Why Work Matters

Nov 22 2019

“What makes work meaningful doesn’t depend on its inspirational nature or on it having a transformative effect on the world,” Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Oren Cass told the Joint Economic Committee this week. “Work is meaningful because of what it means to the person performing it, what it allows him to provide to his family, and what role it establishes for him in his community.”

Cass went on to document the many ways work has proven to be so important to people’s lives. Unemployed Americans are twice as likely to be depressed than Americans with jobs. Unemployment doubles the risk of divorce. Communities that lack work have higher rates of crime and addiction.

“Work relationships represent a crucial source of social capital, establishing a base from which people can engage in the broader community—whether it’s playing on a softball team, organizing a fund-raising drive, or hosting a field trip for the local preschool,” Cass testified.

Unfortunately for many men, work is no longer a part of their lives. The employment-to-population ratio of working-age men – those between the ages of 25 and 54 – not working, are near levels not seen since the Great Depression. According to the most recent data, 18 percent of working age men are not working, a number higher than anytime during the 1990 and 2001 recessions.

In its report, “Inactive, Disconnected, and Ailing: A Portrait of Prime-age Men Out of the Labor Force,” the Project found that disconnected men are more socially isolated and less happy than their employed peers. At the community level, the disappearance of work can lead to depopulation, brain drain, and the decline of other institutions of civil society.

If we are to expand opportunity by strengthening families, communities, and civil society, we must devote our attention to work—a means of supporting ourselves and our families, a source of meaning and purpose, and a site for affirming and satisfying relationships.

Cass and fellow witness Dr. Veronique de Rugy, a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center, identified a number of policy changes that could increase the percentage of men that have jobs.

Dr. de Rugy noted that local zoning regulations increase the cost of housing in many good job markets, thus making it harder for lower-income workers to access those jobs. Federal subsidies designed to increase home ownership, but also drive up the cost of housing, make this access to jobs problem even worse.

Many industries that employ low-skill workers, like manufacturing and energy development, face stringent environmental regulations that decrease employment in these sectors. “A country consistently seen as the second-best location for a new factory will watch as factories get built in other places, and the researchers and suppliers and distributors follow—and soon it won’t even be the fifth best location,” Cass explained.

Immigration, especially from poorer countries, can also make it less likely American men will have jobs, Cass argued. “When policies dramatically expand the supply of workers able to meet existing demand, domestic workers will suffer… Entrepreneurs gain access to a vastly larger and cheaper supply of labor, while imperatives vanish to build businesses that use the existing domestic labor supply or make investments in improving domestic workers’ capabilities. This effect swamps the smaller uptick in demand for less-skilled American labor that those workers might expect to see from the poorer countries’ consumers.”

There is no one silver bullet that can provide a job for every American that wants one. But in the coming months, the Joint Economic Committee will be developing a number of policy reforms that should make it easier for anyone who wants a job to find one.