Some people are tenacious. Those who spend their lives looking for Bigfoot or Nessie (the affectionate nickname for the Loch Ness monster) are a great example. For most of us, though, a fruitless quest will eventually be abandoned as a waste of time.
Unfortunately, for an ever-increasing number of Americans, looking for a job has become a lot like looking for Bigfoot, and each year, a smaller percentage of people remain in the hunt.
The relevant statistic here is what's known as the "labor force participation rate." Basically, you take the people age 16 and older in a given geographic area (such as Idaho) and you calculate what percentage of that group is employed. This metric differs from the unemployment rate in a very important way—unemployment is based only on those individuals who are classified as looking for work. Those who have stopped or given up aren't counted.
In 2013, Idaho's labor force participation rate was 64 percent across all ages, races and genders, ranking dead center at No. 25 in comparison with other states. The No. 1 ranked state was North Dakota with a labor force participation rate of 72.9 percent. In last place was West Virginia with a rate of just 53.9 percent.
What is most disturbing about these numbers is how rapidly they've declined. In 2005, Idaho's labor force participation rate was 70 percent. In 2001, it was 70.4 percent. Even as politicians trumpet (slowly) declining unemployment rates, more and more people are leaving the hunt for jobs altogether—some to settle into a lifetime of idleness and dependency.
Youths aged 16-19 are by far the most impacted segment of Idaho's population. In 1999 the labor force participation rate among this demographic was 61.4 percent. In 2011, that rate hit a low of 41 percent. As of 2013, it's recovered only slightly to 43.8 percent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, youth employment is also quite negatively impacted by minimum wage increases.
As the U.S. continues its anemic economic recovery, it's not exactly shocking that politicians would prefer to focus on the decreasing unemployment rate rather than the far more relevant declines in labor force participation rate. Getting people to stop looking for work might benefit politicians in the short term, but it does irreparable harm to our nation in the long run. With fewer individuals working, we see increased debt, increased dependency and decreased well-being.
These concerns are only compounded by government policies that create and increase barriers to entry into the marketplace such as occupational licensing, zoning restrictions and complex tax laws. Starting one's own business used to be as simple as “hanging out a shingle,” but today it's an exhausting endeavor fraught with regulatory minutia, reams of paperwork and a seemingly endless supply of government red tape.
The drastic decrease in the labor force participation rate can be laid squarely on government's doorstep. From increasing barriers to entry into the market to using the tax code to provide special deals in blatant displays of cronyism to incentivizing indolence with an unending stream of taxpayer-funded handouts, government is the reason for the decline and the primary obstacle to recovery.
The market functions most efficiently when its "invisible hand" is left unrestrained, and it's long past time for government to remove the shackles and let people find the jobs—and even the monsters—that they set out to discover.