male poverty is unique

What Makes Male Poverty Unique

Derrick, a 28-year-old Richmond, Ca., man with an associate’s degree, loves his job doing after-school mentoring, tutoring, and coaching sports with elementary students in west Oakland, but with only 21 hours at work each week at $12.50 per hour, he struggles to pay his $1,400 rent and take care of his 1-year-old daughter. “I like to give back to my community, but the pay is too little, there are not enough hours, and I get no benefits,” he said. While he does weekend coaching, he’s also looking for a full-time job, even in a stock room, just for the steady paycheck. “It puts you at a fork in the road. I see the nonmonetary benefits, but it’s a tight squeeze.”  Like 26 ½ million other American men, he lives in or near poverty.

When the Census Bureau released its 2014 poverty data last month (Sept. 16), most attention rightly focused on the disproportionate numbers of children, African Americans, Hispanics, and women who struggle to make ends meet. However, in an economy where wages have stagnated or fallen and median household incomes are no higher today than they were 25 years ago, it is important to remember that poverty and “near poverty,” often defined as incomes below twice the official poverty level, cross all racial, gender, and age lines.  In fact, 30 million men have incomes below $20,000 a year, and another 16 million have annual incomes between $20,000 and $30,000. One-fourth of adult men are in near poverty, with Millennials faring even worse. One in three males between the ages of 18 and 34 fall into this category. For an individual, poverty means having a yearly income below $12,071 and one falls into the ranks of the near poor with incomes below $24,142; for a family of three, the cutoffs are $19,055 and $38,110.

Lest one thinks these are all lazy, ne’er-do-wells, 16 million work. Although more unmarried men with jobs fall into the ranks of the working poor, 22 percent of working husbands with children fall below the near-poverty threshold. Many have full-time jobs, some menial, some supposedly “white collar” working in stores and restaurants, but many more can’t find or hold onto jobs.  It’s hard to know which is worse—to work full-time and struggle to make ends meet or not be able to find steady work to pay the bills.

Hardly the American Dream.

Candidates from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, and almost everyone in between, recognize that “the middle class is getting clobbered,” in the words of the tycoon-turned-contender, and that “there is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent,” as the Vermont Senator says.

While racism and sexism have a significant effect on an individual’s economic fortunes, men have three unique problems as well.

They account for nine out of 10 ex-offenders, who aren’t exactly at the front of the line when employers hire new workers. One in three men between the ages of 25 and 54 have criminal records, including one in ten who have had felony convictions, according to a New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Among black men, one in four had been convicted of a felony, a cause and effect of the vicious triad of racism, mass incarceration, and poverty that Ta-Nehisi Coates examines in Between the World and Me. And most employers explicitly say that anyone with a conviction need not apply, writes Devah Pager, a Harvard sociologist and author of Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration.

The second strike against men is that they have been dropping out of the labor force in significant numbers, as three in 10 men over 20 don’t work, compared to one in 10 in the 1950s. Some may be trying to find jobs, some may be absentee fathers, and some simply may not have the motivation or skills to work.

Which brings us to the third strike. Men have been falling ever farther behind women educationally, with one-third fewer men than women getting B.A.’s these days. Although men still tend to get the top jobs, as women become dominant among those with professional degrees, many once overwhelmingly male, high-skilled occupations are becoming feminized.

Poverty issues differ for different segments of the population, but several things could enhance the fortunes of low-income men. The de-incarceration movement, and the related effort to make it either for most ex-offenders to get jobs could help millions of men, particularly African Americans, who see only “need not apply” when they look for jobs. While relatively well-paying middle-skill employment, like factory jobs, is not coming back, businesses and government could do a lot more to provide training opportunities that are an alternative to college. Strengthening the family, or at least changing child-support disincentives for noncustodial fathers to work, also would benefit many men and their children. And, for all those who blithely assert that “we lost the war on poverty,” if not for government assistance, rates would be about two-thirds again higher, so stronger, smarter policies to reduce poverty would make a difference.

As David Martin, a new father who has worked in a Los Angeles nursing home for 10 years, said: “$11 an hour is not enough to support my family and provide healthy food, a stroller, and all the other things a baby needs.”

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash


Andrew Yarrow

View posts by Andrew Yarrow
Andrew L. Yarrow is a journalist, historian, policy analyst whose new book is Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life. He has been a New York Times reporter, a speechwriter in the Clinton Administration, a U.S. history professor at American University, and has been affiliated with several Washington think tanks, including the Brookings Institution and the Progressive Policy Institute. He has published four previous books, writes frequently for many major media, and also has worked or consulted for Public Agenda, Oxfam, the World Bank, UNICEF, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Export-Import Bank. He lives in the Washington, DC area.

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