Much attention has focused on the decline of blue-collar jobs over the past several decades, and “Wayward Sons” duly acknowledges that the loss of low-skilled jobs to automation, globalization and de-unionization may have contributed to the notable decline in wages suffered by less educated men in the past several decades. But the puzzling fact is women with equivalent levels of education have not suffered the same income declines, nor have women’s labor force participation rates declined as men’s have.
While men’s wages have declined for all but the most educated since 1979, women’s wages have increased for all but the least educated. Women’s income gains have far outstripped men’s at every level of education, particularly among college graduates ages 40 to 64.
“Wayward Sons” considers the possibilities: Are women better at the tasks a highly information-rich economy rewards? Is the loss of brawny jobs to blame for men’s falling labor force participation and declining earnings? Each theory gets a hearing.
At length, the authors come to the elephant in the room: the dramatic change in family structure since 1970. In that year, 69 percent of black men without a high school diploma were married. By 2010, only 17 percent were. The marriage rate among non-college attending whites and Hispanics has declined precipitously as well.
The link between family composition and child welfare is well-established. What “Wayward Sons” adds is data on the differentially harmful effects of fatherlessness on sons versus daughters. “Growing up in a single-parent home appears to significantly decrease the probability of college attendance for boys, yet has no similar effect for girls.” Boys from such homes “are 25 percentage points more likely to be suspended in the eighth grade than girls from these households, whereas the corresponding gender gap between boys and girls from households with two biological parents was only 10 percentage points.”
A vicious cycle is clearly underway. Poorly educated women do not find marriageable mates among low-earning or jobless young men. Women then raise children alone and handicap their sons more than their daughters, and the cycle repeats itself.
The collapse of the marriage culture is arguably the “defining issue of our time.” Neither men nor women thrive without marriage, but men and boys seem to suffer more. Fatherlessness is driving income inequality, child poverty and declining mobility. But Obama is manning the barricades on “equal pay for equal work” — a matter addressed by Congress in 1963.