The curious political effect of men losing their breadwinner role


There’s something about money and men.

Researchers have long shown a link between men’s identities and their income: Men tend to work more hours if faced with the threat of their wife earning as much as they do. When men make less money than their wives, they tend to do less housework, not more. And when men are out-earned in their marriages, they’re even more likely to use erectile dysfunction medicine or show greater rates of depression.

Now, a new study, currently under review by an academic journal but published last week by the Harvard Business Review, finds that when a man’s contribution to his household’s total income drops over time, it affects his political views, too. Republican men tend to grow more conservative, and guys who say they’re Democrats become more liberal.

To do the research, Dan Cassino wanted to look at the effect lower incomes have on men’s political views, but knew that comparing men’s relative income, marriages and politics is hard because of something known as “selection bias.” For example, it could simply be that different kinds of men marry women who earn more than them — in other words, there’s no random application of people to spouses.

So he looked at the General Social Survey, a panel study that asks the same individuals about demographic data and views on issues over time, pulling data on 854 men from 2006, 2008 and 2010. About 60 percent of those men saw their income drop relative to their spouses during one of those two-year periods, giving Cassino a look at how men’s views evolved during a period when, thanks to the recession and financial crisis, men were disproportionately likely to lose their jobs or take pay cuts, compared with women, who have increasingly become the family breadwinners.

“That’s a huge opportunity to look at what happened to those men’s individual attitudes,” he said. For men, in particular, income is tied to their gender identity and status. “The reason you’re anxious about … less money is not just, ‘oh, I have less money.’ It’s that my masculinity is being called into question by the fact that [I] make less money,” Cassino said.

He pulled data on how the men’s views changed on two issues: How much they support or oppose abortion, and what they think about government aid to African Americans. (The latter question, which has been around since the ’70s, doesn’t name specific aid, but Cassino says testing has shown respondents tend to associate it with welfare or affirmative action programs.) The topics were chosen because they are viewed as being particularly tied to dominance of one group over another.

What he found: Both groups of men intensified their views when they contributed less to their household incomes than they had two years earlier, becoming significantly less in favor of abortion rights if they were Republicans and more in favor of them if they were Democrats. After the drop in income, they tended to move about a fifth of the average difference between Republicans’ and Democrats’ views. “It’s a pretty significant change,” he said, especially on an issue where people’s views are as crystallized as they are on abortion. “People know how they feel about this.”

The effect was even more pronounced when it came to the men’s views on government aid to African Americans. Democratic men who lost ground compared with their wives’ salaries said they were more supportive of aid, while Republicans were even less so. This time, the median man who lost income moved about a third of the distance between Republicans’ and Democrats’ views toward the pole. The study controls for other changes in the men’s lives that could have shifted their political views, such as whether they became more religious, became a parent or got divorced during the preceding two years.

Cassino thinks his findings could help explain the growing political polarization over the past decade and could have been a factor in the last election. “A lot of people have talked about [this election] being about economic anxiety,” he said. “The point I’m trying to make here is that economic anxiety is not about money. Economic anxiety is about status. And to a great extent, economic anxiety is about gender because economic status is a big part of men’s gender, and the way they understand themselves. The Great Recession put a lot of men on notice.”

This isn’t the first time, after all, that Cassino has researched the effect income and masculinity can have on politics. Last year, he showed that when men even think about what’s known as the “gender role threat,” or losing money compared with their spouses, it can have an impact. In a political poll done with his university’s PublicMind poll, they added a question asking men what they made, in comparison with their spouses or live-in partners.

When men were asked the question early in the poll, priming them to think about the issue, they said they preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton by an eight-point margin. But when the question wasn’t asked until the end of the poll, men said they preferred Clinton by 16 points, a 24-point swing.

Meanwhile, when the match-up was between Trump and Bernie Sanders, there was virtually no difference in the results related to when the question about income was asked.

Read also:

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