The fact that men are overrepresented at the very highest echelons of American society—the U.S. Congress, Fortune 500 executive suites, faculty lounges at major universities—often obscures the fact that boys at the middle and bottom of the economic ladder are falling further and further behind girls in educational attainment. In recent years, however, a growing number of scholars and commentators have started to pay attention to the particular challenges facing boys. Hannah Rosin, for example, has speculated that girls are inherently better suited to the types of skills required in a post-industrial society, and Christina Hoff Sommers has highlighted the ways the K-12 education system fails to cater to boys’ interests and needs.
An important new study from leading economists, led by MIT’s David Autor, has added a new dimension to this discussion: the way that changes in family structure—in particular, the rise of fatherlessness homes—has done particular damage to boys’ prospects. The New York Times reports:
New research from social scientists offers one explanation [for the gender gap]: Boys are more sensitive than girls to disadvantage. Any disadvantage, like growing up in poverty, in a bad neighborhood or without a father, takes more of a toll on boys than on their sisters. […]
“Boys particularly seem to benefit more from being in a married household or committed household — with the time, attention and income that brings,” Mr. Autor said.
The researchers compared families based on whether the parents were single or coupled, and also looked at the education level of the mother, the income of the neighborhood and the quality of the school. They said they could not isolate which variable mattered most, probably because they are all intertwined.
But they said there were clues to why boys are extra sensitive to disadvantage. A big one is that impoverished households are more likely to be led by single mothers, and boys suffer from a lack of male role models.
“It’s quite possible that daughters are drawing the lesson that I’m going be the sole provider and the head of the family and take care of everything,” Mr. Autor said. “Sons could be drawing the lesson that the men I see around me are not working or committed fathers. They’re doing other stuff.”
The finding that inequality and social decay hit boys hardest poses challenges to policymakers on both sides of the aisle—to thinkers on the right who downplay the obstacles that poverty poses to mobility, and to thinkers on the left who ignore the importance of family structure and assert that the genders are essentially interchangeable.
There is clearly no silver bullet policy solution to this problem; helping low-income boys achieve their potential would probably require a range of reforms, to our educational system, to our economic policies, and to our norms and expectations surrounding gender and family. But it’s important that we start thinking about how to address this problem, not least because, as we’ve highlighted before, male underachievement can create a vicious cycle: If boys who grow up without fathers are less likely to succeed—less likely to get a high school degree, less likely to stay out of the criminal justice system—then they are also less likely to get married and be stable role models for their own children. The cycle then repeats itself, and America keeps coming apart.