Of work, single mothers and men

03 March 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

kay h ideasOver the past 50 years the United States has, like Australia and other modern economies, experienced a dramatic rise in the percentage of single mother families.

During the same period the number of manufacturing jobs in those countries has plummeted, a development that may well be contributing to the rise of populism in the West.

Experts, most notably the sociologist William Julius Wilson, have speculated that there is a significant connection between the two trends, though firm proof has been elusive.

When Work Disappears: Manufacturing and the Falling Marriage-Market Value of Men, a new paper from David Autor, one of America’s leading labor economists, appears to find strong, if not definitive evidence, that Wilson was right: manufacturing jobs disappeared. The authors concentrate on the trade shocks cause by outsourcing to China — which led more women to decide to go it alone.

Autor and his colleagues compare local labour markets where those shocks were especially powerful with similar less affected areas.  The shocks were associated with lower wages and more distress for men under 40.  Perhaps more surprisingly, those areas saw a decrease in fertility but a rise in single mother families and child poverty.

Autor’s paper has plenty of other findings of interest to policy makers.  To take just two examples, there is a close correlation between trade shocks and substance abuse and incarceration among young men, and though trade shocks affect earnings for both women and men, men lose ground relative to women, making them less “marriageable.”

The authors avoid any claim that manufacturing decline is “the sole or primary driver of these trends.” They are right to do so. Non-marital births, particularly among blacks and Hispanics, were reaching record highs in the United States long before manufacturers began to move their factories to China.

And it’s unlikely that outsourcing can account for the rise in “multi-partner fertility,” that is parents who have children with multiple partners. By further destabilizing children’s lives, it’s a related and arguably bigger problem than single mother households per se.  It also suggests something more than economics is needed to explain the disappearance of stable families among lower income populations.

None of that stopped Fox News from headlining their article on the study: “Trump’s Jobs Plan Could Lead to a Marriage Boom.” I wouldn’t count on it.

Noted American scholar and commentator Kay Hymowitz is the CIS 2017 Max Hartwell Scholar-in-Residence.

Book in to hear Kay in person at her only Sydney event on Thursday 16 March Trump Voters and Greyhound Bans: Meet the Real ‘Deplorables’ of the US and OZ. Kay will be joined by Warren Mundine for what will no doubt be a lively discussion.

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