WASHINGTON — The discouraging March employment report, with a job increase of only 88,000, raises questions well beyond the dreary state of today's labor market. Prolonged high unemployment may be silently shredding the social fabric in ways that last for decades. Even before the Great Recession, men with a high-school diploma or less faced lower wages and a harder time finding work. This made them less attractive as husbands, contributing to the growth of single-parent families. Stubbornly high unemployment almost certainly aggravates these destructive trends.
It's hard to overstate the breakdown of marriage and the rise of single-parent families. Consider out-of-wedlock births. In 1980, about 18 percent of births were to unmarried women; by 2009, the proportion was 41 percent. Among whites, the increase was from 11 percent to 36 percent; among African-Americans, from 56 percent to 72 percent; among Hispanics, from 37 percent (1990) to 53 percent. Or look at the share of children living with two parents. Since 1970, that's dropped from 82 percent to 63 percent. Among whites, the decline is from 87 percent to 73 percent; among African-Americans, from 57 percent to 31 percent; among Hispanics, from 78 percent to 57 percent.
Just what caused these changes remains controversial. In his 2012 book "Coming Apart," Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute cited shifts in cultural norms. Having a child out of wedlock became more common and acceptable; the sexual revolution enabled men to get sex without marriage. The waning power of religion undermined the importance of family. Feminism and expanding welfare programs made it easier for women to survive — through jobs or aid — on their own. Liberalized divorce led to more breakups.
But there's also a more strictly economic case. In a paper for Third Way, a liberal think tank, economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology attribute the decline of marriage — which, like Murray, they say is concentrated among the poorly educated — to the eroding economic heft of men compared with women. Women are more independent economically; men are weaker. Marriage has lost much of its pecuniary pull.
To this hypothesis, they bring much statistical evidence. From 1979 to 2010, inflation-adjusted hourly wages for men aged 25 to 39 with only a high-school diploma fell 20 percent, while the wages of similar women rose 1 percent. Among those with some college (but no bachelor's degree), women's wages were up 8 percent; men's were down 8 percent. As important, fewer men and more women proportionally have jobs. From 1979-2007 — prior to the recession — the share of male high-school graduates with jobs fell 9 percentage points; job-holding by similar women rose 9 percentage points. For those with some college, men were down 6 percentage points, women up by 12 percentage points.
Women have adjusted better than men to an economy with more office work and less factory, construction and transportation activity. Autor and Wasserman fear these changes are now feeding on themselves. On average, children in single-parent homes do worse — have lower grades, do more drugs, have higher arrest rates — than similar children raised by two parents, who can devote more money and time to their offspring. Boys seem especially at risk because they often lack "a positive or stable same-sex role model," say Autor and Wasserman. So boys will do less well in school and less well (later) in the labor market. They will then be less appealing as husbands.
"Over the last half-century," writes Murray, "marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes." Autor and Wasserman reach the same conclusion: Their data show a tight correlation between the falling earnings of poorly educated men and declining marriage rates.
Today's dismal labor market may now further aggravate family meltdown. It's harder for men to get jobs or higher wages. Since 2007, there's been a huge exodus of people from the labor force. In March, the number was 496,000. Perhaps two-thirds of the dropouts leave because they're discouraged that they'll ever find work, estimates Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. (The remaining third reflects lifestyle choices and aging, including the retirement of baby boomers.) Counting many discouraged workers as jobless would raise the unemployment rate close to 10 percent instead of the reported 7.6 percent, she says.
"There are no easy public policy answers to the issues raised [here]," candidly write Elaine Kamarck and Jonathan Cowan of Third Way. And yet, there's a sliver of hope: The economic logic of marriage hasn't completely collapsed. A family consisting of one worker earning $35,000 and another $30,000 is much better off than either separately. Perhaps hardship will cause people to rediscover the cliche: Two can live more cheaply than one.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.