Masculinity and the war on poverty

As a binge TV watcher, I’ve relished devouring serial dramas in advertising-free gulps. But “Breaking Bad” — the story about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned clandestine meth-cooking badass — didn’t appeal. Then Anthony Hopkins declared it an “epic work” with “the best actors I’ve ever seen.”

Midway through Season 2, I understand why Walter White is heroic. As men increasingly check out of work, marriage and fatherhood, it’s hard not to root for a man fiercely determined to secure his family’s future before dying — despite his morally abhorrent methods.

That there are dramatically fewer men willing and able to safeguard family prosperity is perhaps America’s greatest — and unrecognized — problem.

Consider Sunday’s “Shattering the Glass Ceiling” discussion on ABC’s “This Week.” Lamenting unrealized opportunities and unsolved problems when “women aren’t fully utilized,” Carly Fiorina and co-panelists were oblivious that two times more men than women ages 25 to 34 languish in their parents’ basements far below the glass ceiling, according to U.S. census data, and that women now outperform men in nearly every measure of social, academic and vocational well-being.

Rather than apply Band-Aids to the cancer of male underachievement — like unemployment-insurance extensions and minimum wage hikes – political elites must Think Again.

Focus on the real gender gap: Millions of males, especially the less-educated, are “unhitched from the engine of growth,” according to a recent Brookings Institution report. Not surprisingly, among the world’s seven biggest economies, America is now last in the share of “prime age” males working — just behind Italy. Why isn’t widespread male worklessness a priority for policymakers, given the massive economic, fiscal and social costs?

Fifty years after President Johnson declared the War on Poverty “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities,” we’ve spent an inflation-adjusted $20.7 trillion on 80-plus welfare programs — $916 billion, or $9,000 per beneficiary, in 2012.

Yet 2013 ended with rates of government dependency and chronic joblessness near 50-year highs. Meanwhile, though inflation-adjusted gross domestic product per capita has more than doubled since 1969, men’s average annual earnings dropped 28 percent, according to Brookings.

Since 1960, the percentage of married Americans plunged from 72 percent to 51 percent, while the rate of unwed motherhood skyrocketed from 4 percent to 41 percent, causing 24 million boys to be raised in fatherless homes — ominous trends considering children of single mothers experience less economic mobility.

As The New York Times explained, the ensuing vicious cycle means less successful men “are less attractive as partners, so some women are choosing to raise children by themselves, in turn often producing sons who are less successful and attractive as partners.”

Two recent books, both “cries de coeur” in support of men, chronicle the male achievement gap and propose remedies — “The War Against Boys,” by American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, and “Men on Strike,” by psychologist Helen Smith.

Citing myriad studies, Sommers details how educational reforms and ideologies that deny gender differences have created hostile environments for rough-and-tumble boys, causing a serious academic achievement gap.

Out: structured, competitive, teacher-directed classrooms that best support boys’ learning; and outlets for natural rambunctiousness, including conflict-oriented play like cops and robbers. Last year, 7-year-old Coloradan Alex Smith was suspended for throwing an imaginary grenade at “bad guys.”

In: behavior-modifying drugs designed to make boys attentive and controlled.

Distressingly, boy-enthralling, job-directed schools — like Aviation High School in the Bronx, which specializes in teaching and graduating at-risk kids — are under assault because females are underrepresented. Sommers laments that “male-specific interventions” — including masculine readings, single-sex learning opportunities and teachers trained in boy-friendly pedagogy — “invites passionate and organized opposition” from feminist groups.

As young men disengage from school, alarming numbers are opting out of post-secondary education, considered by Sommers the “passport to the American Dream.” Women disproportionately possess these passports, having earned post-secondary degrees in the following percentages: associate’s (62), bachelor’s (58), master’s (60) and doctorates (52).

Expanding on Sommers’ argument, Smith taps into her counseling experience to explain that by opting out of family life, risk-averse men are responding rationally to social institutions that offer fewer rewards and more costs.

The pendulum has swung too far, Smith argues, when male victims of statutory rape and paternity fraud are made liable for child support or when collegiate men are assumed sexual predators before proven innocent (see the Duke lacrosse case).

America’s young men aren’t “Breaking Bad” drug dealers, but they are suffering bad breaks in a society rife with misguided policies. The answer is not to “raise boys like we raise girls,” as Gloria Steinhem suggested, but to recognize that while the sexes are equal, they’re naturally different — and that’s beautiful.

Every human being arrives on earth with unique gifts, and our short life’s mission is to realize them. Shouldn’t society’s goal be to enable this process?

Think Again — isn’t closing the gender gap the true definition of feminism?