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‘Men Without Work’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

I am gratified that the NYR Daily chose to review Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, and that Jeff Madrick is the reviewer since I have always enjoyed, if not always agreed with, his work.

However critical, the review is welcome because broad debate serves an essential purpose in addressing the crisis I described in my book. Even so, debate about the “Men Without Work” crisis cannot proceed without well informed readership. Several oversights and errors in Madrick’s depiction of my study require correction.

First: Madrick’s Trumpian insinuation notwithstanding, it is in no sense true that Eberstadt’s analysis” focuses particularly [on] white men.” To the contrary, Chapter 5 specifically demonstrates that the collapse of work for men has been disproportionate for African Americans. I write about all seven million prime age men missing from the workforce—not just some of them.

Second: Madrick mischaracterizes my assessment of the role of structural economic forces in generating this crisis. Nowhere do I contest the obvious fact that the bad economy has taken a grim toll in the labor market—especially during the Bush-Obama era. I concur repeatedly with this proposition (pp. 100, 109, and 180). But I dissent from the narrative that practically all of the collapse of work for men over the past half century has been due to such factors. None of the reasons for my dissent (which takes up much of Chapter 7) are even mentioned. I hope curious readers will consult my text.

Third: I am puzzled by Madrick’s aside that “More heart-breaking, the truly disconnected are the growing proportion of men who are or have been in prison and often can’t get jobs when they are released,” without even mentioning that I devote an entire chapter (Chapter 9) to this question in my book.

Finally: Madrick misreads my argument about the role of disability benefits in the current male work crisis. I never state that our national social welfare and disability programs are “too-generous.” Rather, I highlight the fact that Europe’s welfare states are more expansive than ours, and yet somehow we are the affluent country with the most acute male flight from work (pp. 50-54).

While Madrick asserts that the expansion of disability rolls have had little impact on the collapse of work for men, Men Without Work shows (pp. 117-120) that 57 percent of men twenty-five to fifty-four years of age who are out of the labor force reported benefits from at least one government disability program in 2013. Isn’t that worth a mention? By the way: I never argue that disability programs caused the great male flight from work. My incontestable point: they helped finance it.

Our disability programs are perverse: they incentivize helplessness and dependence, and tether recipients to their often low-employment localities. They cry out for reform. NYR readers may be bemused to learn this American Enterprise Institute researcher points favorably to Sweden as an exemplar of such possible reforms (p. 184).

Nicholas Eberstadt
Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy
American Enterprise Institute
Washington D.C.

Jeff Madrick replies:

Nicholas Eberstadt has written a book about men out of work in contemporary America, but his main focus is what he views as the shirking of work by males—white males and also black males, young and middle-aged—enabled by too ample and ill-designed social programs. He talks consistently about “fleeing” from work, describing a new “caste” of men who can “scrape by in an employment-free existence, and membership in the caste is, in an important sense, voluntary.” To this veteran of the welfare wars, this has shades of welfare-queen rhetoric.

Economic vitality and weakness have a large part in determining participation in the labor market, as Eberstadt acknowledges. But the purpose of his Chapter 7, which I take on, is to diminish this economic relationship in order to suggest that the social programs are also a primary source of the problem. Perhaps aware of the ambiguity of his evidence, he feels obliged to draw a distinction between claiming that disability programs have “caused the great flight from work” and claiming that they have merely “helped finance it.” But this is a distinction without a difference. For example, later he writes, “We have seen the insidious role that disability programs play in sustaining the no-work lifestyle.”

In fact, the evidence I cited is overwhelmingly clear that worker participation ebbs and flows with the economy. Eberstadt and I agree that there is also a decided secular (noncyclical) trend in falling participation rates. But much of it is due to an aging work force, a high rate of poor health among those out of work (recently demonstrated by the Princeton economist Alan Krueger), and young people going back to school—not to social policies.

Eberstadt would be on more credible ground if he conceded that more men, even those with pain and disabilities, might seek work if jobs paid better wages. Good jobs are the issue. Eberstadt maintains he didn’t write that social programs in America are too generous but his book recounts in great detail how much help Americans get from government.

In fact, only a handful of states offer disability insurance to workers. Moreover, a chart done by the CEA shows that non-federal disability payments, including state and local disability, military retirement, civil service, worker’s compensation, and more, do not support Eberstadt’s story. They have been declining, according to the CEA, as a share of the men not in the work force.

cea-madrick
CPS ASEC

Eberstadt argues that more small business creation as well as work-first policy reform will bring more men back to work. Yet we’ve been adopting work-first policies since Ronald Reagan, while participation in the labor force has steadily fallen. A strong economy, aided by fiscal stimulus, is the best lubricant for entrepreneurialism and better jobs.

Eberstadt wants me to credit him for mentioning Sweden as a welfare state with successful work-first programs. But it gets only a single sentence at the end of his book. There is no analysis of Sweden’s many differences with the US, including exceptionally low poverty, inequality rates, and higher GDP growth. Sweden’s government disability policy is generous and multi-layered, and offers considerable help finding jobs.

I used the phrase “particularly white men” in the piece partly because I didn’t want to imply the book was yet another allegation about work-shirking black men. If the significant fall in participation rates for whites hadn’t occurred, however, Eberstadt’s book would have been much different.