A Quarter of American Men Live In or Near Poverty


October 7, 2015

This post was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle on October 2, 2015.
men in poverty

Derrick, a 28-year-old Richmond man with an associate’s degree, loves his job doing after-school mentoring, tutoring, and coaching sports with elementary students in West Oakland, but with only 21 hours at work each week at $12.50 per hour, he struggles to pay his $1,400 rent and take care of his 1-year-old daughter.

“I like to give back to my community, but the pay is too little, there are not enough hours, and I get no benefits,” he said.

While he does weekend coaching, he’s also looking for a full-time job, even in a stockroom, just for the steady paycheck. “It puts you at a fork in the road. I see the nonmonetary benefits, but it’s a tight squeeze.”

Like 26.5 million other American men, he lives in or near poverty.

In an economy where wages have stagnated or fallen and median household incomes are no higher today than they were 25 years ago, it is important to remember that poverty and near-poverty incomes cross all racial, gender and age lines. In fact, 30 million men have incomes below $20,000 a year, and another 16 million have annual incomes between $20,000 and $30,000. A quarter of adult men live in or near poverty, with Millennials faring even worse. One in 3 males between the ages of 18 and 34 fall into this category.

Lest one thinks these are all lazy, ne’er-do-wells, 16 million low-income men work. Although more unmarried men with jobs fall into the ranks of the working poor, 22 percent of working husbands with children fall below the near-poverty threshold. Many have full-time jobs, some menial, some supposedly “white collar” working in stores and restaurants, but many more can’t find or hold on to jobs. It’s hard to know which is worse — to work full-time and struggle to make ends meet or not be able to find steady work to pay the bills.

Hardly the American Dream.

While racism and sexism have a significant effect on an individual’s economic fortunes, men have three unique problems as well:

Prison records: Men account for 9 out of 10 ex-offenders, who aren’t exactly at the front of the line when employers hire new workers. One in 3 men between the ages of 25 and 54 has a criminal record, including 1 in 10 who has had a felony conviction, according to a New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Among black men, 1 in 4 had been convicted of a felony, a cause and effect of the vicious triad of racism, mass incarceration and poverty that Ta-Nehisi Coates examines in his book “Between the World and Me.” Most employers explicitly say that anyone with a conviction need not apply, writes Devah Pager, a Harvard sociologist and author of “Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration.”

Labor force dropouts: Men have been dropping out of the labor force in significant numbers: 3 in 10 men over 20 don’t work, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1950s. Some may be trying to find jobs, some may be absentee fathers, and some simply may not have the motivation or skills to work.

Education: Men have been falling ever further behind women educationally, with one-third fewer men than women getting bachelor’s degrees. Although men still tend to get the top jobs, as women become dominant among those with professional degrees, many once overwhelmingly male, high-skilled occupations are becoming feminized.

Several things could enhance the fortunes of low-income men. The de-incarceration movement, and the related effort to help most ex-offenders get jobs, could help millions of men. While relatively well-paying, middle-skill employment, such as factory jobs, is not coming back, businesses and government could do a lot more to provide training opportunities that are an alternative to college. Strengthening the family, or at least changing child-support disincentives for noncustodial fathers to work, also would benefit many men and their children. And, for all those who blithely assert that “we lost the war on poverty,” if not for government assistance, poverty rates would be about two-thirds again higher. Stronger, smarter policies to reduce poverty would make a difference.

As David Martin, a new father who has worked in a Los Angeles nursing home for 10 years, said: “$11 an hour is not enough to support my family and provide healthy food, a stroller, and all the other things a baby needs.”


[Photo Credit: Gilbert Mercier via Flickr]

Census Bureau
minimum wage
Poverty and Income