The jobs environment for low-skill workers is finally improving. Unemployment for our least-skilled workers is down to 6.4 percent. That is good news—but now we have a new set of stories, in which American employers say they can’t find American low-skill workers who are worth hiring. The (relatively) tight labor market for low-skill workers reveals the pathologies not only of the American poor, but of an American elite who would gladly displace and replace low-skill American workers.
First, let’s put the good news into perspective. Labor force participation for our least-skilled workers is still only 45.3 percent—whereas it is 73.9 percent for workers with at least a four-year college degree. Even the 6.4-percent unemployment rate for the least skilled needs context. During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for those with at least a four-year college degree peaked at 5 percent. If our elites were experiencing 6-percent unemployment and only 45.3-percent labor force participation, it would be a national crisis. But since it is our least skilled enduring these conditions, it is good news. We should also keep in mind that we are more than eight years into an economic expansion. These are the best of times. The labor market will get worse eventually, and when it does, the least skilled are likely to be hit first, hardest, and longest.
And yet, even that news is too good for some. We are accustomed to hearing employers complain that American workers won’t do low-paying, low-skill jobs. Now those employers are complaining that American low-skill workers are too baked to do the jobs required by the hot economy. The problem isn’t jobs that Americans won’t do—but American employers who don’t want to hire American workers.
The term “American” needs some refinement in this instance. The numbers for unemployment and labor force participation include noncitizen residents—and of the American citizens, many are foreign-born. We don’t have a good collective noun for this legacy population of American residents, but since these people are citizens or (in the majority of cases) future citizens, the term “American” seems good enough. These are the people—black, white, Hispanic, foreign- and native-born—whom employers are doing everything in their power to avoid hiring.
Give these employers their due. Once our low-skill population’s unemployment rate hits a certain level (let’s say 6 percent), finding reliable workers within it does get more difficult. It hurts the bottom line to pay higher wages to more troubled workers who will probably do a somewhat worse job. It is a pain in the butt to manage them and find substitutes when they are late or ghost you. You can hear the stories from many employers of low-skill labor who don’t hire exclusively from within their own families.
The elite of both left and right think the answer is to replace these unsatisfactory American workers with imported employees who are used to living on less, who have more limited access to the welfare state, and who risk deportation if they step out of line. Employers have far more leverage over these employees. In 2013, political elites of both parties favored an immigration bill that primarily increased low-skill immigration, even though the unemployment rate for low-skill workers was over 10 percent. This was the kind of immigration compromise—allegedly humane and moderate—favored by such politicians as Barack Obama, Paul Ryan, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Marco Rubio.
Both the left and the right have their reasons. For the business right, you could argue pure selfishness—but that is only part of the truth. One can fairly view this policy as redistributing opportunity to those real Americans who work hard, from those accidental and undesirable “Americans” who don’t. America’s chambers of commerce are used to being told that their preferences are coterminous with the public interest.
The left believes that these imported low-skill workers will eventually become citizens and left-leaning voters. If the business right is about short-term profits, the left is about long-term power. Both might get their wishes.
But both are missing the point. We cannot import a better working class. Immigrants and their children will eventually become … Americans. And Americans are the problem.
Our institutions work pretty well for our most educated, but pretty badly for our least skilled. This isn’t true only of employment. It is also true of family stability. Most conservatives worry that immigrants won’t assimilate. I worry that many of the children of those immigrants will assimilate all too well into the actual country we live in, with its horrendously unequal distribution of social capital and family stability.
We do not know exactly how to reform our institutions to make them work better for our least-skilled workers. Reihan Salam has wisely suggested that the process of reform will be neither easy, nor quick, nor cheap. I favor wage subsidies, but that is a very small part of any answer.
Whatever the answer is, we need to ask some questions. Should we use our immigration system to make our population of least-skilled workers larger, or smaller? And should we indulge American employers who want to avoid hiring from among our most distressed workers?
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.