- BEST OF THE WEB TODAY
- March 21, 2013
- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE
Boys Hardest Hit
But the decline of marriage is no bargain for women either.
Now and then truth emerges in surprising places, such as the pages of the New York Times and the work of Third Way, a goo-goo “moderate” Beltway think tank heretofore best known for its pioneering efforts in the crucially important sphere of seating arrangements.
A new gender gap has emerged–one where girls and young women outperform boys and young men in both education and key aspects of the workforce. This gap could be as much about social family structure as it is about economic forces like the demise of labor unions, globalization, and rapid changes in technology. Authors David Autor and Melanie Wasserman make the case that the decline in male achievement is almost exclusively reserved for males born into single-parent households; while females in single-parent households do OK, boys seem to suffer.
Boys in female-headed households “appear to fare particularly poorly on numerous social and educational outcomes,” the authors note. “A vicious cycle [sic] may ensue, with the poor economic prospects of less-educated males creating differentially large disadvantages for their sons, thus potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation.” Boys, it seems, suffer more than girls do from the absence of a father.
Well, maybe. We have a quibble with the conclusion that “females in single-parent households do OK.” That may be true by the measure of individual economic and educational outcomes, but part of the vicious circle involves these girls’ growing up and bearing children out of wedlock (or for other reasons raising them in broken homes). If that is “OK,” our standards have already slipped too low.
Even in strictly economic terms, the life of a single mother is far from easy. So while women who grew up fatherless may be considerably more successful at school or work than their male counterparts, they pay a concomitant price in the burdens of unassisted childrearing.
The study helps explain why, as we argued last week, simple moral suasion is certain to prove an insufficient response to the growing illegitimacy crisis. For a woman, the idea of marrying before bearing children may be highly attractive. It also seems eminently rational. But if it isn’t feasible–if the pool of suitable and available men has diminished to a puddle–bearing a child out of wedlock is an entirely rational course of action for a woman who aspires to be a mother.
The Times approaches this point obliquely in its intriguing closing paragraphs:
Some experts cautioned that Professor Autor’s theory did not necessarily imply that such children would benefit from the presence of their fathers.
“Single-parent families tend to emerge in places where the men already are a mess,” said Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard University. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Suppose the available men were getting married to the available women? Would that be an improvement?’ “
Instead of making marriage more attractive, he said, it might be better for society to help make men more attractive.
Designing a social policy to make men more attractive is easier said than done–and let’s be honest, it isn’t even that easily said. But we can identify ways in which social policies have made men less attractive.
First is welfare. Starting in 1935, the federal government financially enabled out-of-wedlock childrearing through Aid to Dependent Children (later Aid to Families With Dependent Children). The 1996 welfare reform aimed to wean single mothers from dependence on the government, but it did so by encouraging work rather than marriage–an understandable choice given that a good job was easier to find than a good man.
Meanwhile, as Charles Murray shows in “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” the male labor-force participation rate has declined, and government has financially enabled male idleness through disability and other welfare programs. Autor differs with Murray as to how important that is, as the Times notes:
He disagrees entirely with the view of the conservative analyst Charles Murray, in “Coming Apart,” that men have become “less industrious.”
“We’re pretty much in agreement on most of the facts,” Professor Autor said of Mr. Murray. “But he looks at the same facts and says this is all due to the failure of government programs, eroding the commitment to working. And we’re saying, what seems much more plausible here is that the working world just has less and less use for these folks.”
It seems to us that the two explanations are likely both true. The job market undoubtedly has become more difficult for men, especially those who lack educational credentials. But the discouragement that promotes and the attractiveness of a disability or other welfare check are mutually reinforcing incentives.
There are two obvious reasons why the workforce has “less and less use” for men today than it did half a century ago: competition from women and the diminution of the largest category of jobs in which men have a natural competitive advantage–i.e., those that rely on physical size or strength.
“Most economists agree that men have suffered disproportionately from economic changes like the decline of manufacturing,” the Times notes:
But careful analyses have found that such changes explain only a small part of the shrinking wage gap.
One set of supplemental explanations holds that women are easier to educate or, as the journalist Hanna Rosin wrote in “The End of Men,” because women are more adaptable. Professor Autor writes that such explanations are plausible and “intriguing,” but as yet unproven.
It seems fair to say, however, that there is no reason to think men are intrinsically more qualified than women to perform the large majority of today’s office and professional jobs. And if Autor is right, then among the portion of the population that grows up in single-parent households, environmental influences eventually put men at a significant competitive disadvantage in the labor market.
Viewed narrowly from the standpoint of the commercial economy, this is all unproblematic. If women are better workers than men, of course employers are going to hire them. If men’s potential is increasingly wasted, women’s in more likely to be realized. If anything, as a utilitarian standpoint, society is better off overall.
But of course it isn’t. To illuminate why, try a thought experiment: Think about the family as a “business” partnership whose “product” is the next generation.
One reason a business has hierarchies of authority and responsibility is to make the best use of the time of the most vital employees. The CEO may type faster or more accurately than his secretary, but he still delegates the typing because it isn’t the highest use of his time. By contrast, the lone entrepreneur may of necessity do his own clerical work, but at some point he won’t be able to expand further without hiring support staff.
Think of the single mother as the lone entrepreneur. Of necessity she takes on every responsibility of the household: bearing and nurturing the children, providing food, maintaining the physical plant–and, by the way, working outside the home in order to raise operating funds.
Now think of the traditional 1950s household with an employed father and a stay-at-home mother. The mother is able to devote her full efforts to the children and the home. The father may have some secondary household duties–taking out the trash and playing ball with Junior–but most of his time is spent away from home, doing a boss’s bidding, in order to raise money to meet the family’s needs.
Let’s stipulate that in the latter scenario, the mother could do the father’s job just as well as he can. Would that be the highest use of her time? Only if one thinks that office work is intrinsically superior to the development of the next generation.
In some sense the prefeminist understanding of the family was based on the supposition that it was. The father, after all, was the “head of the household,” a dominant figure, even if most of what he did for the household involved submitting him. We’d like to suggest that this was a useful fiction that helped encourage social cohesion by meeting both the male need for respect and the female need to look up to her mate. In reality, it was Mom’s house; Dad just lived there.
Feminism was in part a failure of wit. It mistook fiction for reality and thought men really were dominant. Now, increasingly, men are redundant, women are overburdened, and what pass for families are producing fewer and worse-developed children. It’s gotten so bad that even the New York Times and Third Way are beginning to notice. Alas, the situation probably will have to get worse still before it can get better.