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Alien abduction? Where have the workers gone?

By Chuck Bentley

It should be a bigger story. Missing from the U.S. labor market: more than 89 million people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some of those people are retired, students, or stay-at-home moms who chose not to enter the ranks of the employed, but included in that number are discouraged workers, a mysterious subset of the population almost undetectable to the statistician’s eye.

This category of people is not included in the data that make up the almost 8 percent unemployment rate. They don’t show up as among the 63.6 percent participating in the labor force – a 31 year low – which even includes the unemployed looking for work. They have been, in terms of impact on working society, seemingly erased.

Conspiracy theorists might wonder if at last we have evidence of alien abduction, mass migration, or worm holes to parallel universes. With the Presidential Jobs Council abandoned, it would seem America has given up the search and ceased to ask where our missing workers have gone … and more importantly, how we get them back.

While the labor-market data communicate little information about where so many have gone, other breadcrumbs of data have left a trail.

The food stamp rolls are up to 47 million people, adding an average of 11,269 a day. More than 8 million have been placed on disability, going from one on disability per 65 workers in 1967 to one on disability per 16 workers in 2012. Unemployment insurance has been stretched thin, with more than 6 million jobless Americans having exhausted their benefits since 2007.

What makes this especially tragic is the tremendous investment made in reaching out to the lost workers. Americans were told that an $875 billion stimulus package was just what the doctor ordered to get the economy growing again and bring down unemployment.

But empirical studies show that for every dollar the government spends, private sector spending drops 50 cents. We’ve gotten virtually no stimulus from the enormous amount of money spent by the federal government, as a flat-lining GDP indicates.

Meanwhile, we were told that extending unemployment benefits – even up to 99 weeks – would actually stimulate the economy. Somehow, the government was going to spend us back to work.

According to the Heritage Foundation, both government and privately funded researchers have concluded that extending unemployment benefits from the usual 26 weeks to 99 weeks actually causes a half point increase in the unemployment rate. It seems that when work is not required, a whole lot of people decide not to, choosing to wait until the benefits cease. It is an ongoing tragedy of much of national policy that the quickest way to create a flawed system is to put it in government control.

It is time for a new recovery model that involves more private sector and less government. We need to rebuild and re-energize the private enterprises that make a great nation, targeted at the community level where real job growth occurs and where real help for the hurting is given.

Such a plan must include better integration of frontline charitable organizations and the church, the best place to combine assistance with accountability. Missing from too many government solutions has been any attempt to require something from those who ask for assistance. Also missing, the personal touch. After 35 years of helping people and businesses our of financial challenges, our counselors at Crown report that sometimes the thing that is most needed is a sympathetic ear and a true concern expressed one on one. The best response to the unemployed cannot merely be “the check is in the mail.”

And it is time that we expand our national understanding of the need for work, beyond mere employment. Work is a righteous endeavor, and even between jobs, it is vital to our society that people have a sense of their responsibility to contribute – in whatever way possible – to the greater good.

Institutionalizing large segments of the population with the attitude that they should not have to act in their own best interests is a mistake that results in generations of poverty. A scriptural principle, somewhat lost today, is that “he who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” It includes the understanding that it is important to give to the best of your ability, even when there is little to give. It affirms the dignity of all efforts. It is not punitive to those who cannot work but disqualifies help for those who will not.

Perhaps the greatest failure of so much talk of government assistance has been the communication of a profoundly flawed message – the canard that government should solve all problems and that the solution rests with Uncle Sam. Lost has been the personal exhortation “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart.”

Millions more of us will face joblessness and difficult days ahead. That is usually not an option we can control; however, we can make every personal effort to get back into the workforce. Organizations such as Crown have developed tools like Career Direct to help people find their way back in the labor market, through self-assessment, training and compassionate counseling. These kinds of programs begin with the idea that your future holds unlimited promise and that every challenge is an opportunity to grow.

It is a misleading and telling accounting trick to void out the humanity of those who have given up the search for work. Politicians like to find ways to make themselves look successful. But we need to face reality and do our part to rebuild a culture of work and a strong economy via the private sector, not through placing hope in more government programs.

Chuck Bentley is CEO of Crown, a nonprofit business and personal finance policy and educational organization, and best-selling author of “The S.A.L.T. Plan: How to Prepare for an Economic Crisis of Biblical Proportions.” Follow him @ChuckBentley and @CrownUpdates.