Sunday, March 26, 2006

Is the “boy problem” related to the “underclass”

Again, this year, nearly all the essays we received were written by girls. I’ll be asked about this at our Executive Committee meetings, so I continue to wonder what’s the deal with boys.

In my readings about boys today, I came across these statistics:

Boys from blue-collar families are particularly suffering. Among kids in families earning $80,000-100,000 per year, girls are 8 percent likelier to be on a college track than their brothers. At family incomes of $10,000-20,000 this swells to 56 percent likelier. ("Let Boys Be Boys,” The American Enterprise. Volume: 11. Issue: 4. June 2000. Page 4)

The data struck me, because it seems to link the “boy problem” to the larger problem of an underclass, which has also been getting a lot of attention of late.

Does your experience confirm or disconfirm this? Does the trouble with disengaged boys seem more a problem for blue collar kids than for wealthier ones?

The most useful insight I’ve found thus far in trying to understand the underclass is the extent to which marriage has been abandoned as an ideal in the underclass, at least among the males.

(I should note that I’m not idealizing or romanticizing marriage in the past. In fact, in the 1910s and the 1930s there were more single parent families and stepfamilies than there are today, although there were as many single-father as there were single-mother households--take Atticus Finch as a fictional example. I would guess we are now in the golden age of marriage, as much as there has ever been one, in that I suspect we have more people married because they love each other and want to be together than during earlier times, when marriage was often arranged for reasons other than mutual fulfillment.)

It’s a little tricky to figure out what’s really going on with marriage today. Advocates of the “sexual revolution” in the sixties have largely succeeded in their goal of separating sex from marriage in people’s minds, so today people are more likely to talk about whether sex should occur “within a loving relationship” or “between consenting adults” than “between married couples.”

Such talk convinces people that marriage has faded as a cultural institution more than is actually the case. Among the college educated marriage is still the social norm. And middle-class marriages frequently are organized around a zealous commitment to children, keeping busy schedules to get kids to their various activities and tutors to ensure intellectual and physical development thought important for middle class success. It’s all but impossible for a single parent to raise a kid to today’s middle class standards.

But to a large extent the the underclass has abandoned marriage. The story of how that came to be is interesting cultural history. The blame is most credibly given to commercial media and the large foundations, which channeled millions of dollars into programs targeting the poor while teaching an ethic of nonjudgmental acceptance, which often morphed into encouragement, of behaviors the middle class would consider self-destructive. In any case, many demographers have noted recently that it is primarily among the poor and uneducated that the institution of marriage has faded.

The numbers are stark. Women who did not attend college have an out-of-wedlock birth rate of nearly fifty percent. But among women who have graduated from college, the number is less than five percent. Nearly all college graduates get married eventually, but marriage rates continue to drop among those who did not graduate from high school. Divorce is high for all groups but it has gone down among the well educated since the 1980s while it is still climbing among the underclass:

In the middle class, couples first build solid relationships, then marry, and then have children. Among the poor, this sequence is generally reversed: Children are desired and childbearing comes first. Strong relationships and marriage are postponed to some indefinite future. Most unmarried fathers drift off after a few years, leaving the ill-equipped mother and child to struggle on alone.(Robert Rector, “How not to be poor,” National Review, Oct 24, 2005 v57 i19 p26)

The usual explanation for why the poor don’t marry is that the men can’t make enough money to support a family. This is the “folk Marxist” explanation, attributing everything bad that happens to people to structures of economic oppression. But this explanation is failing before a flood of evidence (see the New York Times today: “A Poverty of the Mind”:

Unmarried women among the underclass tell a different story:

. . .men’s antisocial behavior, not unfulfilled economic expectations, is the main obstacle to matrimony among this group. The women do not complain of men’s failure to earn enough, but rather of their unwillingness to grasp opportunities, work steadily, and spend wisely. The objection is not to modest earning power, but to financial profligacy, defiant attitudes, and lack of work discipline. These women bear tales of their men mouthing off to bosses, alienating fellow workers, failing to get to work on time or at all, behaving erratically, quitting abruptly, or avoiding work altogether. What money the men manage to earn is seldom applied to family needs, but is dissipated on luxuries such as “alcohol, marijuana, new stereo components, computer accessories, expensive footwear, clothing and jewelry.” But poor work habits and financial irresponsibility are the least of it. The most vociferous complaints are reserved for men’s chronic criminal behavior, drug use, violence, and, above all, repeated and flagrant sexual infidelity. Most men made no effort to hide their frequent liaisons, which were often carried on simultaneously. More often than not, those relationships produced babies. Offspring by other partners loomed especially large as obstacles to stable and harmonious relationships. Women resented children fathered with other girlfriends as evidence of a man’s imperfect devotion and as a drain on his attention and resources. The presence of a woman’s children by previous boyfriends also produced conflict by undermining the man’s authority and engendering divided loyalties.  (Amy L. Wax. “Too few good men.” Policy Review, Dec 2005 i134 p69(11))

These descriptions will come as no surprise to most of you, who’ve talked with me about children from similar circumstances. No Child Left Behind is driven, as much as anything, by the persistent failure of schools to change the destiny of kids from this class--thus all the requirements to “disaggregate” the statistics so we can’t hide the fact that there’s a class of students who we have persistently failed to teach.

My sense is that this problem is the main social problem we face today, in somewhat the way segregation was the big problem for people in the 1950s.

What I’m wondering about is how strong or weak the linkage is between the trouble we have in helping the poor and the “boy problem.”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/26 at 08:23 AM
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