‘Feckless’ Men and our Future

March 28, 2012

For immediate release (546 words)

Common sense and lots of statistical evidence suggest that stable two-parent households provide the best environment for child-rearing. Children continuously raised with both parents are less likely to be in poverty, to get in trouble with the law and are much more likely to excel educationally. 

Divorce and illegitimacy rates have risen in the United States since 1960. This is well known. What is not as well known is that for college graduates divorce and illegitimacy rates stabilized around 1990. Those rates continue to rise, however, among adults with a high-school diploma or less. Charles Murray presents evidence of this and other cleavages between educational classes succinctly and convincingly in his book “Coming Apart.”

The data seem clear-cut enough; more controversial is the assertion the differences in marriage and fertility habits between the college-educated and non-college educated are the source of rising income inequality. Murray is a humble man who is perfectly aware of the caveat of all social-science research: Statistical correlation does not establish causation. Is it rising divorce and illegitimacy that generate increasingly poor economic outcomes among the non-college educated? Or is it poor economic outcomes that generate rising divorce and illegitimacy? Clearly, additional analysis is necessary to tease out cause and effect, and it is likely the best efforts are going to be less than definitive.

A statistic that may at first seem unrelated is striking. The percentage of white males with a high-school education or less, between the ages of 30  and 49 and neither working nor actively looking for work (labor-force dropouts, in economic lingo), stood at four percent in 1970. By 2010 it had tripled to 12 percent. Until the mid 1980s the figure rose as the unemployment rate rose and fell as the unemployment rate fell. This seems consistent with the labor-force dropouts being generated by a poor labor market. Since the mid 1980s, however, the labor-force dropout rate rose during times of falling unemployment. This suggests that something else is driving the exit from the workforce.

A related statistic is what men without jobs did with their time. In 1985 they spent 27.7 hours a week watching TV but in 2005 they spent 36.7 hours.  Murray paints a picture of an increase in the percentage of white high-school educated men who are feckless. Such men are quite capable of siring children but unable or unwilling to support them, much less form stable marriages.

What explains this decline in work ethic? Economic theory suggests that the relative benefits of hard work must have gone down. Stagnant wages among unskilled workers make the benefits of hard work decline — in at least a relative sense. Also, an increased ability to live on the dole makes the relative rewards of work decline (there has been an eight-fold increase in the percentage of the population on disability).

But Murray’s point is that social approval is likely a stronger motive for behavior than relative material gain. This may seem uneconomic but it isn’t. Adam Smith argued that “the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved.”  If there are no social sanctions or consequences against not working, more males will refrain from working. If no one condemns you for being unemployed it is much easier to remain unemployed. Again, teasing out empirically how much of decline in labor-force participation among the less educated is due to stagnant wages, increased transfers and changing social mores is devilishly difficult, and Murray fails to give a slam dunk. 

But what if he is mostly right or even partially right and neither hemming in the dole nor increasing employment opportunities will do much? Stay tuned.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at editor@inpolicy.org.


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