The political left loves to highlight the increasing rates of income inequality and declining rates of social mobility in recent decades. But progressives conveniently ignore one of the top drivers of these trends: a drop in the percentage of stable, two-parent households.
Progressives struggle with this reality because it’s much easier — and more politically expedient — to blame something like systemic racism or sexism. They also struggle because it’s a domain that doesn’t really negatively affect the cultural elites: marriage rates for college-educated, higher-income individuals are stable. Meanwhile, the bottom has fallen out of the marriage trends for lower earning, non-college-educated Americans.
In other words, the benefits of marriage increasingly go to the top slice of the economic pie, while the poor are left behind.
Entering this hot topic is Brookings Institution economist Melissa Kearney and her new book The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind. Kearney provides a refreshing, cleared-eye assessment: “The decline in the share of US children living in a two-parent family over the past 40 years has not been good — for children, for families, or for the United States.”
Kearney puts the book title in terms the political left is better able to understand by using the term “privilege.” But that’s precisely what two-parent households afford children across a spectrum of metrics, ranging from educational outcomes to behavioral tendencies to rates of incarceration to the likelihood of achieving the American Dream.
Consider that 40% of Millennials who grew up in two-parent homes graduated from college by their mid-20s, compared to 17% for Millennials from non-intact homes. Relatedly, 77% of Millennials who grew up with the two-parent privilege attained a middle-class or higher lifestyle by their mid-30s, compared to 57% from non-intact families.
The topic is understandably sensitive. No one wants to further stigmatize single mothers who heroically struggle each and every day to provide for their children and undergo the challenging journey of solo parenting. But that doesn’t mean realities should be ignored. Part of the reason the US finds itself in a scenario where 25% of parents are unmarried is because we refuse to acknowledge the reality around this issue.
Not surprisingly, the blowback to Kearney’s book has been swift and red-faced. Much of the left’s criticism of her arguments is founded on the belief that single-parent households struggle in the US because they don’t receive enough government support. To these critics, two-member families are important, but the two members are — in most cases — the mother and the government. Fathers are not needed.
This, of course, relies on the false assumption that economics are the only factor at play here. While greater financial resources obviously help a single-parent household better succeed, there are a thousand less tangible benefits that two-parent households bring. Time alone is a huge factor, not to mental the added emotional energy that two parents typically bring.
As Kearney writes, “The absence of a father from a child’s home appears to have direct effects on children’s outcomes — and not only because of the loss of parental income. Nonfinancial engagement by a father has been found to have beneficial effects on children’s outcomes.”
The impact of a father’s presence in the home is particularly important for boys. “Boys and young men are faring worse than girls and young women on a host of behavioral, educational, and economic dimensions. This gender gap in outcomes has been linked to the heightened disadvantage boys face when growing up without a father figure in their home.”
This also creates a vicious cycle: Boys growing up without their fathers have a higher likelihood of themselves falling into traps of poverty: “The more boys struggle and fall behind, the less prepared they will be as adults to be reliable economic providers as husbands and dads,” Kearney writes.
On this topic, one of Kearney’s strongest takeaways is the need to solve our country’s crisis of masculinity. Simply put, declining rates of participation in the labor force by prime-age men has contributed to the marriage problem. Recent changes have “stripped many men of their traditional role as breadwinner for the family and, in simple terms, made them less desirable marriage partners,” Kearney writes.
Kearney suggests making additional investments in public universities and community colleges in vocational education and apprenticeship programs. Implementing criminal justice reforms to help with the mass incarceration issue is another suggestion, as is addressing the pandemic of untreated mental illness among men and the opioid epidemic.
These are important goals, but we could add to the list the need to expand school choice so that impoverished children stuck in failing public school districts have an opportunity to achieve a good education. Add to this the need to eliminate marriage penalties in programs like Medicaid and public housing — penalties that punish marriage and encourage single-parenthood.
Perhaps the most important goal of all, however, is to have a frank national discussion about the importance of two-parent families “without coming across as shaming or blaming single mothers,” as Kearney writes. “By being honest about the benefits that a two-parent family home confers to children, we can break the pattern in which social agnosticism treats all households as the same in terms of the benefits they deliver children.”