Poverty hurts the boys the most: Inequality at the intersection of class and gender

group of boys smiling

One of the cognitive curses of the human mind is the tendency to chop everything into two: black and white, rich and poor, men and women, North and South, and so on. By instinct, we tend to lump people together into clear and distinct categories, preferably just two. The world seems simpler that way.

But of course, the world is not simple. People are not sorted into neat boxes. One unfortunate consequence of this binary worldview is what public health expert and “factfulness” advocate Hans Rosling calls the “gap instinct…to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups with an imagined gap in-between (e.g., rich vs poor countries).”

In the real world, the distributions of two different groups on most measures almost always overlap, rather than having a clear gap between them. So, while the median man is 5 inches taller than the median woman, not all men are taller than all women. Therefore, it is often a mistake to look at one kind of inequality in isolation from another. For example, we cannot look at gender gaps in isolation from inequalities by race and class.

This is the central insight offered by the intersectionality framework pioneered by Kimberlé Crenshaw. The position of individuals in society should be examined considering a range of intersecting identities and distributions. As we wrote in a previous analysis of the unique disadvantages faced by Black men, breaking the cycle of their intergenerational disadvantage requires a deeper understanding of the gendering of their race—and the racialization of their gender.

Poor boys = struggling men

In this paper we focus on the intersection of class and gender, and how being raised in families on different rungs of the income ladder influences the outcomes of girls and boys. Our principal finding is that boys raised in low-income families do worse, in terms of adult outcomes, than girls raised in low-income families. Most strikingly, boys raised in families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution are less likely than girls either to be employed or to move up the income ladder once they become adults.

With bottom quintile boys struggling, the danger is of knock-on effects for the next generation. As Autor and Melanie Wasserman warn in another paper, Wayward Sons: “A vicious cycle may ensue, with the poor economic prospects of less-educated males creating differentially large disadvantages for their sons, thus potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation.”

It is particularly important to examine the intersection of class and gender inequalities because the distributions have been moving in opposite directions in recent decades. Gender inequality has been reducing while income inequality has been widening. It hardly needs adding that of course there remain many areas where much more progress is required to close gaps between men and women—not least in terms of political representation, where I have called for the introduction of gender quotas in line with many other nations.

But as The Economist magazine correctly points out, “the fact that the highest rungs have male feet all over them is scant comfort for the men at the bottom.” This is one reason why we have launched a new project on Boys and Men here at Brookings, in order to examine the challenges facing many boys and men, in the context of progress toward gender equality, and potential policies and norms to promote greater male flourishing and agency. We are paying particular attention to Black boys and men, and boys and men from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Boys seem particularly most strongly influenced by the family environment, as well as by school quality or neighborhood poverty. These findings are consistent with research showing the particularly sharp impact of poverty and disadvantage for boys, which also has implications for race equity—since Black boys are much more likely to be raised in lower income or socially disadvantaged households.

Bottom quintile boys: gender gaps differ at various points of the parent income distribution

Here we draw on data from Opportunity Insights to examine gender gaps in early adulthood for children raised by parents on different rungs of the household income ladder, specifically rates of:

  • College degree attainment (BA) by age 25
  • Employment at age 30
  • Incarceration at age 30
  • Marriage at age 32
  • Upward mobility from bottom quintile by the mid-thirties age range.

For clarity of presentation, we show these outcomes by gender for those from families in the bottom, middle and top quintiles. (The trends are the same for the missing two quintiles, and the full data is available on the Opportunity Insights page). On all five measures, girls from the bottom quintile outperform boys from the bottom quintile. In other words, class and gender intersect. Policymakers should take note.

  1. Boys less likely to be BAs, especially if raised poor

It is well known that college attendance and completion is much higher among women than men, and at least in terms of enrollment the gap . College enrollment for male students in fall 2020 dropped by 5.1%, according to National Student Clearinghouse figures, several times more than the fall for female students (0.7%). There is also a very steep class gradient in college completion. Figure 1 highlight both of these inequalities, showing the share of those raised in the bottom, middle and top income quintiles get a four-year college degree by the age of 25.

So there is a both a class gap and a gender gap. But it is noteworthy that the gender gap is biggest at the bottom. Only 14% of boys from low-income families (bottom quintile) will get a BA. The main challenge is clearly to reduce the yawning class gap in higher education, not least given the relationship between a lower level of education and lower employment rates and poorer health. But the particularly poor outcomes for the most disadvantaged males may warrant particular attention.

  1. Boys raised poor less likely than girls to be in paid work as adults

While girls and women are now significantly outperforming boys and men at every stage of the education system, men are still generally more likely than women to be in paid employment as adults. With one exception: boys from the bottom quintile. Figure 2 shows employment rates at age 30 by family income background and gender:

Reverse gender gap in employment

Although the reverse gender gap in employment rates is small, it is nonetheless striking given the size of the gaps in the other direction for the other quintiles. Again, the class gaps dwarf the gender gaps—with men and women raised in the middle and top income quintiles having much higher rates of employment (interestingly slightly lower at the top than in the middle, especially among men). But again, the intersection of class and gender is an important part of the story. The overall picture of higher employment rates for men does not apply to those raised at the bottom of the income ladder.

  1. Incarceration is a poor boy story

There has been a substantial rise in the male incarceration rate during the last three decades—especially among Black men—and almost no increase in incarceration rates among women. There is a large gender gap in incarceration rates. But again, as well as race and gender, it is important to look at class. Incarceration is most common among boys raised in low-income families. Figure 3 shows that boys with parents in the bottom quintile of the parent household income distribution are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than low-income girls, but 22 times as likely to be incarcerated as boys with parents in the top quintile. (Note that these figures are for the proportion of the cohort in prison on a specific day – April 1st, 2010, when they were between 27 and 32 years of age). There is in fact essentially no gender gap for the top quintile, since the incarceration rate is close to zero in any case:

Incarceration story is a poor boy story

  1. The marriage gradient by class, and by gender

There is a class gradient in marriage rates, with children from different backgrounds having different odds of ending up married as adults. Children from low-income families are less likely to be married than those raised in high-income families. However, male children from low-income families are the least likely of all to be married at age 32, including by comparison to girls raised in low-income families. Figure 4 shows that the marriage rate for boys raised in families in the bottom quintile is 29%, compared to 33% for girls raised in the same quintile.

low-income boys least likely to be married

Again, the class gradient is the big story here, and in fact the gender gap in marriage rates is similar at different background income levels. But again, the group with the lowest rates of all are bottom quintile boys.

  1. Boys raised poor less likely than girls to escape poverty

Reducing intergenerational poverty is a key policy goal, that has animated much of our own work here in the Center on Children and Families. The question of who moves up and down the income ladder is an important one for judging the fairness and openness of our society. Again, using Opportunity Insights data, in Figure 5 we show the proportion of those raised in families in the three income quintiles (bottom, middle, and top) and who end up in the bottom quintile as adults. Importantly the measure here is individual income, not household income. Men raised in the bottom quintile (29%) are slightly more likely to remain stuck in that quintile as adults than women (26%). Less Horatio Alger, more Harriet Alger:

Needed: A policy focus on disadvantaged boys

The key messages here are two-fold. First, gender inequality can run both ways. There are many dimensions on which girls and women continue to trail boys and men (e.g. earnings); but there are a growing number of dimensions where the opposite is true (e.g. education). Second, these gender gaps vary greatly both in size and direction by social class. For those raised in affluent homes, many gender gaps still tend to run in favor of boys and men, though they are of course narrowing. But for those raised in poverty, gender inequality is almost entirely about boys and men doing worse than girls and women.

These disadvantages for boys and men have lifelong, potentially intergenerational implications. As Chetty and his co-authors, conclude: “gender gaps in adulthood have roots in childhood, perhaps because childhood disadvantage is especially harmful for boys.”

The recent expansion of the Child Tax Credit will reduce poverty among women more than men, since women are so much more likely to be raising children alone. It is also expected to cut the child poverty rate in half. Given the greater harm to boys caused by poverty, it may be that the policy will be particularly beneficial to them and help reduce the gender gap among those raised in lower-income families.

But there is also a strong case for policy interventions aimed specifically at helping the most disadvantaged boys, especially Black boys, not least in education. It is striking that a recent evaluation of quality pre-K education found a much stronger positive effects for boys than for girls. Boys and men are falling far behind girls and women at every stage of education, up to and including college enrolment and college completion. While we offer no hypotheses about why poor boys do worse than poor girls, research by Opportunity Insights suggests that boys seem to be more sensitive to growing up in poor neighborhoods, and to their family environment, including family instability. In the coming months, we will turn our attention to explaining why boys raised in low-income families do worse, in terms of adult outcomes, than girls raised in low-income families.

The gender inequalities to worry most about at the top of the economic ladder are the ways in which women are still behind men—politics, career progression during child-rearing years, C-suite corporate jobs, and so on. But the starkest gender inequalities at the bottom of the economic ladder are those where boys and men are now the ones falling behind.