Cash Compensation, Donald Trump, Erik Hurst, High-School Dropouts, Idle Time, Illegal Employment, Immigration, James Pethokoukis, Low-skilled labor, Minimum Wage, Native-born Americans, Reservation Wage, Robert Verbruggen, Underground Economy, Undocumented Workers, Video Games and Young Men, work incentives, Work-Leisure Tradeoff
Native-born Americans don’t seem to want low-skilled work, even when they have no skills. Immigrants, on the other hand, seem more than happy to take those jobs. The fact is that hours worked by native high-school dropouts have declined relative to the hours of immigrant dropouts, as noted by Robert Verbruggen in “When Young Men Don’t Work“.
Of course, American men in general are working less, with fewer jobs in occupations and sectors traditionally dominated by men, such as manufacturing. The total demand for manual labor may be decreasing due to automation. Among the youngest cohort, hours spent in educational activities have increased. However, another contributing factor may be that the supply of labor is held down by negative work incentives created by government policy. In any case, the changing composition of the low-skilled work force is a curiosity. Many of the native-born appear to be opting out of work, but not the foreign-born:
“Native high-school dropouts of ‘prime age’ (25–54) work only about 35 weeks per year, on average; comparable immigrant dropouts work 49 weeks. Native dropouts are the outliers. Immigrant dropouts work roughly as much as both native and immigrant men with higher levels of education—and they do 60 percent of the work performed by dropouts in America, despite being less than half of the dropout population.“
Clearly low-skilled work exists , and immigrants are doing a disproportionate share of it. Are some of these low-wage jobs simply inaccessible to the native-born? I doubt it. The argument that immigrants are taking low-wage jobs from Americans implies that immigrants have lower reservation wages. But if that’s so, it confirms the hypothesis that natives are less willing to take low-skilled jobs.
In fact, the native-born might have better leisure alternatives than many of the foreign-born. Verbruggen reviews the work of Erik Hurst of the University of Chicago, who argues that technology such as video games and the internet have increased the value of leisure relative to work. Perhaps natives are better situated than immigrants to draw on other resources to finance an idle, gaming existence. Whatever they do to occupy their time, those resources might include relationships with family having the means to support them, and even a familial tolerance for idleness.
It’s also possible that natives have better access to the bounty of the welfare state. Undocumented foreign workers are at a disadvantage in this regard, but that handicap is eroding. Whatever the reason, it appears that native-born Americans are spared the need to bid aggressively on work they consider undesirable. That decision will often be costly in the longer-run, given the lost opportunity to develop skills on the job.
Another possible explanation for the disparity in average working hours is that more immigrants are willing to work (illegally) in sub-minimum wage jobs. That might well be true for undocumented foreign workers, even in occupations that would otherwise be legal. One could argue that this is unlikely to reduce opportunities for work at or above the minimum wage because wage offers tend to align with skill level. However, sub-minimum wage offers to illegals are probably driven by the risk faced by the employer in making such hires. Just the same, illegal opportunities to work below minimum wage are not the exclusive domain of immigrants. Cash compensation can allow an employer to pay sub-minimum wages to anyone willing to work. Moreover, many natives work in the underground economy in areas such as illicit drug distribution, which might or might not involve sub-minimum wages.
Of course, an individual working at a lower wage must work more hours to earn the same income as one earning a higher wage. Subsistence for the immigrants might require the extra hours. That would explain the disparity in average hours if natives and immigrants truly can be sorted by wage rate, but if that is the case, then the natives must have less interest in low-wage jobs, as postulated, and the natives are content to live at the same subsistence level as the low-wage immigrants by working fewer hours.
Thus, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that native-born Americans are less willing to work in low-wage jobs than the foreign-born. Further increases in the minimum wage would have a tendency to create more idle time among the low-skilled, both native and immigrant. The total legal demand for low-skilled labor would decline. More natives might be willing to supply labor at the higher minimum, but incumbents have an advantage in holding onto jobs that remain after the increase. A higher minimum would certainly convert some formerly legal opportunities into illegal opportunities (at wages below the new minimum), attenuating the total increase in idleness.
Growth in the labor force is a fundamental driver of economic growth, and immigration has always been an important source of labor for the U.S. economy. Low-skilled, native-born Americans seem less willing to offer their services at wages matching their skill levels, but immigrants help to fill that gap and are usually happy for the opportunity. A higher minimum wage will not make their lives easier in the U.S. It should also be noted that greater tolerance for immigration at the low-end of the socioeconomic spectrum need not imply a sacrifice in border security or careful vetting, but it would provide a supply of able and willing workers eager to improve their standard of living.
On a related note, I add the following: James Pethokoukis points to an interesting irony with respect to Donald Trump’s policy positions: “Trump wants 4% (or higher) US growth. Easy. Just massively increase immigration“.