“Over 15 million men between the ages of 18 and 44 cannot afford to support a family,” writes Margaret Simms, one of the coauthors of a series of studies the Urban Institute has conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
These are men who had no college degree and lived in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line during 2008-10. The total number of low-income men “in their prime years,” so defined, was 16.5 million.
This is about 3 million more than in 2000. And it represents a somewhat larger share of men in the age group. They are, as one of the Institute’s studies says, “disconnected” or at risk of becoming so.
Figures in another of the studies bear this out. For example:
- Only 61% of the men were employed during the three-year period and only 45% full-time, year round.
- Of those who worked, 37% made less than $10,000 a year — below the poverty line for a single person.
- A mind-boggling 85% made less than $25,000.
Yet 77% of the men were counted as part of the labor force, meaning they were either working or looking for work at the time the Census Bureau conducted the surveys the Institute used.
So there seem to have been far more at risk of disconnection than actually disconnected — at least, so far as work is concerned. Disconnection from family is another matter.
Fewer than half had ever been married. And only 32% were during the 2008-10 period. But one gathers from what Simms says and from discussion at a symposium the Institute conducted that a far larger portion are fathers.
Most would like to be breadwinners and involved in their children’s lives, according to the experts who participated. But, as we know from other research, they’re hindered by low earnings and poor prospects.
Belonging to this disadvantaged group is not an equal opportunity. The men are disproportionately black and Hispanic — 48% of the Institute’s target group when counted together.
Simms cites two critical factors that help explain this — though we shouldn’t altogether discount plain old race discrimination in the labor market.
For the group as a whole, one reason for the dismal employment and earnings figures is insufficient education. Nearly a third had no more than a high school diploma or the equivalent. And 29% didn’t even have that. But the latter was true for half the Hispanics.
With or without the formal education credentials that could qualify them for ongoing, decent-paying jobs, many can’t get a foot in the door because they’ve spent time in prison.
Though the incarceration rate for young non-Hispanic white men has risen somewhat since 1980, it’s risen more for Hispanic young men — and soared for those who are black.
In 2008, 11.4% of all black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were behind bars. This is well over six times the rate for non-Hispanic white men in the same age range and about three times the rate for their Hispanic counterparts.
Simms concludes that “another door must open.” Both public and private-sector policies must change to lower the employment barriers for ex-offenders.
As important as this is, I think, as do many others, that we also need to change our incarceration policies — and to eliminate what looks for all the world like race discrimination in both sentencing and the way some local law enforcement authorities go about their business.
The Institute’s findings also cry out for reforms in our education system — from pre-K through college. These obviously must include opportunities for adults to make up for what they didn’t learn, whether because they dropped out, were pushed out or graduated with only minimal basic skills.
Even this agenda is, I think, too narrow. Perhaps the Institute’s studies will culminate in something more satisfactory.