In a recent article for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham state the following:

  • “Girls who grow up in poor families are more likely than the boys who grow up with them to work as adults.”
  • “The reversed gender gap also appears only among poor children with unmarried parents.”
  • “In segregated, heavily minority communities like Baltimore—places where rates of incarceration, poverty and single-parent families run high—the gender divide is especially wide.”

Unemployment among men is a problem in every poverty demographic. According to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, only 2% of men in the top-earning 20% of white households in America do not work. However, 30% of white men in the bottom-earning 20% of households in America do not work. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, writing about inner-city African Americans in When Work Disappears, indicates that if you want to break a culture, all you have to do is take away work because it changes identity. Wilson’s book, incidentally, is cited as an inspiration for The Wire.

How does that happen?

We all have many role identities, some of which are influenced by gender. When you have work, you have a role identity as a provider. For males, two common role identities are provider and protector. For females, common role identities are provider and caretaker. If you are a male, what happens when you lose your job? You can still protect, but you are no longer a provider. Without the resources to get another job, go back to school, or take up a hobby, you get lonely while the other people in your household are out working extra-long hours to make for up the money you are not bringing home. What do you do when you’re lonely?

When you’re lonely, you get a cup of coffee and check Tinder with your smartphone—in other words, you find someone who “appreciates you for who you are,” and you take on a lover. In poor communities where there aren’t many men with work-based role identities, the two male identities most admired are fighter (protector) and lover. Being a lover and/or a fighter are not the only role identities, but they are the most popular and the most copied.

When my former husband was still living, we often visited the high-poverty neighborhood where he grew up, and I could not understand why men disappeared. They would be gone for 3–7 days, sometimes longer, and then they would come back. I finally realized that when you are a fighter or a lover, there are periods of time when you have to disappear because people are looking for you. You have to hide from police, other lovers, and the cousins and uncles of the last guy you beat up. If you have a job, you have to quit because they come hunting for you at work.

This means you do not have a stable work history, you may have a criminal record, and your reputation might have gotten around to local employers—all of which contributes to the difficulty of getting hired again. So how do you survive without steady employment and a stable income? You find a woman with whom you can stay, you offer protection, and you bring what money you can into the household when you have it.

How does this affect boys?

As a young boy, how do you know how to work when you have not seen an adult man do it? How do you know about the sacrifices that work requires (getting up early, putting up with a boss you hate, staying late, negotiating raises, etc.) when you have never heard a male role model talk about doing that?

Your young man’s sense of role identity has already been heavily influenced by the time you are 10 years old. When the messaging is that there are only three paths to a living wage—sports, music, and crime—how do you decide what kind of “man” you will be? Furthermore, in generational poverty neighborhoods, you are often a “hero” if you resist arrest. Authority is not to be trusted. So who are your heroes? And which “professional path” is most accessible?


Our system of schooling further exacerbates this issue. Eighty-five percent of educators are female, 50% of the student population is male, and the majority of discipline referrals, dropouts, special education students, and nonreaders are males. The numbers do not work.

There has been a huge effort on the part of some departments of higher education institutions to downplay or ignore the differences between males and females. The argument is that they both need the same things—love, acceptance, support, etc. However, there is a great deal of good research that shows male and female brains operate differently. We do training in schools about how that processing differs and what can be done to address it. If you are a male from poverty, getting educated in school is more difficult than if you are female. A wonderful book on the subject is Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax.

The neighborhood

In the neighborhood, so-called “three strikes laws” and disproportionately enforced drug laws have incarcerated thousands of young men—mostly from poverty. So generational poverty neighborhoods have many individuals who have been imprisoned and have criminal records. Their ability to get jobs is almost nonexistent because of some of the laws that have been enacted. Some researchers see imprisonment as an infectious disease. You are much more likely to be in prison if you have had a family member in prison.

There is so much research on neighborhood effects: lead in the paint, pollution in the air, food insecurity and substandard food, less language, insufficient prenatal care, etc. Is it any wonder that 7% of adults in poverty have a mental illness compared to 3% in middle class?

One of the phrases I heard most often in my former husband’s neighborhood was “real men don’t push paper.” What this meant was that “real men” work with their hands. You simply were not respected if you did not “work hard”—and that meant physical work.

There are myriad realities and effects of poverty on young boys as they become men, and this piece consists of broad strokes on a complex topic. This is not meant to be definitive but to shed light on additional issues that are at play.

Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. is the founder of aha! Process and an author, speaker, publisher, and career educator. Recognized internationally for A Framework for Understanding Poverty, her foundational book and workshop, Dr. Ruby Payne has helped students and adults of all economic backgrounds achieve academic, professional, and personal success.