A downward spiral

Monday June 10, 2013

The Sun Journal of Lewiston (Maine), June 5, 2013

Women are now the leading or solo breadwinners in 40 percent of households, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center.

That sounded like good news -- women are succeeding in the workplace and closing the pay gap with men.

But, when you look below the surface, the numbers are both nuanced and unsettling.

First, women are heading up more households these days, but more often due to unfortunate circumstances than choice. With more babies being born out of wedlock and more marriages ending in divorce, women are often left raising children in poverty.

While there are many heroic single mothers, on average, children in single-parent homes score lower on achievement tests, exhibit more academic and emotional problems and are more likely to become involved in drug use and crime.

The other half of the survey result is also true: more women are now earning more money than the men in their family, and that would be great if they had simply surpassed their partners’ earning power.

But far more lower- and middle-income women have stagnant incomes while their mates are quickly losing earning capacity.

This is the message of a study recently released by David Autor and Melanie Wasserman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Their research explores a widening gap in the U.S. between men and women in education, labor-force participation and wages.

Women are generally having more success than men adjusting to our rapidly developing service and knowledge economy.

Women are now 17 percent more likely to have attended some college and 23 percent more likely to have completed a four-year degree than men.

Meanwhile, incomes have declined by 25 percent in real terms for the least-educated and youngest males.

Traditionally, men carved out solid incomes and lives in what the researchers call production, craft, operations and labor. Women, meanwhile, have traditionally been over-represented in clerical, administrative and sales occupations.

Both of these middle-skill, middle-income job categories have been decimated over the past 30 years by foreign competition, the decline of unions and the introduction of labor-saving technology.

According to the MIT study, men have more often adapted by falling back into the service-sector economy with reduced wages.

Women, meanwhile, have been far more likely to acquire training and obtain better jobs in high-skill, technical and managerial jobs.

In short, women are more likely to be standing still or moving up the economic scale while men in the U.S. are more likely to be moving down.

In fact, as more women enter the workforce, the participation rate for men is actually declining.

No one is sure why men are failing to adjust, but one intriguing bit of research posits that women are more likely to have "the combination of cognitive and interpersonal skills" that are more highly valued in the new economy.

One indication of that is that the only men who have gained economic ground over the past 20 years are those with college educations.

Another theory points to research showing that boys raised in single-family households are less likely to go to college and find successful careers than girls raised by single parents or boys raised by both parents.

This theory speculates that boys are hurt by the absence of male/provider role models. In 1970, 14 percent of children lived in a single-parent household. That has risen to 33 percent today.

Another theory points to the rapid increase of incarcerated men. For instance, in 1970, 5 percent of black men between the ages of 25 and 39 years without a high school degree were in prison. Today it is more than 25 percent.

This significantly restricts their earning power when they leave prison and makes them less desirable for successful women as marriage partners.

The MIT authors offer no solutions, other than to say the problem should be a "central topic for social science research and public policy."

They warn, however, of a serious downward spiral.

"A vicious cycle may ensue, with 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."


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