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The Confluence of Economics, Gender, Education, and Politics


You'll see it in President Obama's upcoming speech about proposals for creating jobs. The White House is all too aware of the growing political disaffection of working-class white males. Absent job creation, Obama has little hope of winning that group.

Why? Because of social and economic trends that are mostly beyond the power of the White House to shape. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson captured the dilemma in his Sunday column:

We are only now beginning to understand the toll this economy has taken on America's workers -- and on our working men in particular. A stunning study from Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project, published in the Milken Institute Review, reveals that the median earnings of men ages 25 to 64 declined 28 percent between 1969 and 2009. Within this age group, the median earnings of men who completed high school but didn't go on to college fell 47 percent, while the median earnings of male college graduates also declined, if only 12 percent.

Part of this decline stems from the shrinking share of working-age men with full-time jobs, which fell from 83 to 66 percent between 1960 and 2009. The other part stems from the fall in inflation-adjusted median yearly earnings of working-age men who have full-time jobs, which have shrunk by about $5,000 since the mid-'70s. Combined, write Greenstone and Looney, these two declines explain why the earnings of American men "haven't been this low since Ike was president and Marshal Dillon was keeping the peace in Dodge City."

Here's another good column by Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg's View that captures our two-tiered economy:

The upper tier is populated by people without elaborate toolboxes but with advanced degrees and superior analytical, creative and interpersonal skills. These people congregate in places like Washington, Boston and San Francisco. They feel few, if any, effects of the recession.

The lower tier is made up of people in places like Phoenix and Las Vegas and Tampa, Florida, who are educationally and even dispositionally ill-equipped for a globalized economy. The recession was a body blow to these people, of course, but they are also suffering because of some longer-term and more systematic problems, such as our neglect of our national infrastructure (think of the jobs that would have been created if we had taken care of our bridges, highways and airports over the past 30 years), our long journey away from manufacturing, and the painful consequences of increased automation and globalization.

Men have not adapted well to post-industrial economic changes, especially the need for post-secondary study. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Carey lays out what we know about the value of post-secondary degrees. Predictions that degrees would lose value as more students earned them has proven to be untrue.

The value of degrees increased even as the supply of degrees grew. The economy steadily transformed itself to match the advanced skills that higher education conferred. Unlike Europe, America lacked a widespread system of job training through labor unions working in collaboration with government. In part through policy and in part by default, higher education became a place—for most people, the only place—that granted access to jobs and careers that paid enough money to lead a good life.

One hopeful sign is that Obama tapped Princeton economist Alan Krueger to lead the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Krueger has marketplace smarts and "gets" the confluence of education and jobs—a confluence where men have not fared well. It will be interesting to see if his influence seeps out in the speech.

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