Reminding me of one of the earliest threads on Vox Baby--the failure of the labor force participation rate to rebound as the unemployment rate dropped in 2003-04--Louis Uchitelle and David Leonhardt garner a Voxy with "Men Not Working, and Not Wanting Any Job" in today's New York Times.
The thrust of the article is that plenty of the men who are not working and not currently looking for work seem to be content to keep it that way. If you were around during that earlier discussion in October 2004, the article won't likely change your mind, but it does what good feature writing should--it provides interesting stories to fill in what might be missed in the raw data.
Here are the two main vignettes in the story:
“I have come to realize that my free time is worth a lot to me,” he said. To make ends meet, he has tapped the equity in his home through a $30,000 second mortgage, and he is drawing down the family’s savings, at the rate of $7,500 a year. About $60,000 is left. His wife’s income helps them scrape by. “If things really get tight,” Mr. Beggerow said, “I might have to take a low-wage job, but I don’t want to do that.”
“To be honest, I’m kind of looking for the home run,” said Christopher Priga, who is 54 and has not had steady work since he lost a job with a six-figure income as an electrical engineer at Xerox in 2002. “There’s no point in hitting for base hits,” he explained. “I’ve been down the road where I did all the things I was supposed to do, and the end result of that is nil.”
Instead, Mr. Priga supports himself by borrowing against the rising value of his Los Angeles home. Other men fall back on wives or family members.
It's hard to know if the unemployment rate is really "missing" them in measuring the strength of the labor market. The article then discusses the role that Social Security's Disability Insurance program is playing in supporting these men, drawing a comparison with a phenomenon that is already widespread in Europe:
In the European Union, 14 percent of men between 25 and 54 were not working last year, up from 7 percent in 1975, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Over the same period in Japan, the proportion of such men rose to 8 percent from 4 percent.
In these countries, too, decently paying blue-collar jobs are disappearing, and as they do men who held them fall back on government benefits for income. But the growth of subsidies through federal and state programs like disability insurance has happened largely without notice in this country while it is a major topic of political debate in Europe.
“We have a de facto welfare system as Europe does,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist at the University of Notre Dame. “But we are not proud of it, as they are.”
Well put. The article also gives something of an answer to my concerns about a low savings rate:
Meanwhile the Beggerows’ savings are shrinking. This year, for the first time, they have drawn down so much from their 401(k)’s they have been forced to pay early-withdrawal penalties. But Mr. Beggerow resists being stampeded.
“The future is always a concern, but I no longer allow myself to dwell on it,” he said, waving aside, in his new and precarious life, the preparations for retirement and old age that were a feature of his 30 years as a steelworker.
“When you are in the mode of having money coming in,” he explained, “naturally you think about planning and saving. And then when you don’t have the money coming in, you think less about the future, at least money-wise. It is still a concern, but not a concern that keeps me up at night, not in this life that I am now leading.”
He's not exactly the canonical life-cycle saver, nor does he perceive this to be the healthy part of the business cycle. The article concludes with a discussion of the role that a higher incidence of prison records may be having in this process.
Read the whole thing.