Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, had some negative things to say about his fellow Americans in an interview last december “Socialism,” he thought, destroyed the work ethic: “Nobody works. Nobody cares. — 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 are naive if you think his take is exceptional. Without question, rich people constantly say similar things at country clubs across America. More importantly, conservative politicians are obsessed with the idea that government assistance makes Americans lazy, which is why they keep trying to impose work requirements on programs like Medicaid and food stamps regardless. overwhelming evidence that such requirements do not promote work – but do create narrow barriers that deny help to people who really need it.
I make no mistake that facts will change the minds of such people. But everyone else should know that over the past year we’ve actually done a huge test on the proposition that Americans have become lazy. And it turns out they haven’t.
Given the opportunities created by a full-employment economy — arguably the first truly full-employment economy we’ve had in nearly a quarter century — Americans are, in fact, willing to work. Indeed, they are willing to work harder than almost everyone, even optimists, imagined. And the resilience of the American work ethic has huge implications for policy.
Before I get into the numbers, a reminder about demographics. America has an aging population, which means that other things being equal, we should see 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 looking for work—is somewhat lower now than it was before the Covid-19 pandemic.
But such a decline was both predictable and predicted, for example, in pre-pandemic projections of the Congressional Budget Office. And today’s labor force participation actually is higher than the budget office expected – which is really remarkable given that Covid has pushed some workers into early retirement, while for a long time Covid may have left a significant number of workers with persistent disabilities.
One way to look beyond demographic changes is to focus on Americans’ labor force participation in their main 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 gender, overall US 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 Big Resignation. Americans are working harder 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 an amazing increase in employment among Americans with disabilities.
We have also seen an increase foreign workers. Whatever Ron DeSantis fans might think, immigrants are a big plus for the American economy: They tend to be both working age and highly motivated. Indeed, DeSantis’ anti-immigrant policies are already visible adverse effect on the Florida economy.
So what does America’s extraordinary success in getting people back to work tell us, other than the fact that no, we haven’t gotten lazy? One thing it tells us is that the sluggish recovery that followed the 2008 financial crisis—sluggish in large part because Very Serious People was obsessed with debt rather than jobs—denied employment to millions of Americans who could and should be working. .
And recent job gains also make Bidenomics look much better than a year ago.
President Biden began his term with a large spending package that many said overheated the economy, fueling inflation. There is probably considerable truth in that statement. But there were also claims that eliminating the excessive inflation would require years of high unemployment. As it turns out, however, inflation – including measurements which try to eliminate temporary factors – decreased despite high employment. So such claims look less and less convincing.
And while the hot economy may have temporarily boosted inflation, it’s also put Americans to work — not just those who lost jobs during the pandemic and its aftermath, but also some who couldn’t get a foot in the door before. (It also produced particularly large gains for low paid workers.) If we manage to avoid a severe recession, many of these job gains are likely to persist.
The bigger point is that despite what the grumpy rich may say, Americans have not become lazy. On the contrary, they are willing, even eager, to take jobs if they are available. And although economic policy in recent years has been far from perfect, one thing it has done – to the great benefit of the nation – has been to give labor a chance.
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