Obama wrong, inequality doesn’t explain pay gap

From one point of view, President Barack Obama’s invocation of the hoary “77 cents” myth regarding the relative earnings of women and men was a shallow and cheap political pander. Democrats, eager to maintain their advantage with women voters, stoke grievance. It’s the same playbook they’ve used to solidify their standing with black voters: Suggest whenever and wherever possible that Republicans are racists. It’s crude, offensive and libelous — but effective.

Many in the press and in progressive circles regard this president as a bit of a thought leader. So it’s remarkable that he is willing to betray how out of touch he is with social science by peddling the decades-old and utterly outdated idea that our great challenge as a society is ensuring women equal pay for equal work.

Conservatives like Christina Hoff Sommers, Charles Murray and Kay Hymowitz, have long been drawing attention to the declining fortunes of boys and men in American society. They have been joined recently by nonconservative scholars and researchers as well.

A paper by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists, “Wayward Sons,” published by the center/left think tank Third Way, outlines the startling decline in the fortunes of moderately to poorly educated men over the past several decades. The title of the opening chapter is direct: “Women Gain Ground, Men Lose Ground.” Starting with the cohort born in 1951, a gender gap in high school completion has opened up and continues to grow. More girls than boys are graduating from high school.

The college picture is even starker. Whereas the high school graduation rate for males has stagnated (while women’s has improved), college attendance for males has declined while women have advanced. “Females born in 1975 were roughly 17 percent more likely than their male counterparts to attend college and nearly 23 percent more likely to complete a four-year degree.”

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.