The view from the top is that America's economy is improving, slowly but surely. The jobless rate is a mere 5 percent. The dollar is strong. The markets are at or near record highs. And "we are coming close to our assigned congressional goal of maximum employment," as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen intoned earlier this year.
You might think this is all good for effective incumbent Hillary Clinton, since economic performance is said to be such a strong indicator of how presidential elections go. If the economy is on the right track, the party in power stays in power. If the economy is foundering, voters throw the bums out.
But look beyond those headline economic numbers trumpeted by the American elite. Because these statistics have a way of disappearing from view an army of men who should be employed but are not.
Nicholas Eberstadt's brief but extremely informative new book Men Without Work tells the otherwise hidden part of America's economic story.
In any given month, nearly one out of six prime working-age men (ages 25 to 54) in America have no paid work. That number is not a typo. It's not some "shadow stat" or "unskewed" result. It is drawn from straightforward calculations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But many of these men are not counted as "unemployed" in our statistics. The vast majority of them would not even qualify as "discouraged workers" who cease looking for jobs because of difficulty in finding work. They are men who do not have a job and aren't looking for one. The relationship between the unemployment rate and the American "work rate" is increasingly tenuous.
You can slice the numbers other ways, and Eberstadt does. "By 2015, nearly 22 percent of U.S. men between the ages of 20 and 65 were not engaged in paid work of any kind, and the work rate for this grouping was nearly 12.5 percentage points below its 1948 level," Eberstadt writes. Most of this cannot be accounted for by the rise of younger men receiving more education, or men retiring earlier. "In short, the fraction of U.S. men from ages 20 to 65 not at work in 2015 was 2.3 times higher than it had been in 1948."
For a little more perspective, the overall "work rate" of prime-age men (25 to 54) in 2016 is about the same or worse than it was in 1930, during the Great Depression. Perhaps the most chilling thing about Eberstadt's book is that this army of unemployed men has been growing steadily for half a century, and growing at a rate that seems entirely unconnected to the upward and downward swings of the economy.
Who are these out-of-work men? A huge portion of them are just floating through life. Some of them live with an older parent. These men tend to be unmarried. They don't attend church. They don't belong to civic groups, or do a lot of caregiving for other relatives. For his part, Eberstadt doesn't come down hard on blaming either cultural factors like the decline of stigma for joblessness, or structural and economic reasons, like globalization and trade.
Not all of these men without work are Trump voters. In fact, a significant portion aren't voters at all (they are felons who have served their time and been released). Less than 10 percent of the men without work are pursuing some form of education or training that might make them working men. Many of the men without work belong to a racial minority. But immigrant men outpace natives in their overall work rate. If you don't know many prime-age men who are unemployed and not looking for work, that's a good indicator that you're somewhat insulated within the parts of the American class system that are doing well. It also means you are insulated from the retired parents, girlfriends, and friend networks on which these men's lack of work also exacts a cost.
Even when his policies seem economically illiterate, or tinged with an unproductive nostalgia, Donald Trump ends up winning this issue by default, because his campaign questions the entire modern consensus about economic policy. These out-of-work men and the people who know them can't be reassured by saying, "Actually, America is already great. The Fed chair says we have maximum employment."
Trump questions the trade deals that make a globalized economy possible. He says he would put pressure on individual job creators. And yes, he invokes the image of the kind of economy that no president can recreate. "It used to be, cars were made in Flint and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico," Trump said in Michigan last week. "Now, the cars are made in Mexico and you cannot drink the water in Flint."
Trump's pitch is to the part of America that has a good reason to think the government is ignoring them. The official employment statistics do just that.
Part of the problem for Hillary Clinton is that she is running on a continuation of the "success" of the Obama years. For the millions of men who don't work, and the people on whom they depend, the Obama years haven't been that much better than the Bush years, or the Clinton years before them. Yes, Hillary Clinton has an economic plan that includes some tax cuts, and a dose of federal investment. But the most memorable thing Clinton has said about her economic plans is that "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.
It's getting late, but maybe Hillary Clinton could start by taking a page from the last President Clinton. She could just cite some of the numbers in Men Without Work, address herself to them and their families, and say, "I feel your pain."