Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot, had some negative things to say about his fellow Americans in an interview last December. “Socialism,” he opined, has destroyed the work ethic: “Nobody works. Nobody gives a damn. ‘Just give it to me. Send me money. I don’t want to work — I’m too lazy, I’m too fat, I’m too stupid.’”
You’re naïve if you think his take is exceptional. Without question, rich men are constantly saying similar things at country clubs across America. More important, conservative politicians are obsessed with the idea that government aid is making Americans lazy, which is why they keep trying to impose work requirements on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps despite overwhelming evidence that such requirements don’t promote work — but do create red-tape barriers that deny help to people who really need it.
I’m not under the delusion that facts will change such people’s minds. But everyone else should know that over the past year we have, in effect, conducted a huge test of the proposition that Americans have become lazy. And it turns out that they haven’t.
Given the opportunities created by a full-employment economy — arguably the first truly full-employment economy we’ve had in almost a quarter century — Americans are, in fact, willing to work. Indeed, they’re more willing to work than almost anyone, even optimists, had imagined. And the robustness of the American work ethic has huge implications for policy.
Before I get into the numbers, a reminder about demography. America has an aging population, which means that other things being equal, we should be seeing a downward trend in the fraction of adults still working. Indeed, the overall labor force participation rate — the percentage of adults either working or actively seeking work — is somewhat lower now than it was on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But such a decline was both predictable and predicted, for example, in prepandemic projections from the Congressional Budget Office. And today’s labor force participation is actually higher than the budget office expected — which is truly remarkable given that Covid did push some workers into early retirement, while long Covid may have left a significant number of workers with persistent disabilities.
One way to look past demographic changes is to focus on labor force participation by Americans in their prime working years, which is higher now than it has been for 20 years. Bobby Kogan of the Center for American Progress reports that if you adjust for age and sex, overall U.S. employment is now at its highest level in history — again, despite the lingering effects of the pandemic.
So much, then, for claims that Big Government has made Americans lazy, or even talk of a Great Resignation. Americans are working more than ever.
Where are these additional workers coming from? One answer is that in a tight labor market, employers are more willing to look at marginalized groups, many of whose members turn out to be perfectly capable of productive employment. We have, for example, seen a stunning rise in employment among Americans with disabilities.
We’ve also seen a surge in foreign-born workers. Whatever the likes of Ron DeSantis may think, immigrants are a big plus for the U.S. economy: They tend to be both working-age and highly motivated. Indeed, DeSantis’s anti-immigrant policies are already having a visible adverse effect on the Florida economy.
So what does America’s extraordinary success at getting people back to work tell us, aside from the fact that no, we haven’t become lazy? One thing it tells us is that the sluggish recovery that followed the 2008 financial crisis — sluggish largely because Very Serious People were obsessed with debt rather than jobs — denied employment to millions of Americans who could and should have been working.
And recent job gains also make Bidenomics look a lot better than it did a year ago.
President Biden began his term with a large spending package that many have said caused the economy to overheat, feeding inflation. There’s probably considerable truth to that claim. But there were also claims that getting rid of the excess inflation would require years of high unemployment. As it turns out, however, inflation — including measures that try to strip out temporary factors — has been subsiding despite high employment. So such claims are looking ever less persuasive.
And while the hot economy may have temporarily boosted inflation, it also put Americans to work — not just those who lost jobs during the pandemic and its aftermath but also some who previously were unable to get a foot in the door. (It also produced especially big gains for low-paid workers.) If we manage to avoid a severe recession, many of these job gains will probably persist.
The larger point is that despite what grumpy rich men may say, Americans haven’t become lazy. On the contrary, they’re willing, even eager, to take jobs if they’re available. And while economic policy in recent years has been far from perfect, one thing it did do — to the nation’s great benefit — was give work a chance.
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