the prime of their life do not work.  Some of them are unemployed, meaning they’d still like to; but many more are in prison, disabled, or simply no longer consider employment an option.

The trends are what are most worrisome.  Compared with a generation ago, males today with at most a high-school degree are four times less likely to work, and black high-school dropouts are five times more likely to be in prison.

There are huge tragic personal costs behind these numbers.  But large social and fiscal costs also accumulate when so many men are left peripheral to the economy.  Many find refuge in disability benefits, now totaling $120 billion per year.  Three percent of male high-school dropouts are imprisoned, causing our fiscal priorities to shift.  A generation ago, Washington State spent $6 on higher education for each dollar on corrections. Correction spending has since tripled so that now we spend only $3.50 on college for each dollar on our state’s prisons.

Many young economically-marginalized males make poor marriage material, but sharp declines in their marriage rates have not corresponded with falling rates of fatherhood.  Instead, young men on the economic fringe increasingly father kids outside of marriage, a trend that likely aggravates our already high rate of parent-to-kid poverty transmission.

Male worklessness occurs because more so than other countries, we’ve seemingly given up on those with bleak job prospects.  We spend 60 percent less on policies that help adults develop job-market skills and find decent-paying jobs than we did in 1980; we now spend dramatically less than does nearly every developed country.

Also to blame is inertia in our educational system that continues to leave too many youth poorly educated.  Only 72 percent of freshman in Washington State complete high school, and too many who do lack the skills that make them employable.

Finally, we mistake the remedy.  If they at all address the poor job outlook of so many Americans, presidential candidates portray a strong economy as the solution.

But growth won’t fix this quiet problem that’s steadily getting worse.  Nor will cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world.

To address it, we must significantly change how we educate youth – which includes taking a fresh look at vocational education – and better provide for the educational, training and income-support needs of many adults.  We’d do well to look abroad where through policies such as these, other countries do a better job avoiding problems associated with having a large economically-marginalized population.

Let’s cheer evidence that a robust economy may be around the corner.  But let’s not think that it alone will solve all the problems confronting our nation’s labor market.