Working class men are more helpful husbands than they used to be.

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July 22 2010 11:17 AM

Levi Johnston Is an Insult to Working-Class Men

Working-class men are more helpful husbands than they used to be.

Levi Johnston. Click image to expand.
Levi Johnston.

The engagement of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston, announced as an exclusive in US magazine before even their families were told about it, has been a boon to comedians and serious columnists alike. Much of the commentary about their on-again, off-again relationship has focused on the tacky behavior of Levi, whom New York Times columnist Gail Collins called the one person in the world who could make her sympathize with Bristol's mother, Sarah.

Levi, a high school drop-out and self-proclaimed redneck, has, in many ways, earned the scorn—trashing the Palins on national TV while trading on their celebrity to pose nude for Playgirl magazine. But I don't buy the emerging narrative that makes him a symbol of all that is wrong with poorly educated working-class men. According to this story, Levi stands for a group of men who are parasites on the women who are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, going back to school, and knuckling down to their jobs. The men, meanwhile, sit around watching television and looking for ways to make a quick buck without doing any real work.

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It's true that many working-class men are floundering. Their notion of masculinity was forged in an era when a man without a college degree could earn a good living on the basis of his physical strength and willingness to tolerate—or even embrace—discomfort and danger on the job. The values and behaviors associated with that lifestyle are of less and less use in today's job and marriage markets, which is why so many low-income men find themselves rejected in both. Some salvage their egos by ratcheting up the male bravado.

But it's not true that working-class men are stuck in a patriarchal past that middle- and upper-class men have overcome. Among working-class men who do marry, their behavior as husbands and fathers is surprisingly enlightened, according to many recent surveys. Blue-collar couples are less likely than educated professional ones to endorse the abstract idea of men and women going against gender stereotype and sharing household activities. But overall, working-class husbands actually wind up doing more housework than middle- and upper-class men. Partly this is because there is more work to be done—for men and women alike. Sociologist Scott Coltrane reminds us how much effort it takes to shop, cook, and clean when one must take the bus to hunt for the best deals at grocery stores and bargain outlets, use the laundromat rather than one's own washer, and maintain an old house or apartment without being able to hire other working class and immigrant women to do the work for you. Coltrane's own research with working-class white men and Latino fathers revealed that they did the shopping and transported their kids as often, if not more often, than their middle-class counterparts, and did just as much routine cooking and cleaning.

College-educated men in marriages where both spouses work standard shifts do more child care, on average, than their low-income counterparts. But working-class men and women are far more likely to schedule separate work shifts so that each can watch the child. As a result, a higher proportion of working-class fathers are the primary caretakers while their wives are at work.

 In the 1960s and 1970s, highly-educated men whose wives were employed did much more housework than their less-educated counterparts. But that has changed over time. In a forthcoming paper, Oxford researcher Oriel Sullivan finds that during the 1980s and 1990s, husbands who did not graduate from high school and who were married to working women began to catch up. Today they equal or even exceed the housework contributions of their counterparts with higher levels of education.

Between 1965 and 2003, college-educated husbands, on average, increased the time they spent doing housework by 33 percent. Husbands who graduated from high school but not college increased theirs by 52 percent. And husbands who were not high school graduates doubled the amount of housework they did. Despite starting from a lower level in the 1960s, these men are now taking on at least as much responsibility for housework as husbands with a college education and more than those who graduated from high school. This might be because fewer poorly educated men get or stay married in the first place, so those who do are also those more likely to step up to the plate.

Finally, let's not forget that high-income men bring their own set of problems to marriage. Many seem especially vulnerable to what researchers Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling call the "career mystique," the idea that a successful work-life requires them to commit all their time and energy to the job and to delegate caretaking responsibilities to someone else. A recent study by Joan Williams and Heather Boushey found that 38 percent of high-earning professional men and almost one-quarter of middle-income men work more than 50 hours a week.

One ongoing study of doctors and EMTs proves the point. Since 2007, sociologists Carla Shows and Naomi Gerstel have been studying two groups of fathers: high-earning, highly-educated physicians; and low-income, less-educated emergency medical technicians. They find that the EMTs are much more active participants in their children's daily routines. They pick the kids up from daycare, feed them dinner, and schedule their hours or trade shifts with other EMTs to stay home when a child is ill. The physicians, by contrast, put very little time into and show little understanding of the daily routines of family life. Instead, they see themselves as "good fathers" because they attend their children's special events, such as sports activities and performances that occur on weekends or in the evening. The researchers conclude that the professionals are performing the public aspects of fatherhood, while neglecting the private ones, whereas the EMTs perform both.

So think twice before you assume that a dope like Levi is representative of how most working-class men behave, or that working-class men are the cause of America's family problems. According to research by sociologist Kathleen Gerson, the rising generation of young working-class men are now just as likely to want to share breadwinning and caretaking as middle- and upper-class men (although men in all three groups worry that the jobs they are likely to get will not allow it). Their worries are well-founded. As long as we tolerate a job structure that produces too little work for many Americans and too much for others, it will be hard for people at any income or educational level to achieve a balanced family life.

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Stephanie Coontz teaches history at the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Wash., and is the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her books include Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage andA Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.