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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Toward a Mandatory Work Policy for Men
Lawrence Mead

Nonworking Men

In 2005, 7.3 million men in the United States between the ages of sixteen and fifty—10 percent of all American men of that age— lived in poverty (see table 1). The vast majority were white, although more men who were poor for several years running would no doubt be nonwhite. The poverty rate is highest among young men, those aged sixteen to twenty-four, then falls at later ages. As they age, most men settle into regular employment, and their poverty rate declines. Each of the racial or ethnic subgroups shows the same pattern, although poverty rates run higher among blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans at all ages than among whites or Asians.

Table 2 compares employment patterns for all men and for poor men, in the same age groups as table 1 during 2005. The contrast is dramatic. The share of poor men not working at all—50 percent—approached the share of all men working full time year-round—63 percent.4 For all men, the share working full time was 26 percent among the youngest age group, but it surged quickly to more than 70 percent in the older categories. The share not working correspondingly plunged. But for the poor, the share working full time peaked—at only 29 percent—for men aged twenty-five to thirty-five before falling again. The share not working fell to only 38 percent for that age group before rising again to more than half for those aged thirty-six to fifty. If current trends hold, most poor men will leave the labor force well before the usual retirement age.

For all men, work increased with age for all the racial and ethnic categories, although work levels ran somewhat lower for blacks and Native Americans than the norm. But for poor men, the share not working exceeded the share employed for every group, although work levels ran conspicuously lower for blacks and higher for Hispanics than the average. Almost two-thirds of poor black men as a whole and nearly three-quarters of those aged sixteen to twenty-four reported not working at all during 2005.

The problem has grown worse in recent decades. For men under age thirty-five with no more than a high school education (and no longer in school), employment has fallen steadily since the 1980s. The decline in work was particularly severe for black men during the 1990s, despite the economic boom of that era.5 The implications for family poverty are dire. Men without steady earnings seldom marry or stay married, nor are they likely to support their children.