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Making Working Men More Economically Attractive

Little Rock     The headline was no tipoff on this piece in the Times’ business section.   Another article about how much the economics of single parent households really suck, blah, blah, blah, please tell us something we didn’t know, will ya?  So they did by basically in so many words and with all due concern letting we know that men, especially working men without college degrees are a problem.  How can I summarize their argument delicately…men it seems are, how can we say it, losers.

“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.

“Make men more attractive.”  Now that’s a lifetime project for many men and, way too often, an ambition for the women, parents, and children who love them.

The argument here was based on a recent study from an MIT professor David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, his graduate assistant.  They note that there is a vicious cycle pulling some men down in their view:

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.”

So as the reporter, Binyamin Appelbaum hustled around trying to get a grip on this phenomena from one academic to another, he basically found that the experts all agree:  it’s a head scratcher!

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.”

So it turns out there are terrible consequences at the deepest levels of society, including family life and class stratification that flow from economic inequity and the stagnation of working and lower income family wages.  No surprise there either, but the terrible nightmare that the avarice of a generation would in fact force the sins of the “fathers” of such policies fall not on their sons and daughters but on generations of low-and-moderate income families is tragic.

I have to also wonder as we wallow around looking for an explanation whether part of the paradox of making men “more attractive” economically, is that men in their precipitous financial fall have still not leaned to be the docile workers that employers demand, and whether women in their more recent climb in wages are not “leaning in” as aggressively within the workforce yet, making them more currently coveted by employers?

More training and more education would undoubtedly be good for me – and women – but finally allowing people to breakthrough and earn living wages, or what once we called “family-supporting” wages, might be the easiest way to “make men more attractive” in building and holding these families together.