CBO: Nearly 1 in 6 Young Men in U.S. Jobless or Incarcerated

Patshawndria Ivey fills out a job application at Smoothe King May 8, 2015 in Miami, Florid
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Nearly one in six young men (between the ages of 18-34) in the U.S. were either jobless or incarcerated in 2014, according to a new government report. It details a striking amount of male alienation that has been on the rise since the 1980s.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), out of the 38 million young men in the U.S. in 2014, 16 percent were jobless (5 million or 13 percent) or incarcerated (1 million or 3 percent). The share of young men without a job or in prison has increased substantially since 1980, when just 11 percent of young men fit into either category.

CBO highlights that the level of joblessness and incarceration varies based on young men’s educational attainment. The less they have, the more likely they are to be jobless or incarcerated. The rates also varied among racial and ethnic groups. In 2014 young black men were about twice as likely to be jobless or incarcerated than white or Hispanic young men were. The disparity was largely due, however, to higher rates of incarceration among young black men.

Economic, policy, and skill-set changes contributed to the the large increase in joblessness and incarceration from 1980 to 2014, CBO said.

On the economic side in particular, CBO pointed to the recent recession, technological advances, more women entering the workforce and such debate-inspiring issues as outsourcing and low-skilled immigration.

“Among them were longer-run trends in the economy, such as increases in the employment of women and the movement of some jobs to other countries,” the CBO report reads.

The especially large increase in joblessness among less educated young men may be partly attributable to changes in technology that have reduced demand for the labor of those young men. Some research suggests that a subset of that group—less educated young men who are native born—may have seen increased joblessness because of an influx of young immigrant men with little education and high rates of employment, but the evidence is mixed.

The CBO noted that federal policy has also added to the employment plight of young men, namely a drop in military employment, crack downs on the earnings of deadbeat dads, increased spending on welfare programs, and the minimum wage.

“[F]ederal spending on means-tested benefits—that is, cash payments or other benefits for people with relatively low income or few assets—increased substantially between 1980 and 2014, possibly reducing young men’s incentives to work,” the CBO report reads. “Higher minimum wages may also have increased joblessness among young men. The federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has not consistently risen since 1980, but there has been an increase in the number of state and local minimum-wage laws in recent years.”

The increased incarceration rates, CBO added, is not necessarily due to an increase of crime, but again, policy decisions.

“Rather, it is largely due to the same policy changes, such as changes in sentencing rules, that have made nationwide incarceration rates about four times as high as they were in 1980. Because roughly 90 percent of all inmates are held in state prisons or local jails, most of the policy changes that have led to increased incarceration have been at the state and local levels,” the CBO explained, noting that all racial and ethnic groups have seen their incarceration rates increase.

According to CBO another reason for the increased joblessness is that they are entering working age without “the cognitive and noncognitive skills” employers are looking for in their hires.

“Cognitive skills are generally equivalent to academic skills, whereas noncognitive skills include such ‘soft skill’ as diligence, punctuality, and teamwork,” the report reads. “If mismatches between young men and employers have indeed been growing more common, it could be either because the young men have fewer of the skills that employers have traditionally sought or because the employers are seeking different skills.

The trend has largely negative implications for society as a whole. As non-tax payers who receive government aid, these young men are taking more our of the system than they are putting into it, a phenomena that will likely continue as they grow older. Not only are they a net drag budgetary in the shorter term but the social impact will also have an impact on the nation’s bottom line.

“By adversely affecting future rates of marriage and family formation, joblessness and incarceration may have budgetary implications still farther in the future,” CBO explains.

Young men who are jobless or incarcerated today are less likely to marry, less likely to stay married, and less likely to have children who live in two-parent households than their counterparts who are employed or in school. Because the earnings of the next generation are likely to be affected by the families in which they grow up, adverse consequences for today’s families can have long-run economic impacts.

Interestingly, while young men dropped out of the workforce, the share of young women who were jobless or incarcerated declined from 31 percent in 1980 to 22 percent in 2014.

“That decline was partly attributable to an increase in school attendance; since 1988, the share of young women who are in school has exceeded the corresponding share of young men,” CBO details.

Furthermore, the large increase in incarceration since 1980 had a far smaller impact on women than on men. (It is true that the share of young women who are jobless or incarcerated remains higher than the corresponding share of young men—but that is largely because many more young women than young men are spending their time caring for other people, particularly children, which drives up their rate of joblessness.)


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