Spotlight Exclusives

The Multi-Generational Consequences of Male Unemployment

Robert Cherry, Brooklyn College Robert Cherry, Brooklyn College, posted on

While the economy continues to pick up steam and moves closer to full employment, the recovery remains uneven. Young African American men face some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and the consequences extend far beyond the obvious financial impacts to affect the prospects of future generations.

In 2013, the national employment rates of white and black men between the ages of 25 and 34 were 84.6 percent and 70.3 percent, respectively. For black and white male teenagers, the figures were 26.7 percent and 15.1 percent. These disparities have devastating social effects, particularly for children growing up in homes with underemployed men, but there are approaches that can mitigate these harms.

With unstable male income often comes unstable relationships, resulting in much higher rates of multi-partner fertility within the black community. Over their lifetimes, 59 percent of African American mothers, 35 percent of Hispanic mothers, and 22 percent of white mothers reported multiple partner fertility. Sociologist Kathryn Edin noted, “When a mom moves from one relationship to another she puts her kids on the father-go-round.۪Fathers, too, find themselves on a family-go round,۪ having kids by other women.”

Surveys indicate that many fathers maintain limited contact with their noncustodial children once they enter new romantic relationships. Just as troubling, some of these underemployed men bring their anger and frustrations into the home. A comprehensive national survey found child maltreatment rates are lower in black than white single-mother households when the parent lived alone. When a partner is present, however, the black rates on all three measures of child maltreatment emotional, physical, and endangerment are almost double the white rates.

These disparities matter. Studies find that children who experience abandonment or maltreatment have poor outcomes: lower levels of educational attainment and high rates of criminal behavior. One should not be surprised when these children exhibit behavioral problems in the school system. It may be this home life, not implicit racial biases, that is the most important explanation of the racial disparities in school disciplinary actions, especially among the very young.

Most past studies have generally found no systematic relationship between local unemployment and child maltreatment rates. However, studies that focus on gender-specific employment rates may be more appropriate.

Using state-level data, Chun Wang and I found a strong statistical inverse relationship between the employment rate of men, 25 to 34 years old, and child maltreatment rates across a wide range of specifications. Indeed, in all specifications, a 10 percent increase in the male employment rate predicted at least a 12 percent reduction in child maltreatment. Thus, our study provides yet another reason why it is critical to improve male employment rates, and there is preliminary evidence that increased employment would also lower rates of intimate violence.

In addition to broader efforts to create jobs, these problems require a multi-faceted strategy that promotes healthy relationships and makes early investments in setting all children up for success. Making these policy changes could pay particular dividends for African American families.

While increased employment is important in its own right, its positive impacts on household dynamics are greatly increased if it is linked to counseling that could affect behaviors. Schools should have community-outreach resources so that they can respond in a holistic manner when disciplinary problems arise. Enhancing these skills can both make it easier for people to get jobs and have healthier relationships.

Virtually every program that attempts to move disadvantaged young men into the paid workforce spends considerable time first improving their behavioral traits: interpersonal skills to handle conflicts with supervisors and work effectively in groups. The focus on these interpersonal skills is especially prominent in reentry programs for ex-offenders or disconnected youth, 18-24 year olds who are neither in school nor employed.

Indeed, the most effective programs funded under President Bush۪s healthy relationship initiative were those that stressed conflict management. Reporting on an Oklahoma program for low-income women, Katherine Boo noted, “Pairing off for role-playing, the students learned to refrain from saying to a man who disappointed them, You۪re an oily, two-timing toad,۪ and to say instead, When you did x, in situation y, I felt z.۪”

Policies should also respond to particular school problems faced by boys that hurt their chances for success. Kay Hymowitz has offered an array of policies, particular those that hope to correct the chilling climate they experience in the school system: creating a more structured school environment for troubled boys, having more recess and gym time that includes activities in which boys learn to manage their energy; and assigning more action narratives and science fiction to engage boys in reading.

Finally, year-round part-time teen employment is crucial for many disadvantaged youth. We should not wait until they are disconnected or coming out of prison before they receive the employment help that they need. Teen employment enables youth to develop the behavioral skills, social relationships, and mentoring possibilities that can be critical for long-term employment. Just as importantly, the money earned reduces the need to engage in illegal activities or for girls to rely on problematic men for material support.

Implementing these policy solutions would go a long way toward helping children, teenagers, and adults improve their interpersonal skills and ultimately gain the secure employment that supports healthy relationships and stable families.

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Robert Cherry is Stern Professor in Economics at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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