Paul Tuns, Review:

The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind
by Melissa S. Kearney
(University of Chicago Press, $32.50, 225 pages)

For the second time in two years, a long-time argument made by conservatives became mainstream following the publication of a book that digs deep into the data about a social phenomenon that had previously been both controversial and settled. Last year, it was Of Boys and Men by Richard V. Reeves, a book that shone a light on the problem of boys falling behind girls in elementary and high school, going to university less often than young women, and the fact men are becoming increasingly disengaged in the workforce and family life. This year, the conventional wisdom of conservatives discovered by a liberal is Melissa S. Kearney’s noticing that children who grow up in households with their married parents generally do better in life than children who are raised by single-parents, creating a “two-parent privilege.”

The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind marshals the data that shows children raised in single-parent homes – overwhelmingly by a single-mother – have poorer outcomes in school and life than their colleagues who are raised in an intact family with married parents. Kearney goes out of her way to stress she is not blaming single-moms (or unpartnered mothers, as Kearney calls them), merely describing what the data shows. From completing high school or getting a university degree to avoiding poverty in adulthood, children raised by both parents do better than those who are not. This matters, as Kearney writes, because the marriage premium/single-parent penalty has “sweeping implications not just for the well-being of American children and families but for the country’s well-being.”

Interestingly, Kearney notes that the limited social science on the topic shows that children who grow up with both biological parents do better than children who grow up with a stepparent, even when income and education levels are taken into account. This makes sense; stepparents are less likely to have the same attachment to their children than biological parents.

None of this is to say that every child raised in a home with both parents will always do better than those who are not, nor that the children of single-parents cannot succeed in life. In some rare cases, children will be better off not living with a particular parent, and not merely the abusive ones. Studies show that in some cases children with crime-committing parents who are sent to jail do better than the children of crime-committing parents who avoid incarceration. Nevertheless, generally speaking, there is a two-parent premium for those children lucky enough to grow up in such circumstances.

As a self-described M.I.T. economist, Kearney is obviously more comfortable discussing the statistics than she is the moral arguments, in fact writing she hoped “we can take (the debate) out of the intractable culture wars.” That said, the data calls out for explanations and she guesses (likely correctly) what are ultimately cultural causes. “There are a variety of possible explanations for why more highly resourced parents spend more time engaged in activities with their children, despite also spending more time working outside the home,” Kearney writes. “One explanation is that perhaps more highly educated or higher-income parents place more weight on the educational and labour-market outcomes of their children and are thus more likely to make investments to advance those outcomes.” She cites a 2010 study, “Rug Rat Race,” that shows college-educated parents spend “a ton of time in educational activities with their kids and driving them to various activities” – more so than in previous decades. College-educated mothers spent nine hours more caring for their children than they did in the 1990s, whereas less educated mothers spent just four hours more.

Kearney says that “parenting is hard” and that in most cases it is easier when there are two doing the job rather than one. While married couples can pool their financial resources, they also have more flexibility to provide an equally important resource: time. Another vital resource is emotional energy – married couples have a healthy close relationship that can get them through difficult times. Even if (as the data show) men do not pull their weight in terms of housework or tending to children, the fact that a mother has another pair of hands helping means there is more time and attention for children.

In the United States, the number of children living with two parents decreased from 80 per cent in 1980 to 57 per cent in 2019; those living with both parents (married or not) dropped from 83 per cent in 1980 to 60 per cent in 2019. It is notable – and a serious shortcoming — that Kearney does not reference Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” that described the prevalence of single-parenthood in black families as a crisis, and one that was caused not by economic factors but by a culture in black neighbourhoods that deemphasized family life. At the time, one-third of black children were born to single mothers; today 43 per cent of all U.S. children, and two-thirds of black children, are born to single parents.

Kearney observes a point made by the conservative Charles Murray in his 2012 book Coming Apart, namely that while those with more education and income generally preach a liberal lifestyle (less sexual restraint, the permissibility of shacking up, etc…), they live conservatively: 84 per cent of children of college-educated women live with both parents – at levels greater than the general population did 40 years ago. That is, the elite perpetuate their privilege in part by living a lifestyle they generally inveigh against. (High income, highly educated couples are also much less likely to divorce than those down the socio-economic ladder.)

Some of the causes of rising single-parenthood are certainly economic although Kearney shows that having children in wedlock is less sensitive to economic changes today than it has been in the past. Other causes are certainly cultural: many men are not considered marriageable, partly due to lack of education or employment (see Of Boys and Men by Reeves); it is also well-established social science that women are less likely than men to marry “beneath” their educational and income levels, thereby limiting the number of marriageable men.

So, what is to be done? Kearney makes a compelling case that public policy should care about the advantages conferred upon children who grow up in a household with both parents, but is less persuasive in her solutions: a call for “improving the economic position of non-college-educated men so they are more reliable marriage partners and fathers” through government spending on job training programs and post-secondary education, earning supplements such as the earned income tax credit for low-income earners, and criminal justice reform. The problem is that the evidence she provides throughout The Two-Parent Privilege suggests that these solutions are practically powerless to reverse the significant decline in children born into homes with both parents. That is no doubt because of the strong pull of culture – both in terms of the entertainment media and the values being taught to each new generation. It is a sign of Kearney’s allergy to cultural arguments, especially anything that suggests morality, that in the 180 pages dedicated to examining the formation and effects of families, there is not a single study cited on the influence of religion on couples and parents. It is well-established that the “success sequence” – complete school, get a job, get married, and then have children, in that order – works, yet Kearney only hints at it in a single paragraph. It will take more than an appreciation of the social science to reverse the cultural shift to the normalization of single-parenthood; we are going to need to get preachy, stressing the importance of getting married before having children.