Do We Need Men’s Progressive Policy?

01/22/2019 12:00am

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Andrew Yarrow writes that progressives “seem to assiduously avoid” men’s problems. As examples of men’s problems that progressives avoid, Yarrow points to trends in men’s labor force participation, real median income, poverty, and health.

What Yarrow does not mention is that multi-issue think tanks on the left, such as CEPR, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), and the Roosevelt Institute, have plenty to say about these problems and have proposed dozens of policies that would help address them. For example, EPI’s detailed policy agenda includes a long list to build worker power, create good jobs, restore full employment, expand access to health care and quality education, and manage globalization for the benefit of workers. There is little question that such an agenda would increase men’s employment, earnings and education, improve their health, and reduce their isolation. Of course, it also would do these same things for women, but that’s obviously a feature, not a bug.

Yarrow must know this, so why doesn’t he highlight it? Yarrow, who self-identifies as a liberal, is a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, which historically has promoted third-way policies that triangulate between the left and right. His complaint is more about political marketing than policy. According to Yarrow, this supposed “failure of liberals is not only morally wrong, but also it hurts their own prospects of winning broader support among men.”

There may be no harm in progressive think tanks issuing “mansize” versions of their policy agendas, but I’m willing to wager that men already know that jobs, the economy, health care, and education impact them even if we don’t specifically label them as being “for men.”

Yarrow’s accounting of men’s problems has problems of its own. He says that 20 million men have “abandoned work (or work has abandoned them).” As the source for this number, he links to a 2017 Business Insider article that links to a 2016 New York Times opinion piece making a claim about men (ages 20–65) in 2015. When I tried to replicate this estimate using the Current Population Survey, I got 16.1 million men (ages 20–65) not working at all in 2017 (and 16.7 million not working at all in 2015), so about 3–4 million less than the figure Yarrow cites.

Have these 16 million men “abandoned” work as Yarrow claims? For the most part, no. Of the 16 million, some 40 percent are disabled, 23 percent are retired, 18 percent are going to school, and 7 percent are taking care of home/family. It is simply misleading to say that all of these men have abandoned work. Moreover, many more women (27.9 million ages 20–65) did not work in 2017. Even if we exclude all people who say they didn’t work because they were taking care of home/family, there are still a million more nonworking women than men. It’s also worth noting, as Dean Baker has written, that “there have been sharp declines in employment rates for both less-educated men and women [which] indicates the problem is more likely a problem of weak demand than some gender-specific problem with men.”

Some more examples:

  • Yarrow notes that median personal income for men is only about 1 percent higher today than in 1973 (after adjusting for inflation). This is true, but it is also the case that median personal income for men today is 59 percent higher than for women. We need policies that increase most men’s and women’s incomes, while also reducing the inequality between them.

  • Yarrow says that “[y]oung adult males have higher poverty rates than their counterparts 40 years ago ….” This is true (at least when using the problematic official poverty measure). However, young women also have higher poverty rates than their counterparts 40 years ago, and they are much more likely to be poor than young men.  Among young people ages 25–34, 10.5 percent of women were poor in 1977, 4.8 percentage points higher than the poverty rate for young men. In 2017, 15.1 percent of young women were poor, 6.3 percentage points higher than the rate for young men. Yarrow does not mention what is probably the most notable factor about the increase in poverty among young people: that it has happened despite huge increases in their educational attainment.

  • Yarrow links to an article noting that US men’s life expectancy declined by one-tenth of a year between 2016 and 2017, while women’s life expectancy did not change over this same period. This is true, but over the longer term, the more notable trend is the narrowing of the life expectancy gap between men and women. Men’s life expectancy at birth is lower than women’s, but it increased by 6.1 years between 1980 and 2015, while women’s life expectancy increased by 3.7 years over the same period.

To be sure, most men have not gotten their fair share of the gains of a growing economy for decades. But this is mostly because other men — rich men and corporations run by men — have rigged the rules of the economy in ways that harm everybody else. And unlike other groups, men are generally not excluded and exploited because they are men. This makes a focus on men’s issues, at least the kind of focus that Yarrow seems to be promoting, problematic.  

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