Liberal Professor Says Single Parenthood Crippling Boys and Men

The decline of two-parent households may be a significant reason for the divergent fortunes of male workers, whose earnings generally declined in recent decades.

It's not the entire answer, but it certainly is an interesting point of view. And what is extraordinary is that it comes from the left and appears in the New York Times.

The decline of two-parent households may be a significant reason for the divergent fortunes of male workers, whose earnings generally declined in recent decades, and female workers, whose earnings generally increased, a prominent labor economist argues in a new survey of existing research.

David H. Autor, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that the difference between men and women, at least in part, may have roots in childhood.

Only 63 percent of children lived in a household with two parents in 2010, down from 82 percent in 1970. The single parents raising the rest of those children are predominantly female. And there is growing evidence that sons raised by single mothers “appear to fare particularly poorly,” Professor Autor wrote in an analysis for Third Way, a center-left policy research organization.

In this telling, the economic struggles of male workers are both a cause and an effect of the breakdown of traditional households. Men who are less successful are less attractive as partners, so some women are choosing to raise children by themselves, in turn often producing sons who are less successful and attractive as partners.

“A vicious cycle may ensue,” wrote Professor Autor and his co-author, Melanie Wasserman, a graduate student, “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.”

The conclusion is obvious but ordinarily taboo. But Freakonomics has made it safer for liberals to explore the economic and social intersections of formerly taboo topics like this.

I imagine that there are plenty of furious responses to this out there, but it's an obvious point. Children do need a rounded household of parents of different genders and they also need a role model of their own gender.

The frenzied search for role models in the last two generations has been the unspoken result of the dissolution of the two-parent family.

That doesn't mean that mothers are to blame. The collapse of the family is the result of economic policies and social mores, not the actions of men or women in general.

And this has obvious implications for the construct of gay marriage as well. An unbalanced family is an unhealthy environment for a child. Artificially creating such environments is selfish and unfair to children.

Professor Autor said in an interview that he was intrigued by evidence suggesting the consequences were larger for boys than girls, including one study finding that single mothers spent an hour less per week with their sons than with their daughters. Another study of households where the father had less education, or was absent entirely, found the female children were 10 to 14 percent more likely to complete college. A third study of single-parent homes found boys were less likely than girls to enroll in college.

“It’s very clear that kids from single-parent households fare worse in terms of years of education,” he said. “The gender difference, the idea that boys do even worse again, is less clear cut. We’re pointing this out as an important hypothesis that needs further exploration. But there’s intriguing evidence in that direction.”

Professor Autor’s own explanation builds on existing research showing that income inequality has soared, stretching the gap between rich and poor, and that a smaller share of Americans are making the climb. The children of lower-income parents are ever more likely to become, in turn, the parents of lower-income children.

Moreover, a growing share of lower-income children are raised by their mother but not their father, and research shows that those children are at a particular disadvantage.

Obviously race is also a factor in these numbers, though Autor avoids discussing it.

For all Americans, it has become much harder to make a living without a college degree, for intertwined reasons including foreign competition, advancements in technology and the decline of unions. Over the same period, the earnings of college graduates have increased. Women have responded exactly as economists would have predicted, by going to college in record numbers. Men, mysteriously, have not.

Among people who were 35 years old in 2010, for example, women were 17 percent more likely to have attended college, and 23 percent more likely to hold an undergraduate degree.

“I think the greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” said Michael Greenstone, an M.I.T. economics professor who was not involved in Professor Autor’s work. “And it’s very, very scary for economists because people should be responding to price signals. And men are not. It’s a fact in need of an explanation.”

1. College isn't quite the surefire solution to employment that these people imply. It's not. Unemployment has hit college grads hard and much of the marketplace's demand for college degrees is just an attempt to compensate for the unqualified high school graduate and the employer's market caused by the recession.

2. The education system is friendlier to women than it is to men and more geared toward their skillset than the male skillset. That is becoming truer than ever with the arrival of the zero tolerance campus.

3. Working class men still lean more toward working with their hands.

4. It doesn't matter who has more degrees, but who works more steadily and whose skills can survive an economic recession. A degree is worthless, as plenty of job-seekers are finding out. A skillset that enables you to work outside the traditional corporate economy is worth its weight in gold. Sometimes literally.

“If Democrats have as their goal being the party of the middle class, they have to come to the realization that they’re not going to be able to get there solely through their standard explanations,” said Mr. Cowan, a veteran of the Clinton administration. “We need to ask, ‘How can we get these fathers back involved in their children’s lives?’ ”

But 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.

Both men largely miss the point. Single parent families emerge where the people are a mess. They're not the product of a gender, because men and women don't exist in isolation from each other. That is the obvious point of Autor's analysis. Trying to argue that men or women are the problem makes no sense when continuity and society is built on the interactions of men and women.

The real question to be asked here is whether as a society we now

1. Economically favor marriage

2. Culturally favor marriage

3. Socially favor marriage

And the answer is that increasingly we do not. What we favor is permanent immaturity and government dependency. The way that men behave and the way that women behave are outgrowths of this phenomenon.

Tags: gender