The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, by Melissa Kearney (University of Chicago Press, 240 pp., $25)
The publication of Melissa Kearney’s book The Two-Parent Privilege is something of an event in policy circles. The economist and polymathic bibliophile Tyler Cowen surmised that it “could be the most important economics and policy book of this year.” Other blurbs from star economists David Autor and Larry Summers are no less admiring. It helps that Kearney is an MIT-educated economist, a chaired professor at the University of Maryland, and an affiliate scholar at the Brookings Institution with the kind of overflowing CV of which most graduate students can only dream.
Cowen calls The Two-Parent Privilege “a great book.” If that’s true, it’s not because it breaks new ground. Kearney’s book is a summary and synthesis—first-rate summary and synthesis, to be sure—of decades of research on the benefits of a childhood spent with both parents.
The gist of the book will be familiar to many well-informed readers: on a wide variety of measures, the average child growing up in single-parent homes is at a disadvantage compared with their two-parent peers. On the most concrete level, single mothers have less money and time to devote to their children, and they are at higher risk of poverty and welfare dependence. On a societal level, the rise of single-parent homes has increased and entrenched both economic and social inequality.
Growing up apart from a father carries considerable risks for children aside from economic hardship. Boys, in particular, are more likely to have academic and behavioral problems without their fathers in the house, and, statistically speaking, the presence of a stepfather doesn’t make their futures look any rosier. Growing up in a single-mother household is associated with poorer college completion, even after controlling for a host of other variables, as well as with diminished likelihood of marrying or staying married upon reaching adulthood.
These well-researched facts have evidently failed to impress Americans. Since the 1960s, the percentage of the nation’s children living with a single mother has only gone up. Today, 40 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers; that’s double the share in 1980. In many subgroups, the all-but-universal tie between marriage and childbearing has been completely severed. In the early decades of the transformation of the family, single mothers were likely to have been divorced, but by the 1980s, the majority of single mothers had never married in the first place.
The vast majority of single mothers are not simply skipping the wedding and living with their child’s father in a European-style de facto marriage. In the U.S., cohabiting relationships are fleeting and frequently sequential. Kearney notes that American children are much more likely to experience two or three parental partnerships by age 15 than children in other countries.
That puts kids at a double disadvantage: not only do the children of unmarried parents not live with their fathers; even if they maintain relationships with them (and many do not), those relationships are often strained. Never-married dads are far less likely to remain involved with their children than divorced dads—in part, perhaps, because their children’s mothers, or the fathers themselves, have moved on to new relationships. These trends have turned the U.S. into the global capital of fatherless families.
What makes The Two-Parent Privilege an event is not these observations, but the author herself. Ever since the brouhaha following the 1965 Moynihan Report’s warnings about the rise in single motherhood among low-income blacks, the policy and social science establishment has been loath to engage the issue. This has remained true even as the same family troubles spread to the white and Hispanic working class, and even as evidence mounted that the breakdown in marriage was not only bad for children but also worsened inequality. When a prominent scholar with impeccable center-left credentials like Kearney forthrightly makes that case, she is veering into policy quicksand. This is a danger of which she is well aware. At professional conferences, her colleagues have reacted to her research with comments on the order of: “I tend to agree with you about all this but are you sure you want to be out there saying this publicly?” Others have told her that she sounded “socially conservative,” implying that she was “not academically serious.”
That the book is academically serious is both its strength and a limitation. Given the resistance to her topic in Policy World, Kearney had little choice but to underline the methodological nuances in the research she uses to make her case for the importance of the two-parent family. Lay readers, however, may find it tough to slog through the occasional thicket of econ-talk, with its data sets, models, variables, and production functions. As a result, they may miss some of the larger societal themes.
This would be a shame, since the research enumerated in The Two-Parent Privilege enriches our understanding of working-class decline and, more broadly, the nation’s political and cultural polarization. Kearney shows how working-class male wages stagnated (largely because of the decline in well-paid blue-collar jobs) during the same years that women’s wages rose. In 1980, non-college-educated women made only 54 percent of what similarly educated men made; by 2020, they were making 74 percent. As the earnings gender gap narrowed, working-class marriages began to fray. (The evidence that women continue to want to marry men who earn at least as much as they do remains strong.) This was despite the fact that women’s gains in the labor market were not enough to offset the loss of a husband’s earnings.
In the process, the children of unmarried mothers lost not only a second parent in the house but also the income that might have meant a summer trip to a lake or tuition for an after-school computer class. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the working-class nuclear family was disintegrating, while families with college-educated parents saw only blue skies ahead. Today, 84 percent of the children of college-educated couples live with two married parents; for the children of high school-educated parents, the number is only 60 percent, down from 83 percent in 1980. In this respect, the high school-educated mothers now resemble their poorer and least-advantaged sisters more than they do their college-educated peers. With the working-class chances for upward mobility and hopes for a better life collapsing, the stage was set for the class tensions we see today.
Kearney only touches on another uncomfortable truth emerging from The Two-Parent Privilege. The subject of the choice of whether or not to marry—something most Americans, liberal and conservative, revere as a personal decision—remains largely off limits despite its profound social and economic impact. The rise of the single-parent family is intricately connected with poverty and high levels of racial and overall economic inequality—and, for that matter, gender gaps. Theoretically, we could just create tax and welfare policies that would provide more money to those families. And it’s true, as Kearney shows, that the gap in spending on children’s enrichment and education between high-income households and families in the middle and bottom of the income distribution has widened considerably.
Whatever advantages increased spending on government benefits might provide for low-income children, they do not begin to compensate for differences in family structure. In Denmark—a progressive utopia of generous family policies, including long parental leave, extensive health care, “high quality” pre-K, and the like—the influence of family background on many child outcomes is about as strong as it is in the United States. “We should be clear-eyed about the reality,” Kearney writes. “Parents affect their children’s lives and shape their outcomes in ways that government cannot fully make up for.” Given the enormity of this fact, Kearney’s policy recommendations are disappointingly boilerplate. She urges a more expansive safety net for low-income families—greater investments in health insurance, food stamps, and early childhood education—even while showing that they won’t accomplish all that much.
“[A]s an economist I am focused on marriage as an institution that is defined by two people combining and sharing resources in a long-term contract,” Kearney writes. That marriage is an economic contract is a blunt truth on which many Americans prefer not to dwell. It’s the framing shared by most policy experts, but especially in a wealthy society such as our own, where many individuals can manage independently, it is only a partial truth. To marry is both to enter into and to create a family—the most powerful community in which most individuals will ever engage—and to connect to a supporting network of friends, extended families, and neighbors. Family breakdown on the scale that we’ve seen in past decades inevitably ruptures communities and social life.
Given those high stakes, if The Two-Parent Privilege can at least help relax the taboo against an honest accounting of family decline, it will be just as important a book as its blurbists claim.