No One Expects Young Men To Do Anything and They Are Responding By Doing Nothing
Garbage in garbage out
I write and read about the culture and habits of elites because it is a way for me to understand this unfamiliar world I find myself in.
I read less about the culture of the poor and working-class because I experienced it firsthand. I’m familiar.
But occasionally I do read about it.
One insightful book is Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas.
In their book, Edin, a sociology professor at Princeton, and Kefalas, a sociology professor at St. Joseph’s University, explore why low-income women are disproportionately likely to be unmarried and uninvolved with the father of their children.
A common answer from the chattering class is money. The conventional view is that a lack of money leads to out-of-wedlock births.
But broken homes are a fairly recent phenomenon.
In 1960, across social classes, the vast majority of children were raised by both of their birth parents. By 2005, there was a massive divergence.
Today, one in six American men between the ages of 25 and 54 are unemployed or out of the workforce altogether: about 10 million men. This number has more than doubled since the 1970s.
Over the past half-century, the number of men per capita behind bars has more than quadrupled.
Among white American males in the bottom 30 percent of socioeconomic status, the number of prison inmates per capita has quintupled since 1975. For those in the top 20 percent of socioeconomic status, the rate has remained virtually unchanged.
From Edin and Kefalas:
“Most social scientists who study poor families assume financial troubles are the cause of these breakups. After all, these young people grow up in a context of extreme disadvantage, at least by American standards, and they come of age with little education, few skills, and not many future prospects. Lack of money is certainly a contributing cause, as we will see, but rarely the only factor. It is usually the young father’s criminal behavior, the spells of incarceration that so often follow, a pattern of intimate violence, his chronic infidelity, and an inability to leave drugs and alcohol alone that cause relationships to falter and die.”
Poor behavior from young males is an important and often overlooked reason why rates of fatherless homes have increased.
More from the book:
“Money is seldom the primary reason mothers give to explain why they and their children’s fathers are no longer together. Although a lazy or spendthrift boyfriend is certainly an aggravation…the mother usually points to far more serious offenses as the prime forces that pull young families apart. It is the drug and alcohol abuse, the criminal behavior and subsequent incarceration, the repeated infidelity…”
The authors continue:
“Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn’t earn as much as someone with better skills or more education. Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.”
It used to be high-status to hold a job and take care of your family. Not so much anymore.
Those who sit at or near the apex of the social ladder (who decide what behaviors are prestigious) have decided that family stability is unimportant.
In a fascinating article, Patrick Parkinson, a law professor at the University of Queensland, recounted his experiences at an international expert group gathered to discuss family policy at the UN headquarters in New York.
At the event, Parkinson stressed the importance of stability and two-parent families for children.
Many members of the group, comprised of academic elites, took exception.
But privately, some of them whispered agreement.
“I was surprised then, when one of the members of the Expert Group who was most insistent that two-parent families were just an ideal, said to me quietly, as we were packing up, that she agreed that family stability mattered. She described the strict and ordered regime in her own home (one with two biological, albeit unmarried parents). Her young children had routine, and clear boundaries. She restricted their television usage. It was a reward, not a staple of their entertainment diet. Yes, she agreed, stability does matter to children; but having made that enormous concession to my point of view, she suggested jokingly that I had better leave now. It was not a concession she would make openly, and nor could she have articulated it in the course of the meeting. In her public professional world, marriage is most unfashionable, and stability is not important if that is somehow to be contrasted with adults’ pursuit of their own happiness.”
This highly educated and affluent person prioritized stability for her own children. But refused to publicly endorse this value so that less fortunate children could also benefit from family stability.
If you come from poverty and chaos, you are up against 3 enemies:
1. Dysfunction and deprivation
2. Yourself, as a result of what that environment does to you
3. The upper class, who wants to keep you mired in it
The people with the most money and education—the class most responsible for shaping politics and culture and customs—ensure that their children are raised in stable homes.
But actively undermine the norm for everyone else.
Returning to Promises to Keep, Edin and Kefalas observe that the “middle-class” (referring to those who hold college degrees) determines norms around relationships:
“Poor unmarried couples try hard to keep it together for the baby. Yet they borrow their notions of commitment from the broader culture, and most middle-class couples who are still in the dating phase, even those who cohabit, believe that as long as they are not married, it is acceptable for either partner to walk away at any time, and for virtually any reason. Of course, middle-class couples who date or cohabit only rarely have children together.”
And they go on:
“Unmarried parents borrow from the norms most close-at-hand. On the one hand, they adopt expectations of financial responsibility and, as we shall see, sexual fidelity, as couples in marriage do. But on the other, walking away from a nonmarital union is not viewed as a betrayal of a vow, and it is more or less okay to hold oneself open to a better option, should one come along.”
The educated class decides cohabiting partnerships are just as valid and important as marriage. And they also believe it’s okay to walk away at a moment’s notice from a cohabiting relationship.
Poor and working-class people follow suit. To the detriment of themselves and their children.
They are more likely to have children out of wedlock. And then enter into a string of relationships with various partners. They spend time investing in new relationships, diverting attention away from their children.
Among new parents who are unmarried—usually poor or working-class—half enter a new relationship by the time their children are five years old.
At a time when their children need attentive care, these parents are then engaged in the intense emotional work of building a new romantic relationship. This is an overlooked reason why kids in low-income families are more likely to experience neglect.
Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while often inflicting costs on the lower classes.
Edin and Kefalas describe the behavior of young males in low-income neighborhoods:
“Chanel, a white thirty-three-year-old with three children, ages fifteen, nine, and three, broke up with her youngest child’s father just after we met her for the first time. When we ask about him later, she says dismissively, ‘He’s not around no more. I got rid of him…He was only here to sleep—didn’t want to pay no bills, didn’t want to do nothing. When he was here all he did was fight and argue and drink. I had to get rid of [him].’ She purses her lips in disgust as she tells us such men are unworthy of the children they father.”
“Young mothers regularly rail against young fathers who squander too much of their earnings on alcohol, marijuana, new stereo components, computer accessories, expensive footwear, or new clothing, while the needs of the family are, in their view, not adequately met. Amy, a white thirty-year-old mother of three, ages six, five, and three, had a boyfriend who worked steadily but insisted on spending on selfish pursuits. This is what eventually broke the young couple up. ‘He wouldn’t spend money for the kids’ food. I had to send my kids across the street to my mom’s to feed them and stuff. That’s what I got fed up with. I shouldn’t have to live like that…I said it’s time for him to support these kids instead of [me] being on [assistance], and he didn’t like it.’”
Absent fathers and broken family units are major factors for many social ills. It’s obvious but no one wants to talk about it.
I am well aware of the behavior genetics research, twin studies, and so on indicating little effect of home environment on personality, propensity for crime, addiction, and so on. These studies are inapplicable for kids living in extreme dysfunction.
Behavior geneticists investigate the relative role of genetic and environmental variation within the sampled population.
Behavioral genetics studies report findings from within the environmental variation in their samples, not in all conceivable environments.
For example, there are many studies on identical twins separated at birth who are adopted by different families.
Researchers find little difference between these twins when they are adults. Their personalities, IQ, preferences, and so on are very similar.
But twins are usually adopted by intact middle-class families.
They are typically taken in by married parents with the means to jump through the hoops to qualify for adoption. Additionally, adoptive parents are the kind of people who would adopt, which introduces another layer of similarity.
I’ve yet to see any twin studies with one set of identical twins raised in extremely bad environments and another in good ones.
The intelligence researcher Russell T. Warne has written:
“A problem with heritability study samples is that they tend to consist of more middle and upper-class individuals than a representative sample would have…results of behavioral genetics studies will indicate genes are important—if a person already lives in an industrialized nation in a home where basic needs are met...it is not clear how well these results apply to individuals in highly unfavorable environments.”
In a chapter titled Genes and the Mind, the psychologist David Lykken states:
“If twins were separated as infants and placed, one with a middle-class Minnesota family and the other with an 18-year-old unmarried mother living on AFDC in the South Bronx, the twins will surely differ 30 years later.”
Yes, genes are responsible for human traits and behavior. But these traits are responsive to social norms and other environmental factors too.
Height is 90 percent heritable. But it is still malleable by the environment. Before Korea was divided, Northerners were taller than Southerners. Today, North Koreans are 6 inches shorter, on average, than South Koreans. Did their genes change? No. Their environments did.
Obesity is highly heritable (40-70%) but the percentage of Americans who are obese has tripled since 1982.
Access to food made people change their behavior by eating more.
Tobacco use is highly heritable (60-80%) but the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped by half since 1982.
Strong norms against smoking made people change their behavior by smoking less.
Norms were loosened around being an absentee father. So more men took the option.
But nobody wants to admit it because it upsets people.
Instead, we retreat to discussions of poverty and economics because talking about family and parenting makes people feel weird and judgmental.
But young men will only do what’s expected of them.
And a lot did use to be expected. There were social norms to work hard, provide, take care of loved ones, and so on.
Today, these norms have largely dissolved.
Young men have responded accordingly.
In a fascinating 2012 paper titled Sexual Economics, Culture, Men, and Modern Sexual Trends, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs wrote:
“Although this may be considered an unflattering characterization…we have found no evidence to contradict the basic general principle that men will do whatever is required in order to obtain sex, and perhaps not a great deal more. (One of us characterized this in a previous work as, ‘If women would stop sleeping with jerks, men would stop being jerks.’) If in order to obtain sex men must become pillars of the community, or lie, or amass riches by fair means or foul, or be romantic or funny, then many men will do precisely that.”
They are speaking specifically about sexual rewards. But this can be applied more broadly to social rewards in general.
People think that if a young guy comes from a disorderly or deprived environment, he should be held to low standards. This is misguided. He should be held to high standards. Otherwise, he will sink to the level of his environment.
In contrast, a young male from a stable and affluent background is less in need of external pressure. His options are abundant. And he has fewer harmful distractions.
You put a guy in chaotic and impoverished circumstances. And then you decide not to expect anything out of him. How can anyone possibly believe this will lead to anything other than disaster?
Of my five closest friends in high school, none went to college. Two went to prison.
Young men will only do what’s expected of them.
Which today is not much.
Great article Rob, as usual. But Id like to dig deeper into the WHY. As an aside, I grew up in the ghetto as well....Compton, Ca. And too was intermingled with that culture, only to be lucky enough to find myself in college later and graduate with an engineering degree, that, as you can imagine, changed my life. So now I think about these issues deeply. Im knee deep in upper middle class culture, and still keep in contact with my childhood friends.
So why? Well, one data point that really opened my eyes is traveling. As a Spanish speaking brown man, I travel Latin American a lot and also try to immerse myself into the culture, going deeper into cultural territory that no tourist looking person can. I've become something of a sociologist in this, where I find it deeply interesting learning of their culture, dating their women, befriending their natives. What this has shown me is this trend is universal. Often stronger in certain areas than others, but universal. So it cant be Western elites lowering the norms as the root cause (What I take your article to be arguing). It happens in deeply Catholic/Christian countries like Guatemala just as much as more liberal minded countries like Colombia.
So if its more universal, what is the ultimate cause? The more I think about it, the more I think that its a simple cause really: the advent of high quality birth control during the sexual revolution. The fundamental separation of sex and procreation made sex "cheaper", for both sexes, and males, obviously, responded accordingly. This is such a dramatic universal cultural change that it cant be simple norms. In fact, while I believe norms play a role, I still think they will be swamped out by the affects of the birth control pill. Think about this. The argument from the norms perspective is that even small norm changes, or welfare policies, could, with time, cascade into cultural changes we see today. How much more the huge cultural implications of an invention that enabled cheap sex? I feel that norm changes are downstream of this, the elites are honestly more on the defensive of this tidal wave coming through, then the causes of it.
I have more to say, but this is probably my biggest pet peeve with cultural norm changes like this. Sure, cultural norms may matter at margin, but the 800 lb gorilla nobody talks about. Its birth control, and were still feeling the affects of it.
Outstanding explication. I shared it on my (very limited) FB timeline. I was born in 1960 to parents who didn't finish high school (father 8th grade, mother 9th grade) and who grew up very poor. My mother's home life was horrific, to tell the truth. They married each other to escape their poverty stricken existences, to be frank.
My father was 20 and my mother was 18 when I was born, but both were very hard working people who also managed to "bootstrap" up into the middle class through sheer will. Father retired a successful master electrician with a college degree, mother a real estate professional, also with a college degree. I enlisted in the military after graduation from a Catholic high school (paid for both my father and through my own after-school work when I became old enough) and retired 24 years later as a commissioned officer. Neither of my parents ever stopped working and both refused to let me quit anything once I'd started it. I would say that their attitude paid off for me.
As you correctly point out, though, since 1960 we've seen a steady erosion in the two-parent family ideal for various reasons. Some of this erosion can be attributed to sincerely held, though WRONG, beliefs but some of it is also due to nefarious intent likely related to the Gramscian "march through the institutions" and other postmodern claptrap that deliberately seeks the destruction of the family ideal (two parents, married to each other, with children) or the so-called "nuclear family."
Sadly, and as with Louis XV and his "Après moi, le déluge," what comes after the family ideal? Likely a similar and far more lasting deluge.