Too “Discouraged” to Look For Work? Excuse Me?

Jobs do not come to your doorstep (photo credit)

I recently read a short 50-page monograph entitled American Exceptionalism – An Experiment in History [1], from a terrific series published by the American Enterprise Institute.  Written by Charles Murray, this monograph dissects the original “exceptional” elements that converged to bring forth the United States of America at a particular place on earth, and a particular time in human history.

Murray explains how four key elements originally sparked America’s remarkable flourishing.  One of the four elements is the exceptional traits of the American colonists themselves, among which was industriousnous.  He defines this as “the bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work and thereby making a better life for oneself and one’s children.”  He traces this trait to Americans’ “fierce determination to be economically independent – what became known over the course of the 19th century as self reliance and later as rugged individualism.” (pp. 18-20)

Murray also examines the latter-day trend of the four elements through the 20th and 21st centuries.  He finishes by asking and answering the question, “Is the United States still exceptional?”  His closing commentary on the recent trend of American industriousness includes the following observation:

Americans still work longer hours than Europeans, but the proportion of American working class males in the prime of life, ages 30-49, who worked forty hours per week or more dropped from 81% in 1960 to 64% in the beginning of 2008 (before the 2008 recession began).  The percent of that same group who were not even in the labor force rose from 5% to 13% during that period.  These numbers have no precedent in a country where, until the last few decades, it was taken for granted that all adult males in the prime of life who were not completely disabled would be working or looking for work.” (p. 42)


Is Unemployment Really Falling?

The last sentence I just quoted from Murray reminded me of some research I did recently on U.S. unemployment trends [2].

As of July 2013, there were 246 million non-institutionalized civilians over the age of 16 in the U.S.  The civilian labor force participation rate has dropped to 63.4%, or 155.8 million.  This is down from 66.4% in January 2007.

The “official” unemployment statistic reported by the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is technically called U3.  The BLS definition of U3 is “people without jobs that have actively looked for work within the past four weeks, as a percentage of the civilian labor force.”  U3 is the unemployment number you hear reported on the nightly news.  The U3 rate in July was 7.4% (11.5 million people), supposedly “down” from 7.6% in May.  Hmmm….

Ever wonder what happens (statistically) to a U3 person when he/she stops trying to find work?  There are several other unemployment figures tracked by BLS, each building on the previous one:

U4 =U3 + “discouraged workers”.  These are people who have stopped looking for work because current economic conditions make them believe that no jobs are available.  The U4 rate in July was 8.3% (12.9 million), meaning there are 1.4 million “discouraged workers.”  It was up from 7.7% in May.

U5 = U4 + “marginally attached workers.”  These are people who are able and would like to work, but have not looked for a job recently.  The U5 rate in July was 9.1% (14.2 million), meaning there are 1.3 million “marginally attached workers.”  It was up from 8.5% in May.

(Prior to some BLS procedure changes in 1994 under President Clinton, U5 used to be reported as the “official” U.S. unemployment rate, which was more truthful.  Ever since 1994, U3 has been reported, which whitewashes the real situation.)

U6 = U5 + “underemployed workers.”  These are part-time workers who want to work full time, but cannot due to economic reasons.  The U6 rate in July was 14.3% (22.3 million), meaning there are 8.1 million “underemployed workers.”  It was up from 13.4% in May.

Here’s a chart showing U3 through U6 unemployment, from 1994 to 2011.  (Please click to enlarge it.)

U3 - U6 unemployment 1994-2011

(graphic credit)

In addition, it is estimated that there are about 13.5 million “long-term discouraged” workers, a category that hasn’t appeared in any of the BLS statistics since 1994.  Quite probably, they will simply never look for work again.  If these people were heaped on top of the others, the true total unemployment rate would be about 23% as shown in the following chart [3]:

U3 vs U6 vs so-called U7 unemployment

(graphic credit)

Notice that since the end of 2009, while the BLS U3 and U6 unemployment numbers are sloping downwards, the estimated true unemployment is equally sloping upwards.  This indicates that in the big picture, Americans aren’t getting back to work – they’re going on disability and other government subsistence.

When you combine those three bolded groups of able-bodied non-seekers of work (1.4M + 1.3M + 13.5M), it totals 16.2 million people, or 10.4% of America’s current civilian work force.


Exceptionalism, RIP….

Today, for every “discouraged” or “marginally attached” able-bodied worker who is not looking for work, there are 10 discouraged The Parthenon - A monument to former greatnesstaxpayers that are utterly fed up with this entitlement mentality that is crumbling the foundation of American Exceptionalism.

(photo credit)

In the context of Charles Murray’s commentary on past and current industriousness, I view the existence of 16.2 million able-bodied non-seekers of work as inexcusable government dependency.  “Discouraged,” are they?  Do these people expect a job to travel to their front porch and ring the doorbell?  I have relocated to a different state 4 times in 32 years, following the available opportunities.   Ya do whatcha gotta do.  That’s self responsibility.

The sad truth is, the modern American entitlement system now makes it more appealing for “discouraged” and “marginal” workers to suckle on the government teat than to go seek a job where the jobs exist [4].  The government safety net has become a hammock for these 16.2 million job-not-seeking Americans.

In 1850, newspaper editor Horace Greeley famously advised opportunity seekers to “Go west, young man.”

Today it would be “Go soft, young man.”

21st century American government safety net

(photo credit)


[1]   American Exceptionalism – An Experiment in History, Charles A. Murray, July 2013, American Enterprise Institute Press, distributed by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

[2]   “An Analysis of the July 2013 Jobs Report”:

[3]  “Analysis Behind and Beyond Government Economic Reporting”:

[4]   “The 10 Best Cities for Finding Employment Right Now”:

Bethesda, MD;   Austin, TX;   Jacksonville, FL;   Grand Rapids, MI;   Columbus, OH;   Seattle, WA;   Phoenix, AZ;   New York, NY;   Richmond, VA;   Oklahoma City, OK


Related info:

  • 33-minute radio interview of author Charles Murray:

  • “The Hidden Number Behind America’s Falling Unemployment Rate”:


About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control.
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7 Responses to Too “Discouraged” to Look For Work? Excuse Me?

  1. Dave says:

    Wow, so apparently Americans got 100% lazier between 2007 and 2010. I wonder what accounts for that?

    Little analysis, no solutions, and no empathy means this is just shallow whining. The irony is that these people who you condemn are your fellow Americans who vote, and your pernicious point of view alienates them, driving a larger wedge between you both. So this is worse than doing nothing.

    People have always lamented that the present doesn’t live up to an idyllic past.


  2. Dave,

    Obviously you and I aren’t on the same side politically, but what reasons do you have for defending healthy unemployed people who aren’t trying to find a job? An injured or disabled person (as in “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”) deserves my empathy. But when somebody doesn’t even try to find work (as in “I’ve fallen and I won’t get up”), they will get no empathy from me.

    You say I offered no solutions. I’m not interested in, or obligated to, offer a solution to the psychological state of mind these able-bodied people get into that makes them abandon the American value of self responsibility. My world view is that in a vigorous society, each of us owes everybody else a solemn commitment to never just sit down and quit (and make the others carry not only their own weight but the weight of the quitters too). What in the world is idyllic or nostalgic about my view?

    Actually I did offer solutions. There are jobs available out there, plain and simple, Dave. Did you follow the link I provided and see for yourself? The career categories were varied, with plenty that don’t require a college degree.

    I empathize with people who are earnestly looking for work, if they’re not fraudulently saying it just to collect unemployment benefits. I empathize with people who have part-time work and want full-time work, if they are actively seeking it. I don’t consider them lazy, and all I would say to them is: You’d have much better success if you go to where the jobs exist.

    As for my ideological motives with this post, I’m not trying to influence the votes of people who give up looking for work, or the votes of those who would defend them. The purpose of this article was to bust the liberal media’s myth that unemployment is dropping, for naïve people who take the left-leaning network news anchors at face value. Naïve & misinformed people vote too, and they might vote differently if they come to realize that they’re being BS’ed by the liberal mass media machine and Democrat politicians.

    Dave, do you defend people who are able-bodied and who just give up looking for work, depending instead upon government subsistence? If so, what is your logical (not emotional) reason why?

    I provided facts and drew logical conclusions. I have no empathy for able-bodied quitters. I would welcome any actual logical rebuttal you have to offer that is directly to the point, but all you have done is emote around the periphery of my topic.

    – Jeff


    • Mike T says:

      Obviously spoken like someone who hasn’t tried to look for a job in 2010-2012 🙂 Yes, there are jobs out there – and every opening gets dozens to hundreds of applications… how many applications do you expect someone to send out before they get discouraged? Heck, we put a low paying job for part-time work on Craigslist for our business – and received nearly 100 email applications in a week. People are still trying to find work – but the “job creators” simply haven’t stepped up to the plate and provided them.

      I could go on and on – but the problem is a lack of demand… and that is being fed by our skyrocketing inequality. I have no doubts that wages for the 90% will continue to stagnate and the 1% will continue to amass all the economic gains of the country – just like it’s been for the last two decades… this isn’t a Dem/Rep thing – this is just the way it is now… we better adapt, or it could get really ugly… my 2 cents.


      • The Ed says:

        Mike T,
        My son is autistic. He has a degree in electrical engineering and cannot get past the interview to start what should be his career. He did not give up. Eventually he got work through a temp agency. The pay is not good. But he would rather earn his way than be supported through government largess. Ask him how he feels about people who would rather do nothing and get paid for it.
        The job creators ultimately look for one thing: Can the job applicant offer the skills and the labor that makes him/her worth the money invested. The job creators are the buyers and the employees are the sellers. It is up to the sellers to provide a product that the buyers need. The economy does not function where the buyers must buy the product even when it does not suit the buyer’s needs.


        • Mike T says:

          The economy does not function when there IS NO DEMAND because the vast majority of workers in the economy can’t afford to buy stuff… Hell, Henry Ford knew this a century ago so he paid his workers more so they could buy his products.

          Citing singular examples is really kinda pointless – I could point to people I know who have applied for literally hundreds of jobs and not found work despite being overly qualified. The problem is demand, not lack of effort on the job seekers.

          BTW – it sounds like you believe in the whole “job creator” myth… we’ll never agree then – if you can’t see how “trickle-down economics” has failed over the past 30 years, then there’s really no point in continuing a discussion. The REAL job creators are the massive lower/middle class who buy stuff. We’ve tried going the other way and giving the rich more and more of the pie – yet they refuse to create more and more jobs – it’s almost like they realize that they don’t have to do that to meet the current demand!


  3. Grumpa Joe says:

    The tendency today is to stay unemployed for as long as the government provides benefits. It is a low paid vacation. Even the very responsible people I know who want work, and do work, avoid searching until the very end of benefits. Great essay, even though Dave the liberal doesn’t think so.


    • Thanks, Joe. You’re right. So much of economics has to do with incentives and dis-incentives. Government policies are intended for certain purposes, usually well-meaning. Many of the consequences are not intended, but are not well known…so they’re rarely questioned.

      – Jeff


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