(Washington Post illustration; iStockphoto)

Nothing much ever seems to change in Busytown. The fictional place that illustrator and author Richard Scarry created half a century ago to explain the adult world to children remains the ideal American small town, neighborly and thriving. Every character is hard at work.

That cannot be said today of the small towns around the country that Busytown symbolizes. So much is different now. Fewer and fewer people of working age are employed. America is not as busy these days.

To economists, work always has been primarily a source of wages. Yet employment means far more than dollars and cents, as Scarry illustrated on nearly every page. As the size and the composition of the labor force shifts, researchers are beginning to think more about the intangible benefits of a job -- the way work creates purpose and meaning in the lives of families and communities.

"That notion of identity involves a lot more than money. It’s something that’s lost when a job is lost," said Frank Levy, an economist retired from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

If so, those small towns have become detached from their old selves. The data show an indefinable malaise afflicts these places -- residents suffer elevated rates of diabetes, disability and death.

Those same residents helped Donald Trump win the presidential election. Trump carried very small cities by 73 points, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Busytown almost certainly would have gone for Trump.

The relationship between work and identity has "a direct connection to the whole question of the kind of displacement that, at least in part, contributed to Trump’s victory," Levy said.

The enduring popularity of Scarry’s books helps explain what some Americans who voted for Trump heard in his speeches. They long to live, once again, in a place like Busytown.

'Everyone is a worker'

Scarry published over 250 books in his career. They reportedly had sold more than 100 million copies worldwide at the time of his death in 1994The books are filled with brightly painted, carefully drawn everyday objects, each dutifully labeled for the benefit of children learning to read. Scarry's anthropomorphic animals -- cats, dogs, pigs, mice, badgers, rabbits and more -- are often labeled with their occupations.

The books are about people getting things done, and how they do it. Scarry shows how the mail is delivered, how new houses are built, how the trains stay on the right tracks, how supermarkets keep the shelves stocked. He took special care in illustrating machines of all kinds, such as combines, sawmills, road graders and diesel locomotives, but he seemed particularly interested in the intricacies of the machine that is the American economy.

The characters carry coins and bills in large sacks so that a child can see the circulation of money. With their earnings, his characters replace worn-out capital and invest in new raw materials.

He even touched on infrastructure investment in a chapter in the book "What Do People Do All Day?" Explaining the new road between Busytown and Workville, Scarry writes "Good roads are very important to all of us." The mayors of the two towns each bring a sack of money to cover the cost.

Chapter by chapter, Scarry lays out the occupations that employ Busytown's labor force, beginning with Farmer Alfalfa, a billy goat, who brings his crop to town to sell to Grocer Cat.

"Everyone is a worker," Scarry writes.

When "What Do People Do All Day?" was published in 1968, 95 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 were employed. By 2014, that number dropped to 84 percent, data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show. While the number of women in the labor force has soared since the 1960s, in recent years, the share of women working has begun to decline, as well.


Crisis in Busytown

Economists do not entirely understand the reasons for this shift, but some believe that technology is part of the explanation.

Technological progress is the chief reason that people in today's economy enjoy standards of living that would have been unimaginable to someone alive two centuries ago, economists say. At the same time, more efficient equipment and better machines can put humans out of work -- at least in the short term.

For instance, automation has allowed American agriculture and manufacturing to produce more and more while employing fewer and fewer workers.


"We are seeing automation reduce the demand for lesser-skilled workers on the part of American business," said Michael Strain, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "We are seeing the rate at which people are participating in the workforce decrease as a consequence."

More recently, international trade -- especially with China -- has become another reason that the economy is employing fewer people. One prominent group of economists has calculated that increased competition from Chinese imports reduced the number of Americans working by at least 2 million since the turn of the millennium, and that many of those people did not go back to work in other industries.

The Great Recession in 2008 exacerbated the problem. Systematic defaults on residential mortgages forced major banks, which were relying on payments from homeowners, into the red. These problems in the financial sector metastasized into the economy at large, putting millions out of work. 

Some conservative commentators have advanced another theory for the decline in the labor force, worrying that American men's work ethic has deteriorated.

For instance, one study published this year presented evidence that young men, in particular, have become less interested in working and more interested in playing video games. A quality as intangible as work ethic is difficult to measure precisely, however, and this question remains a contentious area of research.

For at least one reviewer, Scarry's work serves as a corrective example for the next generation.

"Scarry made adulthood seem industrious and purposeful, an inviting realm to which children must naturally aspire," Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2013, reviewing the 50th anniversary edition of Scarry's "Best Word Book Ever," the volume that established his career.

The virtues of work are an unmistakable theme of Scarry's stories. His books are not just a lesson in vocabulary for children learning to read, but also an opportunity for them to think about their own economic contribution.

"What does your Daddy do? What does your Mommy do?" Scarry asks in "What Do People Do All Day?" "And what do YOU do? Are you a good helper?"

Life, work and death

Whatever its causes, unemployment inflicts not only material hardship but also severe psychological burdens, researchers say.

"These people generally feel miserable," said José Tapia, an economist at Drexel University. "Suicide is very clearly linked with unemployment."

Researchers have also found that when factories are closed, workers are at increased risk of heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. One study by Tapia and his colleagues estimated that, on average, someone who is unemployed is as likely to die as an employed person 10 years older.

"People want to be useful," Strain said. For many, he added, a job is "the way that they get that sense of contribution, and the way that they feel a sense of a dignity and a sense of purpose."

He added that disruptions in the labor market can have broader effects not just on individual workers, but also on their communities. Steady work makes it easier for people to avoid crime. Workers can rely on one another for advice and help in times of need.

That aura of usefulness and purpose permeates Busytown. Work makes Scarry's books orderly and predictable. Everyone has something to do. Everyone works together for the benefit of all. Everyone belongs.

"All of these things reinforce each other and create the fabric in which we all live our lives," Strain said.

How Busytown voted

If the small towns of America were a little busier, would Trump have won the election? It is difficult to say. The relationship between the economy and Trump's success is a complex one.

Trump's supporters are relatively well off, according to a comprehensive study by Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell and his colleague Pablo Diego-Rosell. Among respondents in Gallup's polls who were otherwise similar demographically and socioeconomically, those who were out of the labor force were no more likely to view Trump favorably.

While Trump's supporters themselves are largely economically secure, they live in places that have been cut adrift from the rest of the economy. For example, Rothwell and Diego-Rosell found neighborhoods with costly mortgages can help account for the geographical patterns of Trump's popularity.

In places where children who grow up poor have a harder time getting ahead in life, residents also have more favorable views of Trump, the data shows -- again, after adjusting for demographic and other factors.

Finally, Rothwell and Diego-Rosell found a relationship between Trump's appeal and ill health.

Whatever the forces affecting these communities, they left Busytown untouched. Scarry's books have been subtly altered to accommodate society's shifting mores and values, but the economy described in the books has not changed with the times.

When Scarry visited again at the end of his life for his book "Busy, Busy Town," a TV and VCR repair shop had opened up. On Main Street, though, things seemed about the same as they'd always been. The drug store was still next door to the hardware store, and the candy shop was still across the street from the shoe repairman.

Perhaps all the work his characters do explains why Scarry's world feels so comforting, for both children and adults. Busytown is completely foreign to most Americans' experience of the economy. Yet visiting always feels like coming home.

"My, what a nice town," Scarry writes.

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