Are Young Women Enabling Young Male Stagnation?

Published October 23, 2015

National Review Online

“It’s about what these women will let guys get away with.” You may not expect to hear commentary like that at your garden variety think tank panel discussion, but it got pretty lively at the American Enterprise Institute discussion on the topic “Do Healthy Families Affect the Wealth of States?”

Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View is author of the above comment. The question at hand was: Why are so many young women (64 percent of moms under the age of 30) having children out of wedlock? The class divide in America is nowhere as wide as on the matter of marriage. College-educated men and women are sticking with the traditional order of marriage first, children after. Not only that, but they are far less likely to divorce than their parents’ generation. Those with only some college or less, by contrast, are much less likely to marry before having children, and much more likely to divorce if they do marry.

McArdle was answering her own question in a sense. She noted that many who had studied the retreat from marriage among the uneducated propose the “working-class men are garbage” thesis. According to this view, lots of young men are unemployed and playing video games all day. Why would a young woman want to marry such a loser? She’d just be getting another kid.

But as McArdle observes, someone is enabling that behavior on the part of the young men. Someone is putting a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and paying the electricity bill so that the game console stays on. Is it his parents? Or is it a young woman? If she has a child (possibly his child), she is eligible for a whole panoply of government assistance, including TANF, food stamps, WIC, housing assistance, low-income–home-energy assistance, and much more. Thirty years ago, in Losing Ground, Charles Murray wondered whether the welfare state was enabling the sort of behavior that isn’t good for people – like having children out of wedlock.

The question still stands. In the interim, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed a welfare-reform bill that was successful in reducing welfare dependency to some degree and certainly contributed to a drop in childhood poverty. Two disheartening things have happened since: (1) the Obama administration unilaterally vitiated the work requirements in the welfare law through regulation, and (2) the secular trend toward unwed parenthood continued unabated.

Is it the lack of jobs for high school graduates that has made young men less “marriageable” or is it the retreat from marriage that makes kids who grow up in unstable home less able to take advantage of job opportunities. Chicken? Egg?

Most of the panel members agreed that causation is probably a two-way street. What is not in doubt is the association of intact families with greater wealth, employment, security, and all-around high functioning. A study by W. Bradford Wilcox, Joseph Price, and Robert I. Lerman found that states with higher than average percentages of married parents were associated with higher median incomes, lower levels of child poverty, greater social mobility, and higher male labor-force-participation rates, among other measures of success, than states with higher levels of unwed parenting.

Life ain’t fair, and cannot be made perfectly fair. But it almost seems a conspiracy of silence among the college educated to keep from the working class the key secret to their success. Particularly in families with college-educated couples who don’t divorce (the vast majority), children are given security, stability, money, time, a kin network, and a thousand other advantages. The children of single parents, by contrast (and yes, many do fine) are much more likely to suffer from feelings of abandonment, to live in poverty, to cope with emotional tumult in their mother’s life (most live with mom), to be sexually abused, to be forced to adapt to a blended family, and so on. Also, as David Autor and Melanie Wasserman suggest in their report Wayward Sons for the Third Way: “A growing body of evidence . . . indicates that the absence of stable fathers from children’s lives has particularly significant adverse consequences for boys’ psychosocial development and educational achievement.”

There may be lots of reasons, starting with their parents, why many young, high-school-graduate males are unemployed and playing video games. But if young women consider them unfit husbands, they ought also to be unfit fathers, right? Unless, the state is the father. Over to you, Charles Murray.

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. © 2015

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