New York politicians are calling on Washington to grant work permits to the hundreds of thousands of migrants living in the city, arguing that there is a labor shortage in many businesses. But this argument overlooks the significant decline in labor force participation among the less-educated in New York.
New York does not have a shortage of workers. The real issue is a shortage of people willing to work, and flooding the job market with migrants will only depress wages and not help the situation.
Nationally, there are 44 million US-born individuals of working age (16 to 64) who are not in the labor force, which is almost 10 million more than in 2000. In New York, this number is 2.5 million.
Most of those not in the labor force do not have a bachelor’s degree. However, those advocating for immigrants to fill these jobs often represent industries such as hotels, restaurants, and retail stores, which typically do not require higher education.
The labor force participation rate for US-born men without a bachelor’s degree in New York has declined from 88% in 1960 to 74% in 2000, and further to just 66% in April 2023. Even for prime-age men (25 to 54), who traditionally have higher work rates, there has been a decline from 96% in 1960 to 83% this year.
The long-term decline in labor force participation among the less-educated can be attributed to various factors. Some researchers believe that globalization and automation have reduced demand for less-educated labor and led to a decline in wages, making work less appealing. Others point to generous welfare and disability programs that discourage work.
For men in particular, changing societal expectations about work and marriage, substance abuse, obesity, and criminal records may contribute to the decline in work.
A significant body of research indicates that the decrease in labor force participation among the less-educated contributes to social problems such as crime, drug addiction, social isolation, depression, and even “deaths of despair” like suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning. It also hinders economic growth, creates a fiscal burden, reduces political participation, and affects family formation.
Solving this problem requires reforming welfare and disability programs to prioritize a return to work whenever possible. Additionally, addressing substance abuse and expanding mental health treatment options are crucial. Reassessing our approach to globalization, including off-shoring factory jobs, should also be considered.
The wages for the less-educated have been stagnant or declining for decades. Allowing wages to rise must be a key part of the solution, which could involve reducing immigration.
In New York, immigrants make up 28% of the non-college labor force, double the share in 1970. This not only impacts wages but also allows policymakers to ignore the significant decline in labor force participation.
One notable observation is that politicians and business groups in New York call for work authorization for illegal immigrants but never mention the need to get Americans back to work.
We have a clear choice: either address the decline in labor force participation or continue to rely on increasing immigration to fill jobs, while dealing with the social issues that arise from a significant portion of the working-age population not participating in the labor force.
Steven Camarota is the director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies.