Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007
What does this causal analysis imply about government efforts to raise male work levels? One clear implication is that merely providing better opportunities is not enough. To say that cuts against the grain of our political culture. When the political class becomes aware of any new social problem, its initial instinct is to define the sufferers as victims and seek causes outside of them. Later, as cultural causes of the problem become more evident, the victims come to bear more onus for their difficulties. Welfare reform shows that trajectory, and nonwork among poor men is beginning to do the same.
Nonworking men have begun to get serious attention in Washington only in the past few years, since the success of welfare reform. The news media initially characterized them as oppressed by external conditions—as child support defaulters overwhelmed by their arrears or as ex-offenders without support in the community.29 But if a failure to work reflects rebelliousness more than economic disincentives, then merely improving opportunities and services is unlikely to change much.
Confronted with male nonwork, many analysts still stress benefits. They would either pay unskilled men more to work in the jobs they can already get or give them education and training to get better positions. On the record, such programs would yield some gains, but they would not produce much steadier work, which is the main goal here. This is just what a cultural view would expect.
One way to motivate more work might be to raise the minimum wage. At $5.15 an hour, the current minimum is below historic levels in real terms. At this writing, Congress seems likely soon to raise that figure to $7.25. The two primary objections to the increase are that it might destroy some low-skilled jobs and that most of the workers who would benefit are already above poverty, chiefly because they live in households where other people are working.
Most analysts would prefer to raise wage subsidies, which do not deter hiring and are better targeted on the low-income population. Some propose making noncustodial fathers eligible for the same generous earned income tax credit (EITC) that is now paid to custodial parents of children—as much as 40 percent of wages—provided the father pays his child support. Or they would limit the child support a poor absent father must pay, viewing it as a “tax” on earnings. Some would also expand the much smaller EITC given to single low-wage workers or create a more general subsidy for all low-wage workers.30 See, for example, the article in this volume by Gordon Berlin.
Raising wages would no doubt make poor men better off in some sense. They could either make more money if they worked or make the same amount by working less. But whether they would work more, which is the goal here, is doubtful. Provisions in force before the 1990s that allowed welfare beneficiaries to engage in work and still receive benefits had little effect on recipients’ work behavior.31 Federal income maintenance experiments beginning in the late 1960s also found that low-paid work effort was largely unresponsive to wages.32 During the 1990s, the EITC appeared to increase work by single mothers, but its influence is difficult to separate from that of rising work requirements in welfare and the strong economy, which cut in the same direction.33 And this finding applies largely to women rather than to men.
Evaluators of various experimental programs aimed at increasing employment among disadvantaged men have not found that raising wages clearly produces more work. The Jobs- Plus program, which tested whether financial incentives and social supports would increase work rates among residents of public housing, showed some employment gains by men, but the men were mostly husbands in twoparent welfare families, not the more detached men who are at the heart of the male employment problem.34 The New Hope project, which tested the effects of a work guarantee and work supports such as child care, increased the work and earnings of men outside families “sporadically,” but the program involved benefits besides wage subsidies as well as encouragement from a capable staff.35 One statistical study of whether black youth work more consistently when they get better jobs returned mixed findings.36
One risk of higher pay is that it would exacerbate the inflow of immigrants, thus creating more competitors for low-skilled men in getting jobs. That danger could be avoided only if border and administrative controls on immigration became more effective than they are now.
Raising wages might increase work over the long term, because of the interaction with culture already noted. Paying poor men more is a visible sign that society values their labor. Over time, that might reconcile some men to taking menial jobs. But in the short term, higher pay seems unlikely to overcome the fractious psychology that now undermines male work. For wage incentives to have much effect on behavior, low-skilled men would first have to become more committed to working steadily. At that point they would start behaving more like trade unionists who bargain over their conditions of work. Higher wages alone cannot produce that shift. Today the chief value of higher pay may be political— in reconciling liberal leaders and opinion makers to the need for work enforcement.
Most disadvantaged men do badly at school. Many drop out, and few earn more than a high school diploma. Because their skills are poor, their pay is low. How might policymakers help them stay in school longer, acquire better skills, and thus merit higher pay? Most schools in low-income areas function poorly. Government has recently tried to improve them by imposing outside standards, as in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and by promoting choice and competition among schools. Another approach has been to create small high schools that focus on work rather than college. But because teachers unions often oppose these measures, progress by this route will be slow.
The alternative is compensatory programs that promote learning outside of the schools. Intensive preschool programs can raise employment and depress unwed pregnancy and crime in the later lives of students. Recently, some after-school programs for at-risk teenagers have shown promising effects on education and health.37 But these benefits come from a few small, high-quality experiments. The programs probably could not be expanded to a wider population and realize the same gains. The national Head Start program has not shown the impacts achieved by the most noted preschool pilot programs. And even if the programs were effective at scale, their benefits would be long delayed. Compensatory programs have too remote a tie to adult employment for them to be the primary solution to the male work problem.
The final benefit-only approach to the work problem has been to train low-skilled workers after they leave school.38 With exceptions noted below, these programs have had much smaller impacts than the work programs that transformed welfare. An evaluation of the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) during the 1990s found only slight earnings gains for adults—smaller for men than women—and losses for youth.39 One reaction is that the programs are simply underfunded.40 Another explanation—more plausible in my view—is that the clients commonly lack the raw ability to raise their skills by much. The only way to elevate their wages, then, will be through regulating or subsidizing wages, as suggested above.41
But voluntary training has also failed to accomplish much because of the widespread misconception that the main barrier to work is low skills. In fact, it is work discipline. When men are poor in America, it is usually because they do not work consistently at any job, not because they earn too little. That has been apparent since the 1960s.42 What trainers really need to instill in disadvantaged men, if they can, is the personal organization to get and stick with the jobs that they can already get. If men show discipline, then employers will teach them specific skills. That commitment is what immigrants typically show today, as their native-born competitors often do not. So like education, improved training can make only a limited contribution to solving the male work problem.