The Agenda

The Uneven Impact of Single Parenting on Women and Men

David Autor and Melanie Wasserman have written an extremely important new report for Third Way’s NEXT series on the sources of long-term changes in the gender disparities in educational attainment, labor force participation, and wages. The following is drawn from the introduction by Elaine Kamarck and Jonathan Cowan:

This paper, by two MIT economists, David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, presents the reader with two of the biggest and most important trends in recent decades. The first is the growing disparity between men and women in both educational attainment and economic well-being; the second is the change in family structure. The growing disparity between men and women is easy to overlook given the fact that at the very top of our society power and money is still overwhelmingly held by men. And yet, when we move to the realm of more ordinary people we see, in the words of Autor and Wasserman, “…a tectonic shift. Over the last three decades, the labor market trajectory of males in the U.S. has turned downward along four dimensions: skills acquisition; employment rates; occupational stature; and real wage levels.”

The authors observe that while conventional explanations for this growing disparity, like technological change that has reduced the returns to physical strength and deunionization that has tended to reduce the bargaining power of less-skilled workers, play a role, “pre-market” factors that have received far less attention might play a role that is at least as significant, if not more so. Autor and Wasserman observe that changing family structure appears to have a particularly pernicious impact on boys: 

Less-educated males are far less likelythan highly-educated males to marry, but they are not less likely to have children. Due to their low marriage rates and low earnings capacity, children of less-educated males face comparatively low odds of living in economically secure households with two parents present. In general, children born into such households face poorer educational and earnings prospects over the long term. Ironically, males born into low-income single-parent headed households—which, in the vast majority of cases are female-headed households—appear to fare particularly poorly on numerous social and educational outcomes. Thus, the poor economic prospects of less-educated males may create differentially large disadvantages for their sons, potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation. [Emphasis added]

Another way of putting is that girls appear to be more resilient than boys, though Autor and Wasserman are (appropriately) tentative on this point. This suggestion does, however, remind me of the findings of the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) project, which sought to gauge the impact of neighborhood environments on low-income youth. Though violent-crime arrests declined for both girls and boys who received housing vouchers relative to girls and boys who remained in neighborhoods with high poverty concentrations, most other behavioral outcomes varied by gender, with girls benefiting far more than boys. This tends to reinforce the notion that girls are more resilient than boys, but of course the evidence is far from conclusive. The authors discuss MTO at length.

Autor and Wasserman’s report is extremely rich. Binyamin Appelbaum has summarized some of its core findings, and he talks to a number of scholars who have addressed changing family structure in the past, like Christopher Jencks:

“Single-parent families tend to emerge in places where the men already are a mess,” said Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard University. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Suppose the available men were getting married to the available women? Would that be an improvement?’ ”

Instead of making marriage more attractive, he said, it might be better for society to help make men more attractive.

One strategy for doing so, which we have often discussed, is shifting from the earned-income tax credit (EITC) to low-wage employment subsidies designed to make low-wage work more attractive to less-skilled men. 

Autor insists to Appelbaum that he disagrees with Charles Murray, the libertarian scholar who recently addressed changing family structure in Coming Apart:

He disagrees entirely with the view of the conservative analyst Charles Murray, in “Coming Apart,” that men have become “less industrious.”

“We’re pretty much in agreement on most of the facts,” Professor Autor said of Mr. Murray. “But he looks at the same facts and says this is all due to the failure of government programs, eroding the commitment to working. And we’re saying, what seems much more plausible here is that the working world just has less and less use for these folks.”

My impression is that Murray has never denied that the labor market position of less-skilled men has deteriorated, and that this contributes to rising disability claims (one of Autor’s core areas of interest), among other factors that contribute to declining male labor force participation. Regardless, if Autor is write that “the working world just has less and less use for these folks,” low-wage employment subsidies are arguably the most plausible and effective strategy, as they are designed to close the gap between the market-clearing wage for the labor of less-skilled men and the social value of keeping such men employed. 

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.”

We will cause to revisit the Autor and Wasserman report in the future, but what follows is a brief distillation of some of its findings:


1. For cohorts born after the late 1940s, the improvement in U.S. high school graduation rates started to slow down. At the same time, a gender gap opened up for those born after 1950, with girls graduating at higher rates than boys.

2. The gap in college attendance and completion has been even more dramatic. Among those born in 1975, women were 17 percent more likely to have attended college and 23 percent more likely to have completed a four-year degree.


1. Wages for non-college-educated men appear to have fallen in real terms between 1979 and 2010. With the exception of women under 39 with less than a high school diploma, wages for non-college-educated women have increased over the same interval, albeit very modestly.

2. Wages for college-educated women and men have increased, with women enjoying somewhat more substantial gains. 

Polarization and labor force participation

1. Middle-skill employment has fallen sharply for women and men, yet this decline has been substantially offset among women by a shift into high-skill employment. The same can’t be said of men, particularly younger men, who have been far more likely to shift into less-skilled service work.

2. Labor force participation has decreased among men and, until the financial crisis, increased among women. Factoring in incarcerated individuals would yield an even more pronounced shift in labor force participation rates.

Driven by shifts in demand or supply?

Autor and Wasserman seek to establish whether declining male labor force participation can be attributed to a rising demand for leisure on the part of men or a reduced demand for less-skilled labor on the part of employers. Because employment rates have fallen most dramatically for demographic groups that have seen the sharpest decline in real wages, the authors conclude that shifts in demand are the dominant factor. 

So why have male wages declined?

The authors offer a number of thoughts:

1. Simple shifts in occupational structure don’t appear to account for the different rate of change in female wages and male wages. Skill-biased technical change, deunionization, and globalization presumably play a role, but it’s not clear how much of the deterioration can be attributed to which factor. 

2. Another interesting possibility is that technological and organizational changes in the workplace have given female productivity a bigger boost than male productivity, as women might possess cognitive and interpersonal skills that are particularly valuable in a more knowledge-intensive economy. 

Is there a good reason for stagnant educational attainment among men?

High high school dropout rates and low college completion rates would make sense if men didn’t have a strong economic incentive to gain credentials, but all of the available evidence suggests that they do.

Might changing family structure play a role?

1. The declining earning power of men and the rising economic self-sufficiency of women has made marriage less attractive for women. Because birth rates have not also declined, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of children born outside of marriage and raised without fathers.

a. Individuals tend to marry within their own education and race groups, and this “assortative mating” has if anything become stronger over time. The fact that marriage rates among the less-educated have seen a particularly sharp decline might reflect the fact that the same is true of the economic prospects of less-educated men. Moreover, programs that appear to increase male wages also appear to lead to higher marriage rates. 

b. Drawing on Charles and Luoh 2010, the authors observe that increases in the male incarceration rate within a given group appear to reduce marriage rates for women in the same group.

c. Improving labor market opportunities increase the self-sufficiency of women. Yet the authors caution that improving labor market opportunities have presumably increased the self-sufficiency of college-educated women more than non-college-educated women, and marriage rates among college-educated women have remained stable.

2. Most single-headed households are led by women, and boys might suffer more than girls from the absence of a stable male parent. This might feed into diverging levels of educational attainment and labor force attachment, as girls raised by single mothers are more likely to anticipate eventually assuming primary child-rearing and breadwinning responsibilities.

a. The decline in marriage rates hasn’t corresponded with a rise in stable nonmarital cohabitation. 

b. The number of young adults with a high school education living with related children has decreased, but it has decreased far more among men than among women. 

c. While the family structures of nonpoor and poor children were very similar as recently as a half-century ago, they are now very different, with single-headed households or unstable cohabitation predominating among the poor.

d. Changing family patterns contribute to divergence in family financial resources, which feed into educational attainment. 

e. And finally, the authors summarize the evidence on the parental resources available to children in single-headed or disrupted households:

Children reared in the top quintile of the family income distribution are read to by their parents approximately 1.2 hours more per week than children from households in the bottom quintile. In fact, over the last twenty years, there has been a tremendous increase in the hours per week that more highly educated parents devote to childcare activities, with a much more moderate rise in the amount of time for less educated parents. If boys are more responsive to parental inputs (or the absence thereof) than are girls, then it is possible that the gender gradient in behavioral and academic development could be magnified in singleparent households. In addition to the disparities in the amount and type of parental interaction by household type, single mothers also appear to interact differently with their sons and daughters. Bertrand and Pan find that single mothers spend an hour less per week with their sons than with their daughters, report feeling more emotionally distant from their sons, and engage in disciplinary action such as spanking more frequently with their sons. These disparities in parenting are largely absent from dual parent homes.

One hopes that Autor and Wasserman will prompt other researchers, and other funders, to continue pursuing this very important research agenda.


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