What’s Happening to Failing White Men

Ten numbers that explain the roots of white male rage.

Amid all the largely disconnected discussions about angry white males, stagnant wages and inequality, fatherless families, and polarized politics, several striking linkages among these issues have largely gone unnoticed.

Tens of millions of white men have been expelled or checked out from mainstream American life – a reality with profound consequences for our economy, our children and families, our civic life, and our politics.

At least 20 percent of the nation’s 90 million white men have been pushed to the sidelines, either retreating or storming out of the mainstream of American life. They are not the men you see at work, who play with their children, go out with their wives or partners, are involved in their communities, and earn a living to save for their children’s education and their own retirement. What they do doesn’t register in either the gross domestic product or in the glimmer of a child’s eye.

Many of them are mad as hell. They have good reason to be angry, although their venom all too often is turned on scapegoats: women, immigrants, government, African Americans, and Latinos. Extremist, non-mainstream candidates have tapped these wells of anger, but most analyses stick to economics and politics, failing to see the many factors buffeting a sizable chunk of white male America.

We know that they are out there. But they don’t fit old stereotypes of failure, so we’ve had trouble coming to grips with who they are or naming the problem. Parts of their stories have garnered significant attention, but we don’t see that what have been treated as separate problems are closely related. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, “Something is happening, but [we] don’t know what it is.”

The following ten statistics about these seemingly unrelated phenomena are intriguingly suggestive of a broader story and the scale of that story:

  • Today, fewer than seven out of ten American men work; in the 1950s, nine out of ten worked.
  • Since the 1970s, inflation-adjusted incomes for the bottom 80 percent of men have fallen, with the most dramatic declines occurring among the bottom 40 percent, most of whom have less than a college education.
  • Today, just half of men are husbands; in 1960, three-fourths of men (and women, of course) were married.

As Barack Obama leaves office, only two out of three children live with their fathers; when John Kennedy was elected President, nine out of ten children lived with their fathers.

Today, 43 percent of 18-to-34-year-old American men live with their parents (compared to 36 percent of Millennial women); in 1960, about 28 percent did.

There are 36 percent more women in college than men, whereas in 1970, there were about 35 percent more men than women in college.

In 2013, mortality rates among less-educated, middle-aged white men and women were about 20 percent higher than they were in 1998.

Men appear to be 50 percent less likely to trust government than women.

In recent years, there has been a roughly 20-point gender voting gap, with white men being much more likely not only to vote for Republicans but to express disillusionment and anger toward government; until about 1980, men and women voted roughly evenly for Democrats and Republicans.

Membership in civic groups – including primarily male service organizations like the Masons, Rotary, Elks, and Kiwanis – have fallen by between one-third and two-thirds since the 1960s.

The likely economic, cultural, and political reasons for these changes could fill a book, but – needless to say – a lot has gone wrong for a lot of white men, a demographic that once signaled privilege and high expectations.

None of this, of course, denies the continuing struggles of women and people of color, including men of color. African-American and Latino men’s fortunes, especially when it comes to wages and fatherhood, have fallen even more. Men also still out-earn women on average (although the gender pay gap has been closing, due to declining average male wages and rising average female wages). And while mortality rates for less-educated, middle-aged whites are rising among men, they are rising at least as fast among women as well.

But the status of women and people of color and the legacy of eons of sexism and racism don’t make America’s white male problem any less real.

Declining fortunes among a significant minority of white American men is wreaking havoc with the nation.

With fewer working, getting educated, and earning enough to spend, our economy suffers. With fewer responsible fathers, our children suffer. With fewer men engaged in civic groups and more distrustful and angry toward government, our public life suffers. Still further, add in the suffering from rising mortality due to suicide and opiate and alcohol poisoning.

Playing to the inchoate anger of a sizable minority of white men who have been benched or stomped off the field is dangerous demagoguery that primarily benefits demagogues. Addressing each of these specific problems with specific solutions – good jobs, wages, education, and public health, and encouraging responsible fatherhood and civic involvement – is what will help these men, not to mention the nation and the nonwhite and female objects of their anger.

Andrew L. Yarrow

Andrew L. Yarrow is the author of recent books such as Thrift and Measuring America. He is a public-policy professional, historian, and writer whose articles and books have focused on the relationships between economics, culture, and politics. See: www.andrewlyarrow.com.