Spotlight Exclusives

The Perfectly Dismal Storm: The Struggles of Young Men in the United States

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When we think about poverty in the US, we are often, and rightly, focused on children.  By some estimates, almost half of the children in this country are growing up in families where no one has a postsecondary degree by age 30, and a full 70 percent of men with a high school degree or less are fathers. These startling facts make clear that any sound vision for future prosperity must include consideration of these men, their economic opportunities, and the lives of their families.

We need to examine how factors like the economy, incarceration, and public policy fit together to limit opportunities for young men, and how targeted solutions can make a difference.

The current economic situation has severely limited legitimate work opportunities for young men and parents, leading to longer-term structural, as well as cyclical, employment issues. Thus, the challenges facing many younger men aren۪t new, but the already poor situation has been made much worse by the Great Recession. In 2010, poverty surged in younger households, especially for those with a head of household under age 30 with no more than a high school degree. This was true for both younger single individuals and for families with children, which reached a poverty rate of 37 percent that many experts predict rose still further in 2011.  
These problems are in large part about economics. In 2002, when the economy was much better, 62 percent of young fathers earned less than $20,000 per year. Since then, wages and earnings have plunged for young low-skill men. The types of jobs available to young low-skill workers today are mainly in low-paid service sectors, including janitorial, retail, food preparation, and personal care services such as nursing homes.

While men who are employed tend to suffer low wages, many young men struggle to even find work. Since 2008, joblessness among undereducated young men has averaged over 20 percent, with even higher rates for minority men. Although the recovery does show gains in employment for Americans with postsecondary education, it also suggests falling employment for those with a high school degree or less.

In addition to the lack of available work, high rates of incarceration further limit job opportunities, especially for men. Incarceration also keeps fathers from their children while they are imprisoned. At this time, there are about 12 million individuals now with criminal records, including those who were previously incarcerated or are in prison, on parole, or on probation. At most, these young men have high school degrees, including General Education Degrees (GED), but many are high school dropouts without even a GED, meaning they have neither the credentials nor the skills to compete in today۪s weak labor market.

Further compounding these challenges are public policies that put many of these men at an even greater disadvantage. For example, current policies allow child support obligations to build while fathers are in jail or out of work, increasing their debts while giving them little opportunity to pay them back. In addition, income maintenance programs, including Unemployment Compensation, do not serve this population very well because many do not qualify or are unaware that they qualify, even if only for meager benefits due to weak job histories.

As a result of all these forces, young men are suffering from rising poverty and their families are extremely unstable. Most men and women who have children by the age of 25 do so out of wedlock and go on to have at least one more child with another partner. Marriage rates for these young adults are low, especially for minority men. And those who do choose to marry experience high divorce rates.

This is a depressing picture, but it۪s not inevitable. To counteract the burdens placed on young men with a high school degree or less, we need more effective and directed policies. We can begin with job creation strategies for youth. A jobs bill with employer subsidies targeted at those who have been out of work a minimum of six months would help raise employment rates. For recently released young offenders, targeted job programs could help them find and keep work, reunite with their families, and avoid recidivism, which is ultimately much more costly to society and to families than help to find work. In addition, child support policies could offer reduced overdue payments for men who begin to pay their child support as soon as they are employed.

Without targeted efforts to prepare these men for work and to create jobs for still younger under-educated, under-skilled men, these men and their families have very little hope of recovering anytime soon. Right now, a significant recovery that will open up new job opportunities is at least three years away. By that time, many of the young men described above will have become a truly lost generation.

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Timothy Smeeding is the director of the Institute for Research on Poverty and is an arts and sciences distinguished professor of public affairs at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of WisconsinMadison.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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