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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


Social scientists have two principal approaches to explaining nonwork among poor men, especially among blacks.6 Economists typically assume that nonworking men display economizing behavior—that they are acting so as to maximize their utilities. If they are working less, then they must be responding rationally to changes in incentives or in working conditions that have made work less worthwhile or available. The other approach is cultural; proponents interpret nonworking behavior not as economizing and rational but as dysfunctional. As they see it, nonworking men are acting counter to their own interests— and the interests of their families and society as well. Policymakers seeking solutions to the male work problem must first decide which of these viewpoints is truest to the psychology of the men. For measures to increase male work levels cannot succeed unless policymakers accurately perceive the state of mind that they seek to change.

The Economic Approach
As noted, economists assume that people will work if working is worth more to them than not working. If people who have been employed begin to work less, work must have become less valuable relative to other pursuits. Thus employment should vary directly with wages—work levels and wages should go up and down together. This is called the substitution effect. And indeed, as wages among the low-skilled (those with a high school education or less) stagnated or fell during the 1970s and 1980s, the work level of this group also fell. Economists infer that the falling wages caused falling employment: these men decided to work less because doing so had become less worthwhile.

One difficulty with this reasoning, though, is that lower wages can also generate an incentive to work more. When pay per hour is lower, workers must put in more hours to cover their financial needs; conversely, higher wages allow them to cover these needs with fewer working hours. In this case, work levels should vary inversely with wages—work levels should go up as wages go down. This is called the income effect. When wages change over time, whether the substitution or income effect will dominate is unclear a priori.

Several economists estimate that, at least for low-paid workers, the substitution effect dominates. This is why the economic approach to explaining male nonwork stresses low wages. However, these estimates rest on data before 1990.7 During the 1990s, real wages for the low-skilled rose, especially late in the decade. Work levels for poor single mothers also rose sharply, as is consistent with the economic theory, although welfare reform and the new benefits also helped. For low-skilled black men, however, labor force participation rates continued to fall even during the 1990s, which is not consistent with the theory. Some force other than reduced pay must be driving work levels down.8

Some economists also argue that jobs have become less available to disadvantaged men as well as paying less. Employers, they believe, have become less patient with lowskilled workers than they once were. Pay now varies far more according to a worker’s education than it once did, leaving the lowskilled worse off. Under pressure from restructuring and globalization, employers demand that low-paid employees show adaptability and produce without problems, or be replaced.9 But this argument cannot explain why millions of unskilled immigrants from Latin America and Asia are now at work in the U.S. economy. Nor can it account for the large differences in work levels among different groups of poor men.

Yet another hypothesis is that native-born blacks have become less employable than other low-skilled groups. Economists once thought that the flood of women into the labor force during the 1970s and 1980s drove down wages and employment for young blacks, but during the 1990s there is no sign of this.10 George Borjas argues that rapid immigration from Mexico, both legal and illegal, has depressed unskilled male wages and employment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that employers today often hire women or illegal aliens rather than native-born blacks, viewing them as more tractable. But other economists question these effects. They are in any event too small to explain the low black male work levels or their decline even in the tight labor markets of the later 1990s.11

One fact that used to make male nonwork seem rational is that the drug trade and other illicit activities seemed to offer better opportunities than legal but low-paid jobs. However, returns to drug selling have fallen since the 1980s. Most drug gang members today make barely more than they would in legitimate employment, while they also face high risks of violence and arrest. Drug dealing no longer seems a rational alternative to working in legal but low-paid jobs.12

The final explanation for nonwork offered by economists is that other types of barriers block employment for the poor. The so-called mismatch theory asserts that jobs have become less accessible to the inner-city poor, either because the jobs moved—from urban areas to the suburbs, to the South, or overseas— or because they now demand more education and skills than poor adults offer. This theory too seemed more plausible during the 1970s and 1980s, when deindustrialization was rampant, than it did during the 1990s, when legions of unskilled job seekers—immigrants as well as welfare mothers—found jobs in cities. Even in a globalizing economy, most jobs do not demand a four-year college education, and many of these jobs still pay well.13

The Cultural Approach
The cultural view of male nonwork is that nonworking men fail to take advantage even of the jobs they can get. Lower wages do not cause employment to fall. Rather, both low wages and low employment result from a breakdown in work discipline. Low-income men, particularly blacks, have become less reliable employees. As a result they are paid less and they also work less, either because they are fired or because they drop out of jobs. This logic is consistent with employers’ loss of patience with low-skilled workers. One argument against the cultural view is that schooling levels for men—our best measure of labor quality—continue to improve, although educational standards have no doubt fallen over the past several decades.14

An argument in favor of culture is that the forces driving work levels down for younger blacks during the 1990s include the child support and criminal justice systems. Compared with the past, many low-skilled men today seem deterred from working because of automatic wage deductions to pay child support or because they are incarcerated. These forces likely overwhelmed the greater disposition to work that higher wages in that decade might well have caused.15 Although wage deductions and imprisonment could be viewed as disincentives or barriers to work, consistent with the economic approach, the behavior that generates such sanctions is not optimizing, but self-defeating.

The best evidence for the cultural theory comes from ethnographic accounts that capture the attitudes of nonworking men toward employment. If disincentives such as low wages explained the problem, we would find these men calculating carefully whether working were worthwhile. They would be complaining about low wages and demanding to be paid more, in the practical style of trade unionists who bargain over working conditions with employers.

But this is not what ethnographers find. Typically these men do not reject the work ethic; like other poor adults, they usually affirm it. Nor do they say dispassionately that working is not worthwhile. Rather, they affirm the work norm yet fail to achieve it for reasons that remain mysterious.16 Thus, any theory of nonwork must explain why the nonworkers appear to violate their own values. For poor women, the explanation is often lack of confidence. Hence the evolution of welfare policy toward work programs that both require welfare women to work and help them to do so. For men, one explanation is temptation: the men want to do the right thing but are lured away from it by the seductions of the street, such as the drug trade.17

A more important explanation focuses on respect: low-income men often fail to work because doing so would violate their selfesteem. Black youth, for example, typically demand higher wages before they will work than whites with the same qualifications. Economists might say that they have a higher “reservation wage”—the wage that would induce them to accept a job. But this framing again suggests a quality of calm calculation that is lacking.18 Actually, passion reigns. Black youth will often refuse to work for “chump change” even if it means not working at all. Or they accept jobs but then find them unrewarding or abusive. So they leave them in a huff or are fired.19

Low-skilled blacks feel that employers treat them as expendable, firing them at the least provocation. To the employers, however, it seems that the men simply “don’t want to work.” So bosses grow wary of hiring them, particularly minorities and ex-offenders. They often hire women or immigrants instead. One cannot call such preferences racist, because black employers voice the same complaints as whites.20 Economists may say the men behave “as if” they do not find work worth their time. A psychologist would suggest rather that, out of intemperateness, they violate their own intention, which—as for other men—is to get ahead.

The men also commonly fail as husbands and fathers. Spouses expect them to work regularly to support the family, but they often refuse, or they get into drugs or crime. They do not argue that jobs pay too little to take; they simply behave badly in ways that even they disapprove of. So the women give up on them and raise their children alone.21 Soon the authorities come looking for them, demanding child support payments or arresting them for crimes.

Male Psychology
What is the source of these rebellious patterns? One interpretation, although it is speculative, appeals to frustrated male psychology. At the heart of nonwork is not economic behavior but men’s hunger for “dignity” or “respect.” More than most women, men typically work not just to make money but to “be somebody.” The male quest is to get out front for some cause and by so doing to vindicate oneself. That drive is valuable because it motivates men’s achievements, but it is also dangerous unless it is harnessed to larger purposes, typically employment and the family.22 The trouble today, of course, is that poor men’s drive to succeed has often lost these ties. It now seems merely self-serving. Many men now seek respect by rejecting available jobs or by taking risks by committing crimes. By asserting themselves without performing, they earn failure rather than respect.

Selling drugs, far from being a rational option for the low skilled, exemplifies this frustrated drive for respect. Unskilled youths who go into drugs are searching for any way they can to vindicate themselves against the disapproval they feel from the society. Unfortunately, to pursue recognition in this way proves destructive for both them and their communities.23

This rebellious pattern often surfaces early in poor men’s lives. By misbehaving, many alienate first their parents, then their teachers, and finally their employers. Each rejection makes the quest for dignity more desperate, producing further rebellion, which produces further rejection, in a descending spiral. To observers, the men seem anarchic, yet they themselves feel powerless.24 In the middle class, by contrast, most boys learn in infancy to satisfy their parents, then their teachers and bosses, in an ascending spiral. By behaving well, they achieve success and respect while also serving others. By behaving badly, poor men never get to first base.

This perspective helps to explain one of the mysteries of poverty—why poor men seem more impaired than poor women. On average they are less employable than poor single mothers, even though the women have children to worry about. The reason may be that their lot in life is less affirming. Poor women find their identity chiefly as mothers. They typically believe they can succeed in that role, even if outside observers dissent. They have to meet community standards for their children, but they are not in direct competition with other mothers. They also have had their own mothers as role models, even if their fathers were absent.25 For them, working is secondary. It usually poses practical problems, not a crisis of identity.

Men, by contrast, are wired to achieve selfesteem chiefly through ventures outside the home. That forces them into the labor market, a far more competitive arena than motherhood. There they are up against other men much better prepared than themselves. They often lack fathers to guide them, and government does little to help them. So their failure, at least in competitive terms, is all but inevitable. Hence the prickly defensiveness that often blocks them from working at all, to their own cost.

Among successful men, what keeps assertiveness in line is early conditioning. Most middle- class boys of all races internalize the values and lifestyles of their parents. Obeying their elders—especially their fathers—prepares them later to obey their teachers and employers. To be sure, working does not solve all their problems. They still have to struggle for adequate wages, by earning raises or promotions, or through trade union or political activity. But by becoming steady workers, they at least get a foot on the ladder.

Today’s urban poverty arose chiefly because work discipline broke down in the midtwentieth century among low-income people, especially blacks. Somehow, many parents lost their own discipline and thus their authority over children. Fathers failed to work and often disappeared. Their sons then became rootless, seeking to work but not knowing how. Paradoxically, the collapse came just as opportunities for blacks were expanding.

To a cultural interpretation, poverty reflects social disorder more than deficient opportunity. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote, “a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken homes, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos.”26 The chief solution to poverty then is to restore order. Government must provide some of the pressure to work that today’s poor have not internalized.

Assessing the Two Views of Male Nonwork
On balance, I find the cultural view of male nonwork more persuasive. It is more true to life, and it captures the self-defeating quality of male nonwork. The economic reading is unpersuasive as long as jobs sufficient to prevent poverty appear readily available, as immigration proves. But the two theories are not completely inconsistent. Opportunity constraints may exacerbate the cultural problem.

A key issue is whether reduced opportunities generate an oppositional culture or the reverse. 27 Both may be true. To say that lousy jobs directly generate resistance to working is too simple. That view does not account for trends over time. Low-skilled work attitudes seem to have worsened since the 1960s, a period when opportunities for blacks, on balance, improved. Work behavior among black men is worse today than it was under segregation and Jim Crow. That deterioration must have causes in the broader culture, outside the labor market.28

Yet, to a degree bad behavior and lousy jobs may reinforce each other. Acting out undermines men’s reputation with employers, driving wages and opportunities down. At the same time, low wages exacerbate a dysfunctional culture. When disadvantaged men confront the job market, they may already be unfitted for it, but low wages also dramatize their failure. This helps to trigger the cycle of rebellion and rejection, and it is this—more than low wages per se—that brings them down.