Two weeks ago, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant made the grave political mistake of linking the nation’s decline in educational performance to the rise of women into the workforce. Bryant was not only politically incorrect but he was also hopelessly reckless in his manner of delivery.
The Pew Research Center last month released a study which reports that the number of households in which women are the sole or primary bread winners has increased from 6 percent in 1970 to 40 percent today.
Josh Barro, the political news anchor for “Business Insider,” said the following in reaction to the report on the Melissa Harris Perry Show on MSNBC: “Over the last 30 years men have not been keeping up with economic shifts. You’ve had this job polarization where middle-skill jobs are falling out. We have more high-skill and low-skill jobs and women have responded to that by greatly increasing their level of education attainment over the last 30 years. Men haven’t and so they have had a decreased attachment to the workforce. More of them are working in low-skill jobs.”
Barro made these comments on a panel in which he was joined by four women. As the male perspective, he pandered to both other members of the panel and the progressive MSNBC audience.
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Our objective here, to use football terminology, is to split the uprights (upwrongs?) between the insensitive male position that blames our societal shortfalls on working women and the kiss-ass position of male under-achiever; to offer a policy solution that fits how the modern family functions.
Let’s deal with Bryant’s upwrong first. The governor would have been on firmer footing had he said something like this: The teachers unions have long argued that teachers’ pay should not be linked to student performance on standardized test, because factors outside the classroom influence student performance. One of these factors, the interface between teacher and parents has been impaired by the trend toward dual income households.
Both dual income and single parent households have less time for involvement in the school system. Moreover, they have less time for involvement in the community in general. But this is not a “women’s issue.” When women act in the role of provider, men have to step up to fill the void that is created in household duties, school and community.
Where does Barro have it wrong? He treats gender trends as being on the same curve when in fact they are separate trends. The loss of “middle skill jobs” to which he refers is due to globalization. These jobs tended to be in manufacturing and traditionally combined fixed assets and muscle. The muscle attributes meant that these workers were also predominantly male. For many males, the trend to globalization happened in mid-career and the curve of their livelihood has been curtailed.
The trend of women in the workforce began in earnest in 1970 and it is a trend to itself. Barro is correct that women have surpassed men in academic achievement. But is the pathetic male lacking in ambition really the problem? Today, less than one-third of Americans have a four-year degree. We are a society of “innovation” and yet we appear to be able to absorb no more than one-third of the workforce in professions requiring a college degree. Witness the 55 percent unemployment rate among recent college graduates.
Are women crowding out men for valuable career slots? Should society care if the professions are becoming more female dominant? The answer is that society should be indifferent to gender—but in a society that is gender-indifferent, the family must still be involved in school and community.
Does government have a role? Fill out that job application online today and the government wants to know gender, race, and age. Generation X believes these preferences are inappropriate and they are right.
Is the correct policy position the one that reflects today’s definition of family values? Consider a head of household tax credit that accrues to the employer as compensation for the necessary modification of work rules to accommodate family preferences.
This is how it would work: The family defines itself. If the woman has the greater earning power, she is designated the head of household. The family makes the choice. If at some point in time she decides to drop out of the workforce to spend more time with the kids, the designation would be transferred to her husband. The tax credit would offset any retraining expenses that the employer would endure in welcoming her husband back.
The costs of federal safety net programs supporting households in which both parents are currently under-employed have exploded. Rebalancing the workforce has both budgetary benefits and family values advantages. Every family would have at least one wage earner that is adequately employed. Our children would have our attention and that would improve performance at school.