At first blush, the idea of a state Commission on Boys and Men, which a bill making its way through the House would create, sounds a bit off. Images of angry, extremely online men’s rights activists come to mind.
However, House Bill (HB) 1270’s supporters are anything but. It is sponsored by state Rep. Mary Dye (R-Pomeroy) and based on research by Richard Reeves, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank. Of Dye’s six cosponsors, four are women, and two of those women are Democrats from Seattle and Bellevue. The bill itself was also written by a woman, Dye’s late legislative aide Ruth Johnson.
“I do feel that women are badly discriminated against in many arenas,” said Ruth Kagi, a former Democratic state representative from Shoreline and current supporter of the bill. “So it’s hard to look at this and say, ‘Really, we should be looking at men.’ But after reading [Reeves’] book, yes, I think it’s a critical public policy issue that we need to be addressing.”
So what is the bill all about, to earn such support? It’s a fairly simple idea. It would take $250,000 of state funds to create the Commission on Boys and Men, mirroring the work of the state’s long-standing Women’s Commission. The Women’s Commission, on which Dye currently sits as a legislative advisor, conducts research and does legislative advocacy work to promote the prosperity and wellbeing of women.
But, ignoring the manosphere’s frenzied screeching about how feminism is unfair to men, do we really need to worry about men? That’s exactly the question that several of Dye’s colleagues on the Women’s Commission asked when they heard about the bill.
“One of my colleagues on the Women’s Commission said, ‘Why would you do that? They have privilege.’ And then another colleague stated that the system is built for them,” Dye said.
At certain levels of status, she absolutely agrees with those sentiments. But it’s not true across the board, especially as you climb down the economic ladder, she said. And the numbers don’t lie.
Data on men’s overall health and wellbeing — taken from the Global Initiative for Boys & Men’s Washington State Report and covering topics like educational achievement, participation in the workforce, economic outcomes and health — paint a pretty grim picture.
That data does not incorporate specific perspectives of transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
In terms of health outcomes, men account for 77 percent of all suicides in Washington. That share goes up to 80 percent for boys. Men make up 70 percent of all opioid deaths. Men are also more likely to be uninsured than women, and the majority of COVID-19 deaths in the state were men.
Moving on to education, men are significantly less likely to graduate high school. The ones who do graduate attend postsecondary education at lower rates than women. While some of that could be due to successful efforts to include women in educational opportunities, some of the other data suggests it could be men struggling. In every K-12 grade, boys account for the overwhelming majority of suspensions, and significantly fewer boys met reading and math standards than girls.
Economically, and in terms of general life outcomes, things are bad for men. They are overrepresented in the homeless population, being 59.2 percent of the total homeless population and 64 percent of the unsheltered homeless population from 2015 to 2020. They’re even more overrepresented in the prison population, comprising 94 percent. Average life expectancy is also about four years younger for men in Washington.
Reeves, who recently traveled to Washington to speak to policy makers and community members about the commission, said it’s important for our government to take these numbers seriously. If they don’t, he cautioned, they risk ceding control of the narrative to those angry men’s rights activists.
“When Andrew Tate says something like, ‘No one cares about boys and men … They don’t care about you,’ he doesn’t sound as crazy as he should,” Reeves said.
Tate is a British-Romanian influencer who espouses openly misogynistic views, evaded consequences after several accusations of sexual assault in England and was recently arrested in Romania for sex trafficking. Reeves, to underscore the urgency of countering such voices, pointed out that Tate is the third most Googled person in the world after Queen Elizabeth and Donald Trump and racked up 12 billion views for his videos in 2022.
“What happens is that if we don’t have institutions — mainstream institutions, government institutions, et cetera — looking at, tracking and taking seriously these problems of boys and men, you create a vacuum, because there are real problems. And if real problems are not addressed and are not seen to be being addressed, they become grievances,” Reeves said.
Men with grievances are, at least in America, dangerous. A recent study by The Violence Project, a nonpartisan research group, found that 98 percent of mass shooters were men.
One of the best ways to address those grievances, in Reeves’ opinion, is to find ways to make men feel useful again. As he notes, the only gain in income for American families since the ’70s has been in women’s earnings. In the aggregate, men’s wages have effectively stalled out. Men have also dropped out of the workforce in droves: more than 10 percent of men aged 25 to 54 were neither working nor looking for work in 2022.
“It’s a human universal, to be needed. And to be needed not just economically, but to be needed. Like … if your family doesn’t need you, if your kids don’t need you, if your employer doesn’t need you, if your community doesn’t need you, your church doesn’t need you, if you’re not needed, you’re in real trouble,” he said.
To emphasize that point, he cites research from University of New South Wales Sydney professor Fiona Shand, who studies suicide. Shand’s work shows that the two most common words used by men in suicide notes were “useless” and “worthless.”
Combatting that disenfranchisement, be it social or economic, is really what Reeves’ work is all about, he said, and what he hopes his national campaign to promote such commissions will do. While he thinks simply setting it up will do a lot to show that, yes, the government does actually care about boys and men, he also suggested some other concrete changes he hopes to see come out of a Washington commission.
For starters, HB 1270 includes language highlighting the deficit of men in the so-called “caring” professions: nursing, teaching, social work and so on. Noting that the gender balance in those professions was about 50-50 in 1980, he says he’d like to see men’s declining participation in those areas reversed. Having men as teachers and therapists could be a boon for boys and men, he suggested.
“When I wanted a psychologist, I was really happy to be able to go to a male psychologist,” Reeves said. “When my son needed therapy, I was really happy we were able to find a male therapist for him. … And I think it’s incredibly important to have men in our classrooms. Boys do better with male teachers, especially in certain subjects.”
Overall, his objective is to nudge both policy and public perception and, in doing so, to update our definition of masculinity.
“What we haven’t done is rewrite the script for men and for masculinity [to be] compatible with … gender equality,” he said. Men often face old expectations about being a breadwinner that simply aren’t sustainable. Part of the new reality that men must deal with, he noted, is a rise in income inequality.
“Most American men today earn less than most American men did in 1979. Now, that’s not true of men at the top. Men at the top earn a lot more than men at the top did in 1979. So the men at the top are doing pretty darn well economically. So are the women at the top, especially if they’re white,” he said. Black men now earn $0.84 for every dollar that white women do, he added.
Given how bleak things are for today’s men, Reeves said, he understands why they end up overrepresented in data that, to him, is associated with people who have given up. Higher rates of homelessness are a perfect example, but there are plenty others.
“They’re doing that through homelessness, they’re doing that through drugs, but they are checking out of society, checking themselves out. And I can see that there could be some liberation in that in some ways, because you’re still liberating yourself from certain kinds of responsibilities, including responsibilities to yourself,” he said.
Making it so those responsibilities aren’t so impossible to meet, he argued, will benefit everyone.
“There are very many people that think that a world of floundering men is likely to be a world of flourishing women,” he said. “It’s not good for women, it’s not good for society, it’s not good for children. It’s just not good.”
Unfortunately for the people who agree with him, our state’s infamously short legislative session means that even an extremely popular bill can fall to the wayside. The bill to name a state dinosaur, for example, which is likely the least costly and most adorable bill in recent history (it was put forth on behalf of a group of schoolchildren in Parkland), didn’t make it out of committee the first year it was introduced and hasn’t yet this year.
The cutoff date for HB 1270 to have a hearing in the State Government and Tribal Relations Committee is Feb. 17, and Dye said she hasn’t heard a peep from the committee’s chair, Rep. Bill Ramos (D-Issaquah).
Ramos did not respond to an emailed request for comment from Real Change.
Dye understands, she said, that he might have taken a look at the bill’s title and seen that its primary sponsor was a Republican and written it right off, but she hopes he’ll at least listen to what she and the bill’s other supporters have to say.
“We have a pretty good national organization around this thing and [it’s] one man, no hearing, and for what purpose?” she said. “Just hear it out.”
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Feb. 15-21, 2023 issue.