AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

A new analysis of social mobility by economist Raj Chetty reveals how childhood environment impacts adult gender gaps.

How adults in the U.S. fare economically depends, to a large extent, on the quality of the neighborhoods they grew up in. But boys and girls who live right down the street from each other don’t always end up, economically speaking, in the same place. And that’s most likely because their childhood environments affect them differently, a new working paper by economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues finds, with boys having an especially tough time.

The researchers analyzed tax records of 10,000 U.S. citizens born between 1980 and 1982 once they turned 30, as well as economic and social data on their parents while they were growing up. Their findings “demonstrate that gender gaps in adulthood have roots in childhood, perhaps because childhood disadvantage is especially harmful for boys.” The findings are significant not just in understanding how place matters for social mobility of men and women, but for explaining trends about the U.S. labor force as a whole.

Below are three main results of their analysis.

The employment gender gap varied with parental income

Differences between men’s and women’s employment rate, income level, and college enrollment at age 30 all varied based on the income and marital status of their parents, but the gender gap in employment varied most starkly. Among those whose parents were in the bottom fifth of income distribution when they were young, the 30-year-old men were less likely to have a job than the women. This was especially true if these boys were raised by a single parent.

But for all other income quintiles, the opposite case was true: men were employed at higher rates. Here’s a chart that shows this striking reversal in employment gender gap, via Chetty et al:

When it comes to earnings, working men generally have higher income than working women for several reasons, including gender-based discrimination. This gap was evident in Chetty’s findings, as well. But the new analysis showed that men’s relative edge over women with respect to income narrowed among those with poorer parents (below, top row).

Meanwhile, girls have been attending college at a higher rates than boys in recent years, but their education advantage widened with parental poverty. In other words, a girl with poor parents was more likely to attend college than a boy in a similar situation (below, bottom).

So it’s certainly possible that growing up poor harmed the economic prospects of boys more than girls. But the researchers point out another potential explanation for the above trends that’s important to keep in mind: poor men are more likely to be black, and young black men are more likely than young white men to go to jail. That high rate of incarceration could be what’s driving up the negative economic outcomes among poor men, and in turn driving the gender gap trends observed above.

Here’s the explanation, via the paper:

Such racial differences could generate the cross-sectional patterns documented above even if gender gaps in adulthood are not influenced by the environment in which a child grows up.

It also varied by zipcode

Chetty and his colleagues also show how the employment gender gap varies geographically. They looked at these patterns across “commuting zones”—clusters of counties connected by transit that act like local labor markets—and found significant differences between them.

In the lightest yellow-colored regions on the U.S. map below, boys who grew up poor did much better than girls in terms of employment: they’re around 10 percentage points more likely than their female counterparts to have a job. In the darkest regions, on the other hand, the employment rate for women is around 10 points higher than it is for men:

A cursory glimpse at the map above shows that overall employment aggregated by gender masks wide variation among poor families on the ground. “In particular, the ‘reversal’ of the gender gap in poor families is far from a universal pattern throughout the U.S,” the researchers write. For example, poor boys growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, were 12 percentage points less likely to have a job than girls, while those growing up in New York were only 3 percentage points less likely.

One interesting aspect of the spatial analysis is that moving to an area which has better outcomes for boys can reconfigure the employment gender gap. Here’s how the authors put it, via the paper:

When a family with a daughter and son moves to a place where boys do especially well, their son does better than their daughter in direct proportion to the number of years they spend growing up in the new area.

Quality of neighborhood mattered more than upbringing

According to the new analysis, the areas where men are less likely than women to have a job are those with a concentration of minority residents and single-parent households, and high racial and economic segregation. Overall, “the correlation between segregation and gender gaps is largely driven by the causal effect of growing up in a more segregated area rather than differences in the types of families who live in such areas,” the researchers find. In other words, the characteristics of the neighborhood should help explain the economic problems these boys ultimately face, much more than the characteristics of their upbringing.

Crime, for example, which takes place at higher levels in these neighborhoods, can depress the employment level in boys later in life, and feed the gender gap; via the paper:

Growing up in poverty may induce low-ability boys to switch from formal employment to crime or other illicit activities, perhaps because of lower perceived returns to work (Kearney and Levine forthcoming). Since women have a much lower latent propensity to enter the criminal sector than men, this mechanism would generate differential impacts by gender.

The working paper contains key information to help elucidate the decline of male participation in the U.S. labor force. It’s not just uncontrollable factors such as aging populations, changes in industrial structure, and globalization that are causing this problem. The other culprits—residential segregation and inequality—hit closer to home.

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