Economist: Single Motherhood Helps Explain Decline of Men in Education, Employment

April 1st, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

I suppose it’s an example of “defining deviancy down” to say that this article shows promise in trying to understand the decline of men and boys in education and economic outlook (New York Times, 3/20/13).  The truth is that it gives only the slightest glimpse at the likely causes of men’s and boys’ difficulties in those areas.  But the fact that a paper that’s as dismissive of the trials of the male half of the population as the Times usually is takes as fair and balanced an approach as the article does must be counted a step toward reason and away from the mythology that pervades the communications media.
The purpose of the piece is to report on an analysis of current data by MIT economist David H. Autor.  I look forward to the day on which a reporter writing such a piece actually reads the work his/her article is about.  NYT reporter Binyamin Appelbaum disappoints on that score preferring a few brief quotations from Autor and others to knowing what Autor’s paper “Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gaps in Labor Markets and Education” says (Third Way, 2013).

Still, by the admittedly low standards of the Times, the piece isn’t too bad.  A fair reading of it encourages readers to grasp some of the known facts about the alarming declines in the education – and therefore the earnings – of men and boys.  To a creditable degree, Appelbaum eschews the usual nonsense hawked by the likes of Hanna Rosin whose book, The End of Men, joyfully announced that men, being simply less flexible than their innately superior sisters, are, presumably by some process of social Darwinism, headed for the evolutionary trash heap.

Sensible thinkers like Autor pay no attention to the politically pre-figured notions of Rosin and her ilk.  They actually consult known data on the subject and, when they do, some interesting and potentially usable ideas emerge.

First, Autor makes a compelling case for the proposition that men and women, particularly the younger ones, are converging in their earnings, i.e. the wage gap between the sexes has all but disappeared among those just entering the labor market.  That’s due to a combination of factors, but, while middle range jobs – those that pay reasonably well but require little more than a high school education – have nearly dried up for both men and women, men of low educational attainment have tended to move into less-productive service sector jobs while women have tended to stay in school.  That higher education has tended to position those women better than men when it comes to earnings.

And, being economists, that has Autor’s colleagues confused.  After all, one of the basic tenets of the discipline is that people will tend to enhance their economic prospects.  And, according to the data, women have done that.  They’ve responded to the decrease in good jobs that can be gotten with a modest education by educating themselves better.  But men haven’t.  Far from responding to the change in economic outlook by staying in school longer (a decision that would greatly increase their earning potential), they’re doing the opposite – opting for the lower paying jobs that can be gotten with their existing level of education.

That behavioral contradiction to the most basic assumption of economics predictably alarms economists.  For his part, Appelbaum pronounces it “mysterious.”

It’s not.  Memo to Appelbaum, that’s one reason you read the work you’re writing about.  You don’t call something mysterious that actually has some very sound explanations for it, even if they’re far from definitive.

To his credit, since economics doesn’t explain the behavior of American males over the past 40 or so years, he consults other disciplines and there he finds that family structure is certainly one of the primary suspects in solving the riddle of the decline of men and boys in education and employment.

Of course by “family structure,” I mean the contrast between single-mother-headed households and those with two biological parents.  Would the same hold true for single-father families?  It’s hard to say since there’s essentially no data on the subject, but we do know that the average earnings of single fathers is about 50% higher than it is for single mothers.  So to the extent that lack of income is a proxy for poor child performance in school, the children of single dads may do better than those of single moms.

The poverty rate for children in single-mother homes is an astonishing 46.9%; that of children of single fathers is about half that.

And of course, when it comes to child outcomes, money matters.  Autor calls this “the robust relationship between household financial resources and the educational attainments of children.”  For example, in one dataset, 80% of children in the top quartile of earnings entered college but only 29% of those in the bottom quartile did.  That’s a disparity that’s only increasing with time.  Moreover, recent research shows that it’s explicitly income that affects children’s school performance as opposed to, say, the fact that higher earning parents tend to be higher educated parents who in turn demand higher educational achievement of their children.

But income is no respecter of gender.  Girls and boys are equally likely to be poor or wealthy and to be raised in single- or dual-parent homes.  So why are boys doing worse in school and girls better?

The answer is not yet crystal clear, but we have some very enticing information with which to draw some strong, if tentative, conclusions.  I’ve reported before on the study done by Bertrand and Pan at the University of Chicago that finds that single mothers invest less emotionally/psychologically in their sons than in their daughters.  Autor explains:

    In addition to the disparities in the amount and type of parental interaction by household type, single mothers also appear to interact differently with their sons and daughters.  Bertrand and Pan find that single mothers spend an hour less per week with their sons than with their daughters, report feeling more emotionally distant from their sons and engage in disciplinary action such as spanking with their sons.  These disparities in parenting are largely absent from dual parent homes.

One of the problems faced by boys in school is the academic atmosphere’s intolerance for typically male behavior.  Boys are known for being less willing to sit still, less capable of listening for long periods and more disruptive than are girls.  It turns out that what’s true of boys generally is far more so of boys raised by single mothers.  So boys from two-parent families are about 10% more likely to be suspended from school than girls, but for boys and girls raised by single mothers, the gap is 25%.

And when single-mother-headed families were move out of high poverty areas and into more affluent ones, mothers themselves and their daughters benefited, but boys’ performance on a range of measures, both academic and non-academic, fell.  Why?  Because taking boys out of their environment in which fathers and father figures were available to them (even though not resident) struck a blow against their well-being.

The simple fact is that single motherhood is uniquely bad for boys, and it shows.  The likes of Hanna Rosin are too busy rejoicing at the decline of boys to notice, but many of the profound changes this society has undergone in the past 40 or so years have proved to be uniquely injurious to men and boys.  Those include free trade agreements that destroyed manufacturing jobs held almost exclusively by men, skyrocketing incarceration rates that target men at nine times the rate of women and of course the shocking and destructive rise in divorce and single motherhood.

And of course, what neither Autor nor Appelbaum mention is that much of the absence of fathers in the lives of children is directly attributable to the divorce and child custody industry that turns out fatherless children like clockwork.

By now, we have all the information we need about the detriments of single motherhood and its terrible impacts on children.  Those turn out to last into adulthood in the form of reduced educational accomplishment, psychological problems, substance abuse, crime and the like.  It is far past time for policy makers to attend to the dictates of science and begin to make the changes necessary to get this train off its profoundly dysfunctional track.

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