Several weeks ago, Conor Sen, a portfolio manager and a columnist at Bloomberg View, wrote a widely shared essay predicting that housing would become the dominant economic story of the next five years. Sen worried that it would be hard to find enough workers (mostly men, since construction employment is about 90 percent male) to build the requisite number of houses. After all, construction skews young and less educated, and the U.S. is getting older and more educated. “If we had to find 500,000 construction workers tomorrow, from a math standpoint it would be impossible,” he wrote. “The slack isn’t there.”
But the slack is there. Millions of able-bodied men have dropped out of the labor force, mostly because they have stopped looking for work. Many of them badly need to leave their neighborhoods in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and the Deep South, where the rate of non-working men often hovers around 40 percent. Meanwhile, the U.S. needs more affordable housing construction, particularly in its richest and most populous metro areas.
The White House report lists several ways to raise the employment level of male workers, like criminal justice reform and removing occupational licenses. But here is a bolder plan: A state-and-federally funded voucher program that moves men from economically stricken areas toward metros in need of construction workers.
This plan would require heroic (and heretofore unprecedented) participation from all levels of government.