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March 7, 2013
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Charlie Leonard: Inalienable Rights

It's no secret the United States has an unemployment problem. The government issues a detailed report each month that estimates the number of people who are either unemployed or underemployed and looking for work. The persistently high numbers - especially for young people and minorities - tell a very sad story for the individuals, their families and the country, as well.

But there's an even more portentous unemployment story unfolding today that receives almost no attention at all. And its consequences may spell even greater doom for the friends, families and taxpayers it victimizes.

I'm referring to the millions of Americans whom economists benignly describe as "people who have left the work force."

Let there be no confusion: I'm not referring to people who are actively looking for work or have genuine disabilities that prevent them from working. Nor am I - or the experts who do the estimating - including people who are at an appropriate retirement age and have adequate resources of their own to stop working. Like most Americans, I sincerely believe we have a moral and civic responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves as well as those who genuinely want to better themselves through productive employment.

But these "people who have left the work force" are something altogether different.

According to the experts, they are predominantly able-bodied men who have chosen to stop looking for work and are relying instead on the financial support of others. And the others they rely on are more likely to be girlfriends than spouses and government programs rather than friends or community groups.

How big is this problem?

Well, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, we hit a 30-year low in June, with only 63.8 percent of able Americans actually employed or looking for work. Said differently, more than 36 percent of able-bodied, non-elderly men have "chosen" to stop working.

Even the government acknowledges that if we included these people in the official unemployment rate, the real number would be almost 40 percent higher - somewhere approaching 12 percent.

In sum, various sources put the number of able-bodied adults, mostly males, who have dropped out of the workforce at a staggering 5 million to 6 million individuals.

As best I have been able to learn, these statistics did not just suddenly come about in the past four years, though they have shot up significantly since 2009.

According to several experts who have tracked this data, this is nothing less than a cultural phenomenon that has been gaining steam since some time in the 1980s, and it has coincided with an increase in the number of women in the work force, fewer manufacturing and construction jobs, a declining marriage rate, an overall decline in community-centered activities -including organized religion - and a dramatic expansion in government entitlement programs.

Please note that I say "coincided with" rather than "caused by."

For instance, while it's true that women have made the work force more competitive overall, they haven't been particularly competitive in manufacturing and construction, focusing instead on new service-economy jobs like the health care industry.

And, while the manufacturing sector has been impacted directly by global trade, historians say that there is no evidence that prior disruptions in the history of our work force - and there have been others that were much more severe - ever resulted in large numbers of men "leaving the work force."

It gets worse. And by worse, I mean this drift away from work is not isolated to people who have left the work force. While a majority of Americans are working harder than ever before, we've also seen a dramatic spike in the number of Americans claiming to be disabled, even as the workplace is safer than at any time in our history.

Put bluntly, these people are cheating. They are cheating their families, their friends and their neighbors. And they are cheating themselves.

Work is not only a civic and moral responsibility of each and every able-bodied person; it's also one of the essential ingredients in living a happy and fulfilled life - with friends, family, spirituality and community involvement rounding out the equation.

The economist Charles Murray, who has studied and written more on this subject than anyone, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "It must once again be taken for granted that a male in the prime of life who isn't even looking for work is behaving badly. There can be exceptions for those who are genuinely unable to work or are house-husbands. But reasonably healthy working-age males who aren't working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums."

Murray also says that this problem is more about culture than politics and that in order to bring about change, the productive majority needs to speak up.

I just did. Now it's your turn.

Charlie Leonard lives in Aspen. His column runs every other Thursday in The Aspen Times.


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The Aspen Times Updated Mar 7, 2013 07:53AM Published Mar 7, 2013 01:53AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.