Work for Men
Senator Marco Rubio’s new report looks at how men lost their economic might—and how they can regain it.
We live in the world social science created. The social sciences are meant to describe our social realities, but since at least the Progressive Era, American politics has been defined by attempts to apply their expertise to the management of society and persons as objects of scientific control. Objects of quantifiable analysis must be made fit for measurement, framed or selected by the putatively objective observer. Thus the emergence and metastasis of what is now called the administrative state, and the legion of other managerial systems public and private that make up the environment of American life. A cycle of bureaucratic responses to technological and cultural disruption creates an apparent need for the intervention of more bureaucracy and technology. Social science makes itself useful.
In such a reality, the need is obvious for leaders who combine in themselves the personal responsibility of a political representative, acting on behalf of the people in the realm of prudence and justice, with the dispassionate understanding of the complex structures that order our daily affairs. Only with such governors can the human scale, the space needed for human flourishing, be protected.
The alternative to an administrative state is not, under present socio-economic conditions, no state at all, but a humbler federal structure staffed by this sort of champion, mediating between lived reality and global forces. An example of this combination of social scientist and public servant is Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote his famous 1965 report on black poverty in America, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” while serving as assistant secretary of Labor under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Moynihan went on to serve as an advisor to President Richard Nixon and to represent New York in the U.S. Senate.
Now another senator has set out to be this kind of leader and to make a comprehensive assessment of a concerning feature of American society. One hopes responses to Senator Marco Rubio’s new report will be more constructive than those Moynihan’s received. “The State of the Working (And Non-Working) Man” is a product of Rubio’s Project for Strong Labor Markets and National Development, which has previously published reports on China and industrial policy. In this latest publication, Rubio and his team seek to provide a coherent coast-to-coast account of the decline of male labor force participation and to suggest a series of efforts to ameliorate that fundamental reality and its many negative social consequences.
It is an ambitious piece of work, synthesizing many years of research and theory from figures across the political spectrum; it lays out the beginnings of a blueprint for setting the American man, and thus the country as a whole, back on two feet.
“Our core contention is that structural changes to the nature of the economy, the culture, and public institutions have conspired to offer men less pay, fewer job opportunities, and less respect for the work they perform,” the report argues. “Stripped of material and psychological motivation, many men naturally have opted out of productive life and turned to self-destructive behaviors.” The Rubio report proceeds to address an assortment of contributing factors: deindustrialization, mass immigration, changes to American education, welfare incentives, “and revolutionary changes in American culture and technology.”
To those paying attention either to the macroeconomic data or to their local communities, the basic reality of declining work prospects for American men is inescapable. As Rubio writes in the report’s introduction, “In 2022, there were seven million men in the prime of life missing from the labor force, and 10 million total without work. As the scholar Nicholas Eberstadt points out, this means the share of American men without work today is as large as it was during the Great Depression. Perhaps not coincidentally, four out of every five suicides last year were men.” And as American Compass’s Oren Cass set out in a Labor Day piece here at The American Conservative, among 1,000 workers he and his team surveyed, only 40 percent had “a secure job—defined as annual earnings of $40,000 or more, at least somewhat predictable future income, health benefits and paid time off, and satisfactory control over scheduling.” That falls to 30 percent for workers without a four-year college degree.
The consequences of this extend far beyond a record-breaking year for suicides or other deaths of despair, within a complex interplay of changing cultural and material conditions. Indeed, the Rubio report makes direct reference to its Moynihan precedent as it details the decline of American marriage—a vital psychological motivation and source of respect for menial employment—alongside that of breadwinner jobs and the rise of welfare dependence:
When Moynihan published his landmark Department of Labor report on the crisis of the black family in 1965, he noted alarming levels of welfare use, unemployment, and illegitimacy (25 percent of all black births, at a time when the comparable figure for all births was 8 percent). Those problems only worsened in the decades that followed. Today, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among black Americans is 70 percent; the rate for the population as a whole is 40 percent, well above the rate that Moynihan identified as “catastrophic.”
In an argument no doubt familiar to many conservative readers, but that nowadays rarely gets the imprimatur of a U.S. senator, the Rubio report in part blames America’s leadership class for the cultural revolution’s conquest of America’s most vulnerable families. “The assault on the family had the most dramatic and immediate effect among those on the margins, in places like Appalachia, the rural South, and distressed inner cities,” the authors write. “The poor in those areas suffered from a pre-existing ‘tangle of pathologies,’ as Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it. Those pathologies worsened in the 1960s and 1970s because America’s political and cultural elites lost the moral conviction to fight them.”
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While largely maintaining conventional family lives among themselves, America’s leaders undermined the social supports for marriage and family formation, belittling its importance in public and constructing a welfare system that penalizes the poor for marrying; the report gives the example of a typical working class couple receiving $6,684 more in Earned Income Tax Credit benefits if cohabiting rather than married filing jointly.
In material terms, the primary policy proposal of Rubio’s “The State of the Working (And Non-Working) Man” is an American industrial policy that aims to create the sort of secure jobs, to use Cass’s term, that would allow more men—left behind by a new economy that prioritizes education and female-coded interpersonal roles—to become marriageable, able to provide for families: “Deindustrialization was a key driver in the disappearance of well-paying jobs for men; reindustrialization, therefore, should be a top priority to get men back to work.” That is work for Congress, which means, more fundamentally than any of the detailed policy suggestions of the report, that the real beginning of getting America’s un- and under-employed men back on their feet is something of the spirit: a call for a certain kind of leader.
Will enough of our national elite, men like Rubio, take responsibility for the health of their fellow citizens and not condemn them to their self-destruction? Will they, like this report, take the long view and the broad view to protect the common man from the inhuman forces of global economic and technological disruption? There are signs of hope. In a Wednesday Washington Post opinion piece, Ohio’s Senator J.D. Vance condemned the Revlon doctrine and proposed congressional intervention in the sale of U.S. Steel; as Rubio might summarize his colleague, America’s men cannot afford America to auction off more of its industrial base.