The American economy has been stagnating since the end of the 20th century and has grown especially slowly (2% per year on average) since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. This slow growth has various unpleasant causes and consequences:
Men without Work. The political economist, Nicholas Eberstadt, has pointed out that the work rate for prime working age (25 – 54) men has dropped from 94.1% in 1948 to 84.3% in 2015. This translates into 9.5 million prime working age men who are not currently in the workforce.
Mortality Crisis. The economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, show that the mortality rate for working class whites in America, aged 45 – 54, has doubled since 1990, and that these new deaths are largely “deaths of despair.”
Complacency. The economist, Tyler Cowen, makes a strong case that too many Americans are so comfortable in their own worlds that they have become complacent about the structural problems facing American society.
Segregation by Class. The political scientist Charles Murray has described a separation of American society into a new Upper Class (20% of all Americans) and a new Lower Class (30% of all Americans) with the Upper Class enjoying the four deepest satisfactions of life: family, vocation, community and faith while the Lower Class is largely left out.
What can be done to improve the fortunes of America’s blue-collar workers? There are actually a lot of things:
Greatly improve vocational training for the millions of skilled jobs for which there aren’t enough qualified applicants.
Revitalize America’s job-generating capacities. More businesses have closed than opened each year since the Financial Crisis.
Reverse the perverse disincentives against male work embedded in our social welfare systems. The Earned Income Tax Credit should be extended to single adults without dependents. Eligibility for disability income should be tightened considerably.
Come to terms with the enormous challenge of bringing convicts and felons back into society. The huge increase in incarceration rates in recent years has coincided with a dramatic drop in rates for both violent crime and property crime.
Conclusion. It’s a scandal that so many blue-collar workers are struggling to live a fulfilling life. There are many different actions government can take to improve their lot.
It is well understood that income inequality is increasing in the U.S. for a number of reasons: economic globalization, the rapid development of new technology and the slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009. The New York Times’ economics journalist, Eduardo Porter, discusses the social effects of this ominous trend in the article “Income Inequality Is Costing the U.S. on Social Issues.” For example:
The U.S. has the highest teenage birthrate in the developed world – seven times the rate in France, for example.
More than one out of four U.S. children lives with one parent, the largest percentage by far amongst industrialized nations.
More than a fifth of U.S. kids live in poverty, sixth from the bottom among the OECD.
Among adults, seven out of every 1000 are in prison, five times the rate for other rich democracies and three times the U.S. rate from four decades ago.
In 1980 the infant mortality rate in the U.S. was about the same as in Germany. Today it is almost twice the rate as for German babies.
American babies born to white, college educated, married women survive as often as those born to advantaged women in Europe. It is the babies born to nonwhite, non-married, non-prosperous women who die so young.
In other words, there is huge social disparity between the well-off and the poor in the U.S. and, furthermore, the resulting social breakdown is getting worse. Why has this been happening?
Conservatives say that it is the fault of a growing welfare state which has sapped Americans’ industriousness and sense of self-responsibility. Liberals say that welfare programs arn’t extensive enough to withstand the strict demands of globalization and technological development.
Mr. Porter concludes that, “the challenge America faces is not simply a matter of equity. The bloated incarceration rates, rock-bottom life expectancy, unraveling families and stagnant college graduation rates amount to an existential threat to the nation’s future.”
I tend to agree. Is our democratic political process capable of responding in a satisfactory manner? I will return to this theme often in the coming months!