The biggest victim of family breakdown might be lower-class men. In City Journal Kay Hymowitz has a fascinating yet alarming piece on how family breakdown hurts men’s prospects more than women’s. One of the most interesting facts she highlights is that if you separate out men from women, women in America are roughly as upwardly mobile as women anywhere else in the world. It’s only when you add men back in and compare the US whole population to populations abroad that things look bleak:
Numerous studies have confirmed that the U.S. has less upward mobility than just about any developed nation, including England, the homeland of the peerage. Yet, if you look at boys separately from girls, as the Finnish economist Markus Jäntti and his colleagues at the Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labor did, the story changes markedly. In every country studied, girls are more likely than boys to climb up the income ladder, but in the United States, the disadvantage for sons is substantially greater than in other countries. Almost 75 percent of American daughters escape the lowest quintile—not unlike girls in the comparison countries of the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Fewer than 60 percent of American sons experience similar success.
Hymowitz’s piece underscores how vexed inequality and mobility are as subjects, and how much they are bound up with broader cultural and social trends. Economic inequality has become such a central topic of discussion lately that President Obama devoted an entire speech to it. But when broken down by gender this way, declining economic mobility looks less like a class problem than a class and gender problem. Presumably upperclass men are still doing fine on basic indicators of social and financial stability—but as lower-class women are making strides, the men they grew up with aren’t.
The underperformance of women relative to men spawned decades of attempts in both private and public forums to equalize the sexes—and many of these programs are still operative today. The underperformance of lower-class men is in some ways a more challenging topic than the underperformance of women was, bound up as it is with an explosive rise in single motherhood that seems difficult to reverse. Any solution will have to be at least partly cultural, since the roots of the problem are cultural, and cultural solutions are difficult. But the difficultly of finding a solution to this problem should be all the more reason to really put our backs into it. Instead, men’s gradual slide into poverty, crime, and social isolation has been largely met with silence.