Carry On, Wayward Sons

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Written by John Schmitt   
Wednesday, 27 March 2013 08:05

I got an email yesterday from Elaine Kamarck, resident scholar at Third Way. We don't know each other, but she wanted to let me know about a new Third Way study: Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education (pdf). I had already read the study, so I was surprised to read her description of it. The new report, she writes:

“... makes a startling discovery. Authors David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, both of MIT, suggest that the decline in educational attainment, employment rates, and real wage levels of men is almost exclusively reserved for males born into single-parent households meaning the gap could be as much about social family structure as it is about economic forces like the demise of labor unions and globalization.” (my emphasis).

What surprised me was that the language in the email, which will likely be read by far more people than will actually read the report, was much more definitive than the language in the report itself.

Here, for example, are Autor and Wasserman on the question of the gender gap in educational attainment:

While it would be inaccurate to claim that social science has reached consensus on the differential effects that parents have on the social and educational development of their same-sex children, recent data suggest that the female advantage in educational attainment is substantially more pronounced in female-headed households and in households where the father is less educated than the mother. (p. 44)

Or here, discussing the difficulty in distinguishing between the effects of male parental absence, on the one hand, and lower levels of income associated with being in a single-parent family, on the other hand:

We must stress, however, that this explanation should be taken as tentative and potentially incomplete. (p. 49)

Or here, in the conclusion from the report:

The topic is sufficiently important in our view—and the trends sufficiently stark—that it is not premature to engage in productive discussion, even if the clarity of our knowledge is well short of the urgency of the subject. (p. 51)

Autor and Wasserman are substantially more tentative in their presentation of the state of the debate. My colleague, Shawn Fremstad, has separately raised issues about the evidence and conclusions in the study, but what is striking here is that the Third Way presentation of the study clearly lacks the nuance of the researchers that they commissioned to do the analysis.

None of this, however, prevents me from taking my hat off to the person or persons who gave the report its title. For those too young to drive in the 1970s, the obligatory link to the Kansas rock anthem, “Carry On, Wayward Son.”

Tags: education | inequality | labor market