Turning Around Low-Income Fathers

Dana Goldstein has a new review of Doing the Best I Can, a long-awaited study of low-income unwed fathers in inner-city Philadelphia and Camden by Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson. The following passage is drawn from the review:

Poor, single dads have a lot in common with their female counterparts. Both young men and young women in these neighborhoods see forgoing contraception as a key sign of sexual trust and fidelity, and they demonstrate little anxiety about unexpected pregnancy—a surprising notion for many middle-class Americans, who viscerally fear the loss of educational, career, and romantic opportunities that premature parenthood brings. Far from disdaining marriage, low-income single parents have fully absorbed mainstream cultural messages about what that institution should entail: two good jobs, home ownership, and a “soul mate” kind of love. Because these goals appear impossible for people living hand-to-mouth at the bottom rung of the American economy, however, men told the researchers that marriage is generally off the table as a realistic lifestyle. Indeed, they mistrust women, whom they see as enforcers of middle-class earning expectations they cannot meet. The love these men feel for their children is far stronger than any romantic connection they’ve made with those children’s mothers.

This narrative proves why marriage-promotion programs are such ill-conceived public policy. It’s not that poor people don’t respect marriage. It’s that in a country in which more than 300,000 low-skill, well-paid manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the early 1950s—replaced by unstable, low-paid positions in the service sector—many single mothers smartly choose not to live with or marry their children’s fathers, because they are not attractive mates. These men are typically unemployed or severely underemployed, and sometimes also addicted or abusive. Marriage promotion won’t work until low-income men get the education, health care (both physical and mental), and jobs they need to contribute to family life.

While it is true that less-skilled manufacturing work has largely evaporated, there are still labor market opportunities for less-skilled workers, as demonstrated by the appetite on the part of U.S. business enterprises for less-skilled immigrants. Per the authors of “Luxury, Necessity, and Anachronistic Workers: Does the United States Need Unskilled Immigrant Labor?,” the declining native-born birthrate and rising educational attainment among the native-born has reduced the size of the less-skilled labor pool. Unfortunately, native-born less-skilled adults appear to be more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse than their immigrant counterparts, and they are more likely to be incarcerated. I am sympathetic to the notion that mass incarceration is to at least some degree a self-perpetuating problem, and that a crime control strategy that emphasized deterrence over incarceration would yield better social outcomes. And Dana is correct to point out that less-skilled service sector work is often unstable and generally not well-paid. To some extent, however, this may reflect the challenging nature of the available labor pool, i.e., employers that have to deal with large numbers of alcohol and drug dependent employees might be less inclined to embrace “high-road” strategies. Rather, they might prefer to limit their commitment to employees, and to shed them at the first sign of difficulty, thus minimizing downside risk. The “casualization” of service sector work may well have exacerbated the problems of less-skilled native-born men — but it may also be a reflection of the fact that many less-skilled native-born men suffer from maladies that impact their work performance. 

Back in 2007, when the labor market was in much stronger shape, Lawrence Mead, a political scientist at New York University, published “Toward a mandatory work policy for men,” which called for a more paternalist approach to encouraging male labor force participation:

Lawrence Mead addresses the problem of nonwork among low-income men, particularly low-income black men, and its implications for families and children. The poor work effort, he says, appears to be caused partly by falling wages and other opportunity constraints but principally by an oppositional culture and a breakdown of work discipline. Mead argues that if government policies are to increase work among poor men, they must not merely improve wages and skills but enforce work in available jobs. Using the same “help with hassle” approach that welfare reform has used successfully to increase work among poor mothers, policymakers should adapt the child support enforcement and criminal justice systems so that both actively help their clients find employment and then back up that help with a requirement that they work. Men with unpaid child support judgments and parolees leaving prison would be told to get a job or pay up, as they are now. But if they did not, they would be remanded to a required work program where their efforts to work would be closely supervised. They would have to participate and get a private job and have their subsequent employment verified. Failing that, they would be assigned to work crews, where again compliance would be verified. Men who failed to participate and work steadily would–unless there were good cause–be sent back to the child support or parole authorities to be imprisoned. But men who complied would be freed from the work program after a year or two. They would then revert to the looser supervision practiced by the regular child support and parole systems. If their employment record deteriorated, they could again be remanded to the work program. Mead estimates that such a program would involve as many as 1.5 million men who are already in the child support and criminal justice systems and would cost $2.4 billion to $4.8 billion a year. It is premature, says Mead, for such a program to be mandated nationwide. Rather, the best role for national policy at this point is to establish and evaluate promising model programs to see which work best. [Emphasis added]

I tend to favor something like Mead’s approach. It should go without saying, however, that it is decidedly un-libertarian, and that as a result many on the left and some on the right will find it discomfiting.

And finally, I’m more inclined to think that there might be some value to marriage-promotion programs, not because poor people “don’t respect marriage” — as Dana points out, that is not generally true — but rather because committed relationships require a skill set that is not evenly distributed across the population. As women have entered the workforce, “traditional” gender roles have been fading. And so individual couples and families find themselves negotiating responsibilities and boundaries in ways that weren’t strictly necessary in an age of rigidly-defined gender roles. As a good friend pointed out in conversation a few weeks back, it is thus not surprising that marriages have tended to be more durable and successful among educated Americans with strong communication skills, as they are more accustomed to navigating complex relationships in the course of their working lives. Imparting communication skills is extremely difficult, and it might be a lost cause. But the best marriage-promotion programs rest on the idea that communication skills that can reduce friction in relationships really can be taught. Now, the programs I have in mind might not be best understood as “marriage-promotion” programs, but rather as marriage and relationship education programs, of the kind championed by the National Marriage Institute in their recent report, “The President’s Marriage Agenda.”

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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