The American labor market’s failure to produce family-supporting jobs is fundamental to the nation’s problems.
For a nation awash in economic data, the United States knows remarkably little about work. Much as gross domestic product as a measure of growth and prosperity considers only aggregate output and not its composition or distribution, the labor market’s signature unemployment and wage statistics obscure at least as much as they describe.
Unemployment includes only those actively looking for work—thus, it has been holding near a record low even as the share of prime-age men not working languishes at levels seen only in the deepest recessions.
Any job, meanwhile, counts as employment. When the economy creates 100,000 new ones, few ask how many are secure jobs capable of supporting families—and, anyway, even if they did the Bureau of Labor Statistics couldn’t answer. Its economists closely track the price of each deli meat in each city to estimate inflation. But a job is a job. And in right-of-center policy colloquia hosted at luxury hotels in Washington, the speakers seem often to assume those jobs look more or less like their own: fair and predictable pay, stable hours, good benefits. Why would anyone turn that down?
Of course, without irony or any sense of self-awareness, the same commentators and analysts who reflexively defend the American economy’s wonderful performance as if it were their mothers’ honor at stake will explain that overly generous welfare benefits are keeping potential workers on the sideline. The economy is creating great jobs, and also people would rather rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and a disability check than take one.