Might broken homes be a bigger driver of future inequality than most of us want to admit?

by Ryan Streeter on December 5, 2011. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Is single parenting the greatest threat to widely-shared prosperity in the future? Or, to be more specific, do broken homes have more to do with future inequality, especially for men, than any other usual suspect such as education, jobs going overseas, the decline of manufacturing, and so on?

It might sound crazy to some, but actually, we might want to think this one through.

A recent paper, “The Trouble with Boys,” by Marianne Bertrand and Jessica Pan points to the home, not school or biological differences, as the primary source of disruptive behavior among boys. Important non-cognitive abilities such as self-control are weakened considerably when boys grow up in single-parent homes. School suspensions, which are closely correlated with not getting into college later, rose from 16 to 24 percent among boys between 1980 and 2006, while they remained relatively flat among girls.

Citing Scott Winship’s recent excellent National Review article on upward mobility, Reihan Salam suggested last week in his Daily column that high incarceration rates in the U.S. play a significant role in limiting the ability of people (men, especially) born in lower-income homes from rising up the income scale over time. We know that incarceration rates are disproportionately high among boys and men who grew up in poorer single-parent homes.

If broken homes are becoming more prevalent in lower middle class homes (i.e., it’s not just a “welfare class” issue anymore), as the evidence from Charles Murray and others suggests, then we have a growing future problem that none of us can adequately quantify – but which we know is pretty big. Arnold Kling wrote last month of a great “restructuring” that we’re living through right now, which is characterized by a loss of the post-World War II middle-class jobs that require clerical rather than traditional laborer skills. Our economy increasingly rewards those who learn skills – and update them – in ways that help them adapt to new technologies, rather than clerical jobs where you do what you’re told from 8-5 and everything basically works out.

Our population of young men who are prone toward disruptive behavior seems to be growing at the same time that jobs in manufacturing and services favoring their skill levels are dwindling. Making matters worse, the problems stemming from broken homes make it even harder for them to function in today’s changing economy. If creativity, discipline, an aptitude to grasp new concepts, stick-to-it-iveness, and a the virtues of hard work are needed to succeed today more than they have been in a couple generations, then broken homes – which foster the opposites of those attributes – are a big threat to the future of the workforce indeed.

  • Elsa

    My goodness, I see this first hand in the kids I teach…I need some practical steps to counteract this for them…