Single-Parent Families and the Decline of Men

| Wed Mar. 20, 2013 11:01 AM EDT

The participation of men in the workforce has been declining for decades, and along with it so have male wages. David Autor has written a new paper suggesting that part of the reason might be the rise of single-parent households:

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 women are choosing to raise children by themselves, 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.”

....Professor Autor said in an interview that he was intrigued by evidence suggesting the consequences were larger for boys than girls, including one study finding that single mothers spent an hour less per week with their sons than their daughters. Another study of households where the father had less education, or was absent entirely, found the female children were 10 to 14 percent more likely to complete college. A third study of single-parent homes found boys were less likely than girls to enroll in college.

“It’s very clear that kids from single-parent households fare worse in terms of years of education,” he said. “The gender difference, the idea that boys do even worse again, is less clear cut. We’re pointing this out as an important hypothesis that needs further exploration. But there’s intriguing evidence in that direction.”

I've only skimmed through the paper itself, but it looks like Autor's evidence is indeed no more than suggestive. The growing gap between men and women is unquestionable, but the association between this gap and the rise of single-parent households is considerably less firm.

Still, it's intriguing, and Autor is a guy to take seriously. I'll try to have more later on this after I've read the paper more carefully.

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