The Irony of Moral Panic over Surplus Men

Helen Kleeb and Mary Jackson as the Baldwin spinsters, from The Waltons.

You know the moral panic over unemployed men has reached epic proportions when it’s enough to turn Ross Douthat into FDR. According to Douthat, the “slow burning social crisis” in America of low workforce participation by men and concomitant lagging family formation is so dire that it requires an “emergency response” by—gasp!—the government, deficits be damned. He’s proposing a package of “a few sticks and a lot of very expensive carrots”:

The carrots would include a large wage subsidy and a per-child tax credit and a substantial corporate tax cut and an employer-side payroll tax holiday to encourage hiring. They would also include an infrastructure bill written to include a certain amount of make-work spending and in increase in government hiring in traditionally-male fields..

There are some obvious problems with Douthat’s prescription beyond its admitted looseness. As the stimulus program effort to funnel money to “shovel-ready” projects showed, it’s harder than it looks to get money into the paychecks of the working class. Some of the money got stuck in layers of bureaucracy. And unlike the make-work programs of the Great Depression, when thousands of men could be given a shovel or pick-axe and employed building roads and bridges, most infrastructure projects today are highly specialized; much of the funding went to specialty engineering firms that hired relatively few laborers.

And even bringing back manufacturing jobs is no panacea to the problem of male unemployment. Modern manufacturing jobs employ many fewer people than twenty years ago, and many of the jobs that do exist are going begging because companies can’t find properly trained workers.

And his sticks, which include cuts to Social Security disability, unemployment and Medicaid benefits, would only work if the spending were successful in creating enough accessible jobs for those who are currently unemployed. Otherwise, it’s just that same conservative strategy of punishing the poor for not having work they can’t find.

But there’s an irony here beyond the crisis in male unemployment having allayed Douthat’s “conservative-communitarian suspicion of state power.” One-hundred and twenty-five years ago, in another time of massive social change, the tables were turned: the country was in a moral panic over “surplus” women.

In the 1880s and 1890s, life changed dramatically for American women. Men needed to stay in school longer to prepare themselves to work in an increasingly industrialized and urbanized economy. As a result, men weren’t getting married until their mid-twenties or later, meaning that women also weren’t getting married as young and faced a period of functional “unemployment” in their early twenties when a generation before they would have been wives.

And more and more women weren’t getting married at all, due to a short-term population imbalance after the Civil War and a dearth of marriageable men on the East Coast as men went West to make a living. By 1880, a third of the women living in New England and the Mid-Atlantic hadn’t gotten married by their thirtieth birthday. There was an estimated surplus of 60,000 single women in Massachusetts alone. In 1883, suffragist Lillie Devereux Blake told a congressional committee investigating the problem of “surplus women” that marriage was “no longer a career for women, nor a means of support for them.”

Victorian society panicked about what to do with these surplus women, as the New York Times and Washington Post warned of a generation of spinsters. Male authorities, predictably, said the problem was too much education for women. “Girls are being prepared daily, by ‘superior education’ to engage, not in childbearing and housework, but in clerkships, telegraphy, newspaper-writing, school-teaching etc.,” complained Nathan Allen in the Journal of Psychological Medicine.

The problem of “surplus” women more or less ended up solving itself. Around 1890, the demand for secretarial workers exploded as the dual developments of stenography and typewriters created the modern office, and formerly unemployed single women rushed to fill clerical jobs, as well as other jobs created by the industrial revolution, like saleswomen in department stores.

There’s no telling whether modern blue-collar men will be rescued by technological innovation or the birth of new industries. But it is refreshing to see conservatives like Douthat admit that lagging family formation among the poor isn’t due to some moral flaw or the temptations of evil liberals like “Murphy Brown,” but structural conditions like the lack of employment. For too long, conservatives have focused on the demand side of the equation, looking for ways to harangue segments of the population that are disinclined toward marriage and other markers of civic adulthood to get married for religious or moral reasons.

But it’s the supply side of the equation that needs attention. There simply isn’t a large enough supply of working class men with stable jobs to entice working class women to marry them. Many working class women correctly calculate that it’s better to be a single mom than to support both a child and an unemployed or sporadically employed husband. The fact that there’s no crisis of family formation among the college educated proves it’s not a matter of cultural influence—or even religiosity. In the end, it’s not a matter of morals, but money.