Friday, December 12, 2014

JOBS | "Nonemployment"

Data before the 1960s show the importance of women
 entering the workforce in far greater numbers. Fewer men
have worked since then. The departure from the workforce
 of many women since 2000 is a puzzle.
The New York Times series by its Upshot staff on "nonemployment" is another reminder of what a great newspaper can do to put in front of the public the data and research that a democratic society needs to make decisions about public policy.

I have posted at least four times on the subject in the last year and a half.

The term "nonemployed" appears to have been formally introduced in 1997 by two University of Chicago economists as a broader category of nonworking people than the unemployed. They aren't working but are self-described in surveys by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics as currently available for work and actively looking within the four weeks prior to the survey.

Two articles in the Times series on nonemployment have appeared. The first, by David Leonhardt, introduces the topic and stresses "the Decline of Work" as the theme. The central number he puts in front of us is that back in the 1960s only 5 percent of men in their prime working years of 25 to 54 did not work. Today, the number has more than tripled, to 16 percent. Is this a terribly worrisome number?

  • Up till 2000, the relaxed response might have been: "Sure, relatively fewer men are working, but a far higher percentage of women are working, so that's the reason." It is natural that some men of prime work age might stay home to look after their elderly parents or children.
  • But, since 2000, the share of women who are working has also been declining. So it is fair to say that since 2000 "the Decline of Work" applies to the population as a whole. A team composed of the Times, the Kaiser Family Foundation and CBS has set about trying to find explanations of the decline through polling.

The second report in the series shows highlights from their findings, as reported by Gregor ("driven by data") Aisch and Josh Katz as well as David Leonhardt. For example:
  • Of men aged 25-54, 64 percent would like to have a job. 
  • But only 45 percent have been actively looking in the last year (a looser definition than that of the BLS, which wants to know if they have been looking in the prior four weeks).
  • In other words, about 30 percent of those nonemployed who say they would like to have a job have not looked for work within the prior year.
  • Why not? Well one reason is that one-third of the nonemployed have been convicted of a crime. Nearly half of the nonemployed say they suffer from a disability or from general health problems and 43 percent say that not being employed in itself is bad for their mental health.
An amazingly useful chart shows the nonemployed status in every county in the United States, shaded to show where the nonworking status is most prevalent. The numbers are more complete than the unemployment numbers of the BLS, which by definition covers only the "civilian noninstitutional" population. The BLS therefore excludes the military plus institutionalized populations such as those who are incarcerated, presumably because of the difficulties inherent in conducting random-sample surveys of such populations.

This chart should be pondered by every elected official in the United States.

The research brims with public-policy implications. It supports bipartisan efforts to reduce the sky-high U.S. incarceration rates and to lower the high barriers to re-entry in the job market resulting from licensing requirements that are not related to job performance. I believe it supports programs for more apprenticeships among younger workers and Kurzarbeit-type programs to keep older workers work-ready during a recession.

Surely not by coincidence, the Times editorializes in favor of Mayor de Blasio's plan to try to keep the mentally ill who do not pose a risk to others out of jail because 40 percent of the 11,000 people in jail in New York City are mentally ill - an increase from a few years ago when the figure was 25 percent. Many of the inmates were arrested and convicted of low-level crimes such as not paying a fare or trespassing. These mentally ill inmates are expensive to incarcerate because they stay twice as long as  other inmates since they find it harder to obtain bail.

The Times is making an important contribution to public policy formulation for our recovery from the Great Recession. As the economy picks up we will need workers and the sooner we identify the reasons why people are not working and address them, the better prepared we will be to put them to work.

However, I wish that the Times would help the public understand how the concept of nonemployment fits together with something that has been measured and reported regularly since the Full Employment Act was passed after World War II, namely the civilian employment-population ratio. This indicator, which is presented at the top of this post, pretty fairly presents the extent of the nonemployment problem over time, although it omits the institutional populations that bulk large in some parts of the country.