“Culture of poverty” and “cycle of dependency” theories have largely been discredited as biased and often ethnocentric. They also often don’t square well with popular American ideals of individual achievement and upward mobility.
But recent economic studies looking at the changing gender gap in education and income suggest new reasons for explaining the shrinking numbers of people living in what used to be called the “traditional” nuclear family, as discussed this week in the New York Times
“The economic struggles of male workers are both a cause and an effect of the breakdown of traditional households. Men who are less successful are less attractive as partners, so some women are choosing to raise children by themselves, in turn often producing sons who are less successful and attractive as partners.
“A vicious cycle may ensue,” wrote Professor Autor and his co-author, Melanie Wasserman, a graduate student, “with the 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.”
“The fall of men in the workplace is widely regarded by economists as one of the nation’s most important and puzzling trends. While men, on average, still earn more than women, the gap between them has narrowed considerably, particularly among more recent entrants to the labor force.
“For all Americans, it has become much harder to make a living without a college degree, for intertwined reasons including foreign competition, advancements in technology and the decline of unions. Over the same period, the earnings of college graduates have increased. Women have responded exactly as economists would have predicted, by going to college in record numbers. Men, mysteriously, have not.
“Among people who were 35 years old in 2010, for example, women were 17 percent more likely to have attended college, and 23 percent more likely to hold an undergraduate degree.
“I think the greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” said Michael Greenstone, an M.I.T. economics professor who was not involved in Professor Autor’s work. “And it’s very, very scary for economists because people should be responding to price signals. And men are not. It’s a fact in need of an explanation.”