Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Widows and Orphans…and Unskilled Single Men? Rethinking Poverty Policy

Kira Dittman, Hannah Considine, and Amy E. Black


When you hear the word "vulnerable," who immediately comes to mind? Perhaps a single mother juggling multiple low-wage jobs, or a child who goes to bed hungry? Or maybe the disabled or elderly who cannot care for themselves? Although millions of poor women and children are counted among the most vulnerable people in the United States, the characteristics of at-risk groups are changing. In recent decades, a new category of vulnerable ones has arisen that has received far too little attention from policy makers: young, less-educated, single men.

Scripture gives a clear mandate that we are to be generous to all in need, issuing a special call to care for the most vulnerable groups in society. But this mandate does not lock us into a position of targeting the same narrow range of groups decade after decade. On the contrary, it encourages us to continually reassess who are the most vulnerable in our society and find new ways to assist them.

Poor women and children and those unable to care for themselves have rightly been the target of the majority of anti-poverty programs in the United States. But our research on anti-poverty policy has led us to conclude that young, unskilled single men are an additional vulnerable group in need of assistance. Anti-poverty efforts should expand their focus to include these men, finding ways to help them overcome obstacles so that they and their families can flourish.

Biblical Values and the Vulnerable

Who does the Bible describe as the most vulnerable? Consider examples from the Old Testament. Resounding through Mosaic Law are Yahweh's stipulations to provide special care for orphans, widows, and aliens (or sojourning foreigners). Traditionally, these were the three vulnerable groups whose lack of stable family structure imperiled their economic self-sufficiency in Israel's agrarian economy. Before the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, God provided an allotment of land to every family group, supplying all with a means of sustenance. But over time, vulnerable groups emerged. Because widows and aliens experienced difficulty obtaining or maintaining profitable farmland without an ancestral right to property, few of them had access to the means of production guaranteed to other members of Israelite society. Orphans were also counted among the most vulnerable because of their loss of parents to provide for them. The law and the books of the prophets are full of mandates to care for these groups, just as they uphold the family as an essential institution that provides economic security. Isaiah exhorts Judah, "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow" (Isaiah 1:17).

Many passages in the New Testament echo these Old Testament commands, especially Jesus’s teachings about the marginalized. We see that care for “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” whether water given to the thirsty or shelter to the wanderer, will be rewarded in heaven (Matthew 25:34-40). Jesus directly connected his mission with God’s declared concern for the less fortunate when he read from Isaiah in a synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” and then declared, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18; 21). The biblical mandate to care for the vulnerable appears throughout Scripture from the law and prophets to the gospels and epistles.

Anti-poverty Programs and Vulnerable Groups

Government-sponsored anti-poverty programs designed to move people from economic insecurity to self-sufficiency are one important way to help society’s most vulnerable groups. As the Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines on Welfare remind us, “the call to be a ‘neighbor’ – to help those who are in need – is addressed to all people and all institutions. Receiving assistance should enable those in need to reach or return to self-sufficiency and be in a position to help others.”

Biblical principles call us to care for the vulnerable, but modern, industrialized nations like the United States look quite different from the agrarian societies of ancient Israel. As we obey the command to meet the needs of the poorest among us, we can apply these timeless principles to our modern context and assess which groups in our society are at the greatest risk. 

Most domestic anti-poverty programs currently in place in the United States rightly target single women and children as the most vulnerable groups. Children lack the means of supporting themselves, and women, especially low-income mothers of young children, have traditionally been economically vulnerable. But we believe policy makers should expand their focus even further. Young, less-educated men represent another vulnerable group, one that is overlooked by the American public and policy makers alike but is in dramatic need of our attention 

Understanding the Causes

Many social, economic, and cultural forces have contributed to declining economic opportunities for young, less-educated men. Several factors from among a complex set of causes deserve mention here. Globalization and technological advances have transformed the workforce and shrunk the number of domestic manufacturing jobs in the United States and elsewhere. A recent Economist cover story discussing this global trend summarized, “Technology and trade mean that rich countries have less use than they once did for workers who mainly offer muscle . . . the real money is in brain work, and here many men are lagging behind.”[1] Gendered workforce patterns also play a role. The sectors that have lost the most jobs have traditionally been male dominated, and the sectors with the highest rates of projected job growth are often stereotyped as women’s work. The end result is high unemployment rates for unskilled men.

Although men continue to earn higher annual average wages than women in the aggregate, this statistic hides significant underlying changes in the workforce. When comparing similar jobs working similar hours, women tend to earn more than men. Highly educated men have generally been able to adapt to the rapidly changing job market, so unskilled laborers have been most directly disadvantaged by global economic shifts. The result is a significant gender gap in education and the workforce concentrated at the lower end of the scale, with men falling behind women in educational attainment and trending downward in employment rates, real wage levels, and other economic markers.[2]

Education, the first way in which men are increasingly off track for economic success, has become an increasingly powerful predictor of lifetime income. As its significance has grown, men have fallen behind women in educational attainment. Male and female high school graduation rates were virtually identical until the 1950 birth cohort, when females began to edge ahead. The disparity widens with college graduation rates: whereas men were once much more likely to earn college degrees than women, as of 2010, 35-year-old men were 23 percent less likely to have completed college than women of the same age.[3]

Consequently, young men, especially less-educated men, are faring poorly in the labor market in terms of both employment and earnings. Although the Great Recession harmed most American workers, young men seem to have suffered most acutely. For example, the 2009 January-June employment rate for all males aged 16-34 was at its lowest point in sixty-one years.[4] Earnings for unskilled young men have fallen alongside their employment rates. Men with less than a bachelor’s degree have seen significant cuts in their median real annual earnings over the past several decades. How substantial are their losses? Measuring with constant 2007 dollars, high school-educated men now earn about $8,800 less annually than they did in 1979, a decline of over 28 percent.[5] Unless they are among the highly educated, America’s young men face increasingly worrisome economic woes.

Social and Economic Consequences         

The damaging consequences of these education and labor trends reach beyond the economic. For one, declining economic opportunity affects marriageability. Research confirms that most women want to marry, and prospects for economic security are an important consideration when looking for a spouse. As Robert Putnam summarizes in his recent book Our Kids, “poor economic prospects discourage and undermine stable relationships—that is the nearly universal finding of many studies, both qualitative and quantitative.”[6] In many ways, young, less-educated men have become ineligible bachelors, as they are unlikley to provide a firm economic foundation on which to build marriage and family life.

And the data are telling. Marriage rates for 22-32- year-old men have declined for all educational cohorts since 1970, but the drop is most significant for those with the least education. From 1970-2007, men with high school diplomas but no further education saw their marriage rate fall a staggering 39 percentage points from 70 percent to 31 percent, about twice the drop men with Master’s degrees or higher experienced. Likewise, marriage rates correlate strongly with men’s wages: as of 2007, 60 percent of men earning $100,000 or more were married, compared to just 37 percent of men earning between $20,000 and $40,000.[7]

But the story doesn’t end at the altar. Not only are men with low earnings less likely to get married, but married men go on to work more hours and earn more money than their single counterparts. Data from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project show that married men work more hours than single men—an average of over 400 more hours per year.[8] Controlling for education, ethnicity, intelligence, and other factors, men enjoy a “marriage premium” in annual personal income of $15,929 per year for men aged 28-30 and $18,824 for men aged 44-46.[9] It appears that something about the institution of marriage—perhaps a heightened sense of responsibility and maturity—inspires men to become better workers. Essentially, marriage and economic success seem to reinforce one another such that married, high-income men climb the ladder more steadily while single, low-income men fall behind.

Despite the fact that less-educated men are less likely to marry, they are no less likely to have children than their more educated counterparts.[10] But the mothers of their children may—and often do—elect to attempt single motherhood rather than marry a father unlikely to pull his weight. The men involved may exhibit reluctance to marry as well. As sociologists Marcia Carlson and Paula England ominously observe, “As fatherhood has become a more voluntary role, only the most committed and financially stable men choose to embrace it.”[11]

One particular danger of this trend is that more children are growing up in poverty. A household with two potential wage earners is much more likely to be able to put financial resources towards children’s education and development than a household with just one wage earner. Statistics on child poverty and household structure confirm this logic: just 11 percent of children in married households live in poverty, compared to an astounding 44 percent of children in single-mother homes.[12] Thus begins a repeating cycle of low-education, low-income, and unstable families.

Young boys fare especially poorly both socially and educationally when raised in single parent, low-income households—most often headed by a female—and are at even greater risk to continue the path of downward economic progress than young girls in the same households.[13] If we aim social programs only at single mothers and do not also take non-custodial fathers into consideration, we run the risk of unintentionally perpetuating trends of crumbling family structure and low social mobility. Conversely, seeking ways to economically empower unskilled young men could help promote stable marriages and responsible fatherhood in low-income communities, improving the economic prospects for women and children, especially young boys.  

The Bible calls us to care for the poor and vulnerable, meeting immediate needs and helping chart pathways toward economic self-sufficiency. If we want to reach the most vulnerable in our society, we need to direct more attention to the growing population of unskilled men who have difficulty securing well-paying jobs, face declining chances of getting married, and struggle with diminishing prospects for their future. Churches, community organizations, and policy makers have new opportunities to break the cycle of poverty and bring fresh hope by making efforts to assist this overlooked but vulnerable group.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Who or what groups come to your mind when you hear the word “vulnerable”?
  2. What are some of the biggest obstacles facing unskilled young men?
  3. What are some ways that churches, community organizations, and policy makers can assist unskilled young men to help them find and retain meaningful employment?


Amy E. Black is Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College and author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Faith, and Reason. Hannah Considine and Kira Dittman are students at Wheaton College.


[1] “Men Adrift,” The Economist, 30 May 2015, p. 22.

[2] David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gap in Labor Markets and Education (Washington, DC: Third Way, 2013). Accessed June 11, 2015:

[3] Ibid.

[4] Andrew Sum, Ishwar Khatiwada, Joseph McLaughlin, and Sheila Palma, “No Country for Young Men: Deteriorating Labor Market Prospects for Low-Skilled Men in the United States,” Annals Of The American Academy Of Political And Social Science (2011), p. 27.

[5] Ibid, p. 38.

[6] Robert Putnam, Our Kids, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), p. 73.

[7] Sum et al,, “No Country for Young Men,” p. 42-45.

[8] Robert I. Lerman and W. Bradford Wilcox, For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America, p. 33. Accessed June 14, 2015;

[9] Ibid, p. 34.

[10] Autor and Wasserman, Wayward Sons.

[11] Marcia Carlson and Paula England, eds., Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press,2011), pg. 7.

[12] Carmen DeNavas-Walt and Bernadette D. Proctor, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2013 (U.S. Census Bureau) September 2014. Accessed September 21, 2015:

[13] Autor and Wasserman, Wayward Sons

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”