Anthropologist Michael Jindra asks why working-class American males are falling further behind. Among the reasons:
After we go to school, we need to look at family. One explanation for poor and working-class men’s instability points to the fact that so many were raised with single parents, as economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman report. This has created a vicious cycle contributing to generational poverty, since education lags in these homes and children often fall behind their peers from two-parent families. With low rates of marriage and high rates of divorce among less-educated Americans, men raised by single parents are unlikely to reap the gains of a lasting marriage themselves. “What happens to a lot of guys who become unmoored from family life, they become unmoored from everything…they are just living without attachments and by the time they are 40 or 50 years old, the things that kept these men from falling away—family and community life—are gone,” according to Kathryn Edin.
The late sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman wrote in 1948 that this kind of thing has to do with the outworking of 19th-century theories of emancipation and social evolution:
The individual arose and became the subject and the dependent of the state. Theories of the family as but a nominal group, a private contract to be broken at will, gained ascendancy. The minds of the people were being filled constantly with the idea that “happiness,” as defined by individual egotism, was the goal of life. Marriage and family must justify themselves according to this concept of “happiness” or be abandoned. Happiness is a very subjective term, being defined each moment, each day, and in each age by different psychological considerations. Consequently, the family had no understandable objective for its guidance.
Which brings us to the case of layabout Alan Beggerow, who can’t be bothered to take a job that doesn’t make him happy:
Alan Beggerow has stopped looking for work. Laid off as a steelworker at 48, he taught math for a while at a community college. But when that ended, he could not find a job that, in his view, was neither demeaning nor underpaid.
So instead of heading to work, Mr. Beggerow, now 53, fills his days with diversions: playing the piano, reading histories and biographies, writing unpublished Western potboilers in the Louis L’Amour style — all activities once relegated to spare time. He often stays up late and sleeps until 11 a.m.
“I have come to realize that my free time is worth a lot to me,” he said. To make ends meet, he has tapped the equity in his home through a $30,000 second mortgage, and he is drawing down the family’s savings, at the rate of $7,500 a year. About $60,000 is left. His wife’s income helps them scrape by. “If things really get tight,” Mr. Beggerow said, “I might have to take a low-wage job, but I don’t want to do that.”
At the time this article was written (2006), Berggerow’s wife — his third — was supporting them both, but given her low salary, this wasn’t sustainable over time. Wonder what happened to them. More to the point of this post, I wonder if Berggerow’s inability or unwillingness to maintain a stable family life is related to his job situation. When I was growing up, a man like that who could work, but chose not to, would have been thought a shameful example. Times change, I guess.
But I digress. The other day, the Washington Post published a heart-wrenching story about how China’s economic revolution has left one out of five Chinese children to be raised apart from their parents:
More than 61 million children — about one-fifth of the kids in China — live in villages without their parents. Most are the offspring of peasants who have flocked to cities in one of the largest migrations in human history. For three decades, the migrants’ cheap labor has fueled China’s rise as an economic juggernaut. But the city workers are so squeezed by high costs and long hours that many send their children to live with elderly relatives in the countryside.
The barber who posted the note, Wu Hongwei, and his wife, Wang Yuan, had left their daughter with her grandparents in a remote village when she was 9 months old. The couple thought the 340-mile distance was a challenge they could overcome.
Every day, they phoned and told the little girl that “Mommy loves you” and “Daddy misses you.” They taped photos of themselves on the concrete walls of her room at her grandparents’ house.
But after almost two years, they have come to a stark realization.
“We are complete strangers to her,” Wu said.
Sixty-one million kids with no real relationship to their parents. What are the boys raised in those circumstances going to be like as adults? What kind of social problems will China face twenty, thirty years from now as a result of this?