Thursday, August 25, 2011

Men, Education, and the Economy

Don Peck provided a discussion of a number of important issues in his article in the Atlantic: Can the Middle Class be Saved? A recurring them throughout his article was the role played by men. They are portrayed as being trapped by male stereotypes that drive them—or allow them—to avoid upgrading their education and training, and to avoid moving into non-traditionally-male occupations. The ramifications of this behavior are plentiful. Besides the obvious individual economic pain from low wages or unemployment, society suffers the effects of changes in the male-female relationship. As in most societies, women do not look to marry men who are financially unreliable. With a lot of economically unreliable men around, marriage rates have fallen and divorce rates have risen. Peck sees a growing cultural inequality that tracks the more familiar income inequality and he attributes much of the responsibility to the inability of men to accommodate the changing economy. The fear is that males who “get left behind” will breed children who will get left behind.

“The troubles of the nonprofessional middle class are inseparable from the economic troubles of men. Consistently, men without higher education have been the biggest losers in the economy’s long transformation (according to Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, real median wages of men have fallen by 32 percent since their peak in 1973, once you account for the men who have washed out of the workforce altogether). And the struggles of men have amplified the many problems—not just economic, but social and cultural—facing the country today.”

We have discussed the cultural issues previously here. The focus now is on steps that can be taken to correct this decline.

Peck’s answers for the problems of men would seem to focus on nudging them out of their stereotypical roles. He points out that the need for education has escalated. Whereas a BS or BA degree once was a near guarantee of a healthy financial future, such a state seems now to require post-graduate education or a professional degree. Meanwhile, men have failed to up their game. The fraction of men with bachelor’s degrees now is about the same as in 1980. Men still seem to prefer chasing the ever fewer “manual” jobs in manufacturing or in the crafts.

Peck’s solution involves raising the expectations of men and introducing them to other role models. If one is determined to work in what Peck refers to as a manual job, the educational system ought to at least prepare him to compete in that arena. He points out that vocational training has withered away due to the focus on preparing students for a four-year college. He suggests “career academies” as a means of introducing students to the full range of employment options.

“....schools of 100 to 150 students, within larger high schools, offering a curriculum that mixes academic coursework with hands-on technical courses designed to build work skills. Some 2,500 career academies are already in operation nationwide. Students attend classes together and have the same guidance counselors; local employers partner with the academies and provide work experience while the students are still in school.”
“Vocational training” programs have a bad name in the United States, in part because many people assume they close off the possibility of higher education. But in fact, career-academy students go on to earn a postsecondary credential at the same rate as other high-school students. What’s more, they develop firmer roots in the job market, whether or not they go on to college or community college. One recent major study showed that on average, men who attended career academies were earning significantly more than those who attended regular high schools, both four and eight years after graduation. They were also 33 percent more likely to be married and 36 percent less likely to be absentee fathers.”

These academies could introduce young men to non-traditional roles via male role models and perhaps divert their interests more to careers in service occupations where opportunities are greater.

He also indicates that the country can do a lot more in terms of dealing with those who have been displaced economically.

“Grants, loans, and tax credits to undergraduate and graduate students total roughly $160 billion each year; by contrast, in 2004, federal, state, and local spending on employment and training programs (which commonly assist people without a college education) totaled $7 billion—an inflation-adjusted decline of about 75 percent since 1978.”

Peck’s greatest fear is that a significant number of men will fall out of the economy entirely—while continuing to breed children. More could be done to encourage a continuing desire to work and improve oneself. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) was designed to encourage a work ethic. People who were willing to accept low wage work would receive additional support via this credit. Unfortunately, the system is designed for families or single mothers with children. The credit can be as high as $5000 for a family with two children. For a person without children, or custody of children, the maximum benefit is $438.

“We should at least moderately increase both the level of support offered to families by the EITC and the maximum income to which it applies. Perhaps more important, we should offer much fuller support for workers without custody of children. That’s a matter of basic fairness. But it’s also a measure that would directly target some of the biggest budding social problems in the United States today. A stronger reward for work would encourage young, less-skilled workers—men in particular—to develop solid, early connections to the workforce, improving their prospects. And better financial footing for young, less-skilled workers would increase their marriageability.”

A recent article by Neil Irwin and Brady Dennis in the Washington Post suggests that males are beginning to move in the direction Peck views as necessary. These authors point out that men actually seem to be doing better than women in capturing jobs in the current economy. They provide this chart.

The reason for this surprising result:

“Men are accounting for a growing proportion of jobs in the private education and health-care industries — economic bright spots of the past two years. Simultaneously, women are losing teaching and other local government jobs at a disproportionately high rate as municipalities cut back, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.

“But it is clear that men, having borne the brunt of the downturn, are looking outside their traditional fields to find work. For example, men held about 23 percent of health-care and education jobs before the recession but account for 39 percent of the jobs added in those fields since the summer of 2009.”

It is encouraging to see these trends developing. Women have shown that they are capable of moving well out of their traditional roles; it is time for men to do the same.

One cannot help feeling that those “manual” jobs are going to make a comeback. Aging infrastructure and the coming effects of global warming are going to provide more hands-on work than we can handle. Let’s not forget to keep teaching and upgrading those skills also.

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