A waiter wearing a protective face mask clearing away glasses before pubs close ahead of the lockdown in Soho, London, England, November 4, 2020. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Work is essential for a flourishing society.

Over the past 18 months, tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs as the pandemic disrupted our economy and our way of life. Yet a year after the pandemic recession officially ended, nearly 5 million workers remain on the sidelines.

American workers are missing from the recovery, and government policies are tipping the scales away from them returning to work. This should concern all of us.

Americans throughout history have built businesses, employed workers, and supported families through work. We have fostered new ideas that bettered our own lives and the lives of others. As prime-age, able-bodied Americans continue to fall out of the workforce — a half-century trend for men and more recent one for women — we lose something fundamental to our ability to thrive as individuals and as a society.

Disconnection from work has documented and measurable impacts beyond the loss of a paycheck. Prime-age men who are disconnected from work are twice as likely as employed men to say that they do not get invited to do things, would find it hard to get help with a move, and do not have someone available to share fears and worries. They are sicker, sadder, and lonelier.

This disconnection from work also has consequences for broader networks of family and community support. Unemployed Americans are twice as likely to be depressed as Americans with jobs, and unemployment increases the risk of divorce. At the community level, the disappearance of work can lead to depopulation, brain drain, higher rates of crime and addiction, and the decline of other institutions of society.

Americans are not working less because of a lack of demand from employers. I hear from businesses in Utah almost every day that they are desperate for workers. American businesses have 10.4 million jobs open. That’s over 2 million more openings than people looking for work.

Likewise, while the forces of technological change, international trade, and slower wage growth present real challenges for many American workers in specific industries and locations, these explanations do not fully account for why Americans are falling out of the workforce.

A new report from the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project offers two reasons for why Americans are working less: Government programs and policies are making work less attractive, and if you ask them, many Americans simply want to work less.

The report finds that workers’ preferences have changed as government supports have increased, and many Americans are voluntarily disconnected from work. These conclusions are troubling, given that Congress has spent the past 18 months turbocharging new incentives to keep workers on the sidelines.

Congress not only authorized multiple rounds of stimulus checks; it also authorized unemployment checks that were larger than most Americans’ paychecks. It increased rent subsidies, delayed loan payments, added new health-care entitlements, and expanded the food-stamp program. Most of these benefits did not require looking for work, even after employers began rehiring and job openings soared.

Democrats want to make nearly all of these disincentives to work permanent in their $3.5 trillion spending plan, but now is the time to do the opposite. We urgently need to implement policies that allow disconnected Americans to come off the sidelines.

Congress should remove disincentives to work by better targeting federal-assistance programs and strengthening work requirements for able-bodied workers in safety-net programs. We should let pandemic policies expire and remove disincentives to work in existing programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income.

Policymakers at all levels of government should also remove existing barriers to work that stand in the way of opportunity. Occupational-licensing reforms can help many Americans enter new and upwardly mobile professions. Zoning reforms can help home-based entrepreneurs start new businesses. Labor laws can support, rather than eliminate, flexible and part-time work arrangements, and all parts of society can help better reintegrate the previously incarcerated into the workforce.

Americans have a choice in the post-pandemic economy — we can embrace a deadening regime of government-subsidized disconnection, or we can embrace the benefits of work, innovation, and the entrepreneurial American spirit that improves the lives of each generation.

Work is essential for human flourishing. Work gives people the means to support themselves and their families by allowing them to improve and perfect their natural talents and channel their gifts and abilities toward the good of the broader community.

Congress is holding our country back by perpetuating policies that keep Americans out of the labor force. Perhaps one of the most important policy goals of our time is to reconnect Americans to work.


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