Non-College Men in the Labor Market

Adam Harris asks Where Have All the Men Without College Degrees Gone?
(“Economists are trying to understand the steady decline of non-college-educated men in the labor market”):

In the late 1960s, almost all prime-working-age men, typically defined as 25 to 54, worked—nearly 95 percent. That figure had dipped to 85 percent by 2015—a decline most acutely felt among men without college degrees. The trend of men dropping out of the labor force, particularly non-college-educated men, has been building for more than six decades. It has been a slow withdrawal, but a steady one—a flow that began with a sharp decline in opportunities for men who dropped out of high school, and grew to include those who earned a diploma but not a degree.

Economists have been working to understand the roots of the decline, and have come up with a cadre of theories: Perhaps it’s a case of insufficient wages for jobs that don’t require a degree; or maybe rising incarceration rates are the real culprit (people with criminal records have a harder time getting jobs); or it could be that more jobs that did not require a degree in the past do now.

A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that maybe it’s all of the above and then some—a complex combination of low wages for non-college-degreed jobs; incarceration rates, which are higher among men without degrees; and a sharp decline in marriage rates among less educated men, which may remove an economic incentive to work—all wrapped up into a slowly rolling ball that’s knocking more and more men out of the workforce. Sure, these issues are affecting college-educated men as well, but each of them is felt more acutely by those without degrees.

Whatever the cause, it is reasonable to conclude that a government policy that provides publicly-funded relocation incentives (money, land, etc.) for businesses using a non-college labor force is economically suspect.

A plan like that is simply doubling one’s efforts on a part of the economy from which employers are walking away (perhaps in favor of automation), and for which there are fewer good-paying opportunities and long-term prospects.

The price of enticing workers to stay in publicly-subsidized industries (often so that development gurus can claim another supposed short-term success) is a long-term dead-end for workers.  A memorandum of understanding to subsidize a business like that would memorialize nothing so much as a lack of understanding.



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