Alana Semuels is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
Declines in manufacturing employment are shaping the structure of the American family.
In many small towns across the country, there aren’t very many good jobs these days. Once there were factories that employed millions and paid decent wages. Today, young men are scraping by working at local bars or in lower-paid temp jobs. Many of these men are single, and new research suggests that those two things—their poor economic status and their singleness—are not unrelated.
It’s no wonder, then, that the changes wrought by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs helped elevate the platform of Donald Trump, who won 67 percent of white workers without a college degree. Their malcontent comes not just from their economic struggles, but from the dramatic changes to their personal lives that the decline of manufacturing have created.
A new study by the economists David Autor of MIT, Gordon Hanson of the University of California at San Diego, and David Dorn of the University of Zurich, provides evidence that their economic struggles are directly responsible for many of their personal ones. The study finds that, as men’s economic prospects decline, they marry less frequently. Once, men had good earnings, especially when compared with women. But now these men don’t earn much more than women do, and so fewer people are getting married, and more children are being born out of wedlock. Children are much more likely to grow up in poverty in households headed by single mothers.
“We see a decline in fertility, a decline in marriage, but a rise in the fraction of births that are disadvantaged, and as a consequence the kids are living in pretty tough circumstances,” Autor, the study’s lead author, told me.
Fertility has declined and out-of-wedlock births have risen all over America during the past three decades, not just in areas where jobs have been displaced by trade. But the authors show that these trends have been much more pronounced in areas that have lost a significant number of manufacturing jobs, where, as a result, men’s prospects have declined disproportionately. This worsening of the fates of men has been long predicted, including in The Atlantic in the summer of 2010, when Hanna Rosin highlighted how women’s bettering prospects would lead to “The End of Men.”
In this study, the authors looked at what happens when a “trade shock” impacted certain areas around the country. They looked at instances when imports from China started to compete with the product a local industry made, causing job losses and plant closures. (In a previous paper, the authors had found that rising competition from Chinese imports depressed wages and eliminated American jobs.)
They found that manufacturing declines significantly affected the supply of what they termed “marriageable” men—men who are not drinking or using drugs excessively and who have a job. In areas impacted by a trade shock, the numbers of marriageable men relative to women declined, because men had migrated elsewhere, joined the military, or fallen out of the labor force. Fewer men were working in manufacturing, which tended to mean their wages were lower than they had been when manufacturing had more of a presence in their area. And their wages were not significantly higher than women’s wages, which they had been during the heyday of manufacturing. (Fewer women worked in manufacturing in the first place, so they were less affected by the shocks.)
This made the men less appealing to the women, the authors suggest—so there were fewer marriages. They find that trade shocks reduced the share of young women who were married, and reduced the number of births per woman.
Yet women didn’t give up on having babies entirely. Plenty of young women are still getting pregnant, but they’re no longer as likely to have married their partner when they do, the authors found. (The share of children born to unmarried mothers more than doubled between 1980 and 2013, from 18 to 41 percent.) When young women become pregnant unintentionally, they have to decide whether to have the baby and whether to marry the father or not, said Autor. That evaluation becomes more fraught when the man doesn’t have a good job. Marriage to such men can be risky: They may not contribute very much income, but they could factor into family decisions. “You don’t want to marry a man who is in all likelihood not economically viable, because it’s not a free lunch,” Autor said.
These patterns seem to hinge on whether men are making more money than women, the authors found. When it was women’s jobs that were affected, such as when predominantly female sectors like the leather-goods industry saw competition from Chinese imports, marriage rates and in-wedlock births increased.
The paper’s findings are worrisome for some places that have seen men’s jobs displaced by trade and automation. A trade shock in which one sector saw major job losses increased the share of children living in poverty by 13 percent. It also increased the share of children living in single-parent-headed or grandparent-headed households.
It’s more evidence that there was something special about manufacturing in America in the middle of the 20th century, because the sector provided good-paying jobs for people without a college education. Those jobs allowed people a comfortable lifestyle, and when they vanish, families changed. “It does appear that in places where manufacturing is prevalent, it’s kind of a fulcrum, a cornerstone of a way of life where men have relatively stable, modestly high earnings and women are more likely to be married to them,” Autor said.
Where that lifestyle doesn’t exist anymore, something else has arisen in its place. In past times of economic hardship, birth rates plummeted because women didn’t want to marry and have babies with men who didn’t have jobs. Women also faced a huge amount of stigma if they decided to have children out of wedlock. But now, people are having children despite the economic obstacles. In some cases, as the sociologist Andrew Cherlin lays out in his book, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America, more adults are having children within unstable relationships. “A substantial number go on to have children with a second partner, or even a third, creating complex and unstable family lives that are not good for children,” he writes.
This creates challenges for the people (usually women) who have to raise a child without the economic or social support of a partner. Their struggles are why the authors see such an uptick in children living in poverty in the aftermath of a decline in manufacturing employment.
Yet there are many women who have soldiered on, despite it all. After all, women are more independent than they used to be because they have more job opportunities than they once did. They can make the choice not to marry and still have children, and not face as much stigma as they once did.
This group includes Olivia Alfano, a 29-year-old single mother living in Evansville, Indiana, where she works as a waitress at Red Lobster. The money is pretty good, she told me: She drives a BMW and was able to buy a house last year. Alfano now wants to go into management, which she thinks will give her more security in the long run. When I asked her why she hadn’t married, she told me, “I haven’t run into someone I would consider doing that with.”
Of course, Alfano still has obstacles: for instance, finding childcare while she’s at work and getting good health care for her family (she doesn’t work enough hours to qualify for Red Lobster’s plan). But three decades ago, a woman like Alfano would have needed a partner to be able to have children, or else faced social stigma and economic hardship. Today, her potential partners don’t have the opportunity for good, stable employment that they once did. They’re struggling, while Alfano makes a life on her own.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.