The increasing privilege of those with two parents
The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind
By Melissa Kearney. University of Chicago Press. 2023. 240 pages.
There are some great unmentionables in public policy, and one of them is the relationship between family structure and social outcomes.
Most people know intuitively that a stable family environment involving two committed parents gives children a better chance at growing up to lead happy and healthy lives.
Most people also know, however, that such a statement is likely to elicit criticism in many social settings: including, oddly enough, among economic elites where the average family structure has not changed very much in recent decades.
In The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, the American economist Melissa Kearney has grasped the nettle firmly and with both hands, and in so doing has produced one of the most compelling books on social policy in recent times.
Kearney is Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland. Her work focuses on poverty and inequality in America, as well as issues relating to children and families, and the social and educational programmes designed to support them.
Early on, she sets out her reasons for taking the risks involved in pursuing such a potentially controversial line of argument and firmly emphasising the benefits of families led by married parents.
“The dramatic increase in the prevalence of one-parent households in the US reflects a profound change in the way children are being raised in this country, with implications for children but also for society. As uncomfortable as it might be to discuss this shift and its implications, avoiding a direct examination of the issue — well-intentioned as that tendency might be — is ultimately counterproductive,” she writes.
The evidence she cites demonstrates the scale of the change that has occurred and the impacts that this has had.
Only 63 percent of children in the US live with married parents, according to the most recent research, down from 77 percent in 1980.
Marriage has ceased to be the norm when it comes to the relationship status of adults. Whereas 79 percent of American men aged 30 to 50 were married in 1980, that figure had fallen to 60 percent by 2020.
Contrary to popular perception, long-term cohabitation has not replaced marriage, and unmarried parents are mostly not living together in what used to be known as ‘common-law marriage.’ Instead, many women are parenting alone, and alternative support is often hard to find.
“More than one in five children living in the US today live in a home with an unpartnered mother, meaning a mother who is neither married nor cohabitating. A majority of these households do not include another adult, such as a grandparent or other relative,” Kearney writes.
Another change over the last forty years is in the area of divorce: previously, mothers without a partner were generally divorced, but now, a majority of unpartnered mothers have never been married at all.
The consequences of this societal shift have not been evenly experienced across all of society, and a range of divisions have emerged.
The family structure of African Americans has changed the most — less than a third of black children whose mothers possess only a high school education are being raised by married parents.
Conversely, while the family structure of Asian Americans has changed somewhat, the married family remains the norm in this cohort to a much greater degree than is the case when considering black, Hispanic or white Americans.
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Of even more interest is the ‘college gap’ which has developed. Analysing the manner in which family structure varies according to maternal education, Kearney points out that 84 percent of the children of college graduates lived with married parents in 2019, down slightly from a figure of 90 percent recorded in 1980.
It is a completely different situation for the children whose mothers have only a high school degree and some college: just 60 percent of them lived with married parents in 2019, a huge drop from the 83 percent who did back in 1980.
Differing levels of educational attainment amount to more than just differences in life experience in today’s socio-economic model.
Median household earnings for college-educated Americans have increased significantly over the last four decades, while barely moving for less educated workers. These same less-educated Americans are also now less likely to get married and thus gain the support of a second committed parent in raising their children.
Writing in practical as well as economic terms, Kearney highlights the benefits of pooling resources which a two-parent family can enjoy.
This is not just about money but also parental time and attention, and the possibility of specialisation in particular roles where one parent excels and where the other does not: a social practice which the Nobel laureate Professor Gary Becker identified in the 1960s.
Social liberals who accept the obvious reality that children benefit from the availability of increased material and non-material resources may contend that couples living together could do just as well in providing this.
Having surveyed the data on cohabitation and social outcomes in America, Kearney strongly disagrees.
“[T]he practical truth is that, to date, there has been no alternative institution to marriage that is characterized by the same long-term partnership and commitment in the United States. Cohabitation partnerships in the US are simply not as stable as marriages. This comparative instability helps explain why observed gaps in household resources, childhood experiences, and children’s outcomes exist between married-parent and unmarried households,” she writes.
Just as she takes issue with the social progressives who claim that family structure does not matter, the author also disagrees with their arguments that more government support will correct the imbalance in terms of family outcomes, writing that “even if policymakers were to dramatically scale up government support and shrink income gaps between one- and two-parent families, there would still be meaningful differences in children’s experiences and outcomes.”
Not only is she perceptive in identifying the key problems that follow as a consequence of the movement away from the two-parent norm, she also identifies some of the broader issues that are driving societal change.
Citing the sociologist William Julius Wilson’s research from the 1980s relating to the declining ‘marriageability’ of some men and the impact this had on increasing the number of single-mother families in African-American communities, Kearney draws attention to the stagnation of wages among middle-aged men who do not possess a four-year college degree.
Women have advanced greatly in recent decades in educational and economic terms, but the same cannot be said of a large portion of the male population, and American women are now finding it harder to find men who are economically secure and financially dependable in the long term.
Also, economic literature suggests that decreases in men’s earnings relative to female earnings drive down the marriage rate. While a possible solution may involve a reversal of traditional roles — with the newly ascendant females taking on the main role of breadwinners while men do more work in the home — Kearney does not see this as being a probable scenario.
Unlike other writers on economic and social policy, she does not rely on personal vignettes to make her points, instead relying on her command of the supporting evidence she has assembled.
At the core of her book is a deep concern for the growing inequality which exists in America and the role that the decline of marriage is playing in exacerbating this problem.
The college gap and the income gap between families — which is so clearly linked to the marriage gap too — is leading to a situation where higher-income parents are spending vast sums of money on education and parenting, thus giving their children the best possible chance in life while also helping to cement the already entrenched class divisions within America.
More worryingly, parents with a higher educational attainment have been shown to spend far more time with their children, and the fact that most of these parents are married couples makes doing this far easier. Children from less financially advantaged backgrounds can end up being deprived of some of the attention they need, and this can have detrimental effects on young boys in particular.
“We will not be able to meaningfully improve the lives of children in this country, nor address the vast and growing level of inequality between kids who are born into more highly educated, higher-income homes and those who are not without confronting the reality that family life is crucial and that divergent family structures are a key driver of widening class gaps,” Kearney concludes.
If the author succeeds in convincing a large body of policymakers of the validity of this summation, she will have accomplished an enormous feat.
Her suggested solutions to mitigate against the current problems include a large expansion of mentoring programmes along the lines of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America organisation, which if implemented could help to give more vulnerable young people positive and supporting role models.
Less wisely, she argues for an expansion of college access along with alternative pathways towards productive employment (such as apprenticeships), without fully acknowledging the degree to which the current excessive emphasis on college is having baleful consequences across society.
It is obvious that the author does not wish her work to be pigeonholed in the socially conservative category.
She goes to some lengths to preempt such criticism, making clear that she is “not promoting a norm of a stay-at-home wife and a breadwinner husband”, while also suggesting that the gender of legally married couples is not relevant when considering the benefits that marriage affords to children.
Some social conservatives will quibble with this. They should not. Instead, all who care about the welfare of society as a whole should be grateful to Professor Kearney for producing a work that demonstrates persuasively the extraordinary importance of marriage as a public good.
James Bradshaw writes on topics including history, culture, film and literature.
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