Change Pays

By Doug Farmer  

Following Donald Trump’s victory in the November election, his critics eagerly pointed out the failings of many Americans that led to his triumph. His supporters gladly delighted in the validation the success provided. Lost in the tumult and forgotten in the surprise, the rationale of Trump’s largest voter bloc was building long before the president-elect announced his candidacy, and will continue to build unless it is discussed in plain sight with calm demeanors.

“Unemployment rates” have indeed fallen since the financial crisis of 2008, but mostly only due to the definition in which they are calculated. That specific metric disregards the rise of those neither employed nor seeking work. Fifty years ago, 96.7 percent of working-aged men (ages 25-54) were involved in the job market—that is, employed or actively looking for employment. By 2015, only 88.3 percent fit that billing, while only 84.4 percent are actually employed.

Obviously, the unemployment rate in that particular demographic is neither 11.7 percent nor 15.6 percent. Rather, the “unemployment rate” only references the difference between those two figures, just shy of 4 percent. That is the number of working-aged men without work yet looking for it. It neglects the 11.7 percent who fail to do that much.

For conversation’s sake, let’s round to 12 percent.

Assuredly, some of that 12 percent is unfit to work. Logic indicates another portion of it is lazy, indifferent or, perhaps, both. But to write off nearly an eighth of these men as sloths would be rash.

These are men our society has forgotten, disregarded or discarded. They have lost the simple dignity of the world needing them.

Many wonks and “politniks” draw this phenomenon parallel to one showcasing the falling percentages of men in this demographic being married or having families. On a number of levels, this is a false corollary: A man needing to support children will have greater need for increased income. However, the parallels should not be entirely disregarded: A man deemed unnecessary by the world is unlikely to convince a romantic interest otherwise.

This loss of dignity manifests itself in myriad troublesome ways, not the least of which include alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. Only one demographic has endured an increase in mortality rates since 1999: middle-aged non-Hispanic whites. According to a 2015 paper from two Princeton economists, suicide is up 78 percent in that grouping since 1999, cirrhosis of the liver up 50 percent, and poisonings due to drugs and alcohol an astounding 323 percent.

That was not a typo: 323 percent.

These voters listened to Trump’s promises to restore jobs and “Make America Great Again,” and what they heard was him discussing dignity and pride.

Exit polls indicate President-elect Trump gained that title by bringing these usually passive citizens of democracy to the voting booth.

If he can offer them the dignity and self-worth found in work, or even in looking for work, then maybe the anger and rancor of this election season will have accomplished something lasting and worthwhile.

(Note: Article title quote is from Hamlin Garland of West Salem, “A Son of the Middle Border,” 1917.)

Doug Farmer has worked at Park Bank since 1981 and began his term on the State of Wisconsin Banking Review Board in 2003.He’s lived in La Crosse since 1971. You can reach him at

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