When taking a break from pandering to the middle class, candidates should think about the problem of low-income men

by Ryan Streeter on February 8, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Scott Winship has a good article in The New Republic arguing that Romney’s focus on the middle class – the “90 or 95 percent who are struggling” – in his now legendary gaffe about the poor is good conventional wisdom but bad empiricism. Winship cites research suggesting the condition of the middle class isn’t as bad as most people seem to portray right now. His overall point is that our focus on the middle class takes our eyes off of the real problem for public policy, namely how to generate more upward mobility for poorer Americans.

I want to draw attention to another passage in his piece, which I think gets at the biggest problem for policymakers right now: upward mobility for low-income men. Winship writes:

[T]he U.S. is singularly ineffective at lifting poor children into the middle class as adults (poor boys, actually—we are as effective as other nations at lifting up poor girls). If you are reading this, chances are good that you are in the top two-fifths of the income distribution or can expect to be there at age forty. Just 17 percent of kids raised in the bottom fifth will make it there…

Here the concern of conservatives about complacent satisfaction with the safety net—Romney’s included—is relevant. Our safety nets might simultaneously lift the poor out of destitution yet discourage the upward mobility of poor children. They may provide a floor but impose a ceiling, through inefficient incentives related to work, marriage, and saving. Furthermore, much of the left does not want to confront the important issues of family instability, criminality, and personal responsibility in limiting life chances.

So what does this problem of a “ceiling” look like over time? This chart from the St. Louis Fed (at the link and also below) paints part of the picture. It’s the employment-to-population ratio for men over the past half century – or in layman’s terms, the percentage of men of working age who are actually working. As you can see, every recession is tough on men, and every “recovery” afterwards fails to achieve previous high points. While a lot of factors contribute to the downward trajectory of the ratio over time, it’s tough to deny that, first, an increasing share of young men growing up without fathers, and second, high rates of incarceration play a significant role. The following chart isn’t just about more women in the workplace and jobs going overseas:

Charles Murray’s new book will influence the debate about the plight of lower-income men quite a bit, as will the critiques that emerge of Murray’s thesis (the most complete to date is David Frum’s series on Murray’s book). People will disagree about how much structural changes in the labor market and the changing nature of global business affect the employment prospects of men who grow up poor. But every discussion, if it’s to be honest, has to show that it accounts for the roles that family formation and early decision-making by young men play in what, years later, we measure as “inequality” and a “lack of mobility.”

Politically, talking about this problem is tough because it admits of no easy policy fix. Comprehensive tax and entitlement reform looks easy compared to knowing how to get young men working again. But that doesn’t mean the candidates shouldn’t be trying. Fixing this problem is what “getting the economy going” should be about, since once we see an uptick here, it likely will mean things are improving everywhere.