When Melissa S. Kearney’s book, “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind,” was recently published, it brought blowback, though it wasn’t really unexpected.
Some critics felt like she was being unfair to single mothers, discounting their value, she said Wednesday during a Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute Newsmaker Breakfast in Salt Lake City.
She wasn’t trying for a “hot take” on single parenting. She was making an economist’s case that children do better when they have two parents at home, contributing resources of time and money and other support to their children, said Kearney, an economics professor at the University of Maryland whose other titles include director of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group, research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
It’s math, she said. It matters for kids because two parents have more resources to offer kids than one parent does. The median household income is roughly twice as large, since most women also work. “Two parents just simply have more capability to bring more income into the household,” she said. And more time combined to spend with kids — and helping each other.
But a growing share of babies are born to single mothers, most of whom have never married. And fathers who were never married to mothers are not generally as engaged in terms of money, time and other resources. In the past 40 years, the share of kids growing up with married parents has fallen from 77% to 63%, she said.
About a quarter of U.S. kids live in single-parent homes — something Pew Research Center data says is more likely in the United States than in 130 other countries, including European nations. The international average is 7% of kids in single-parent homes, even in Europe.
“That puts U.S. children in a unique position of being more likely than kids in any other country in the world to live with just one parent,” she said.
But the importance of fathers has fallen some from the national conversation, Kearney said, noting that Barack Obama gave a heartfelt talk on that topic one Father’s Day and never did so again, presumably because of pressure. Even pastors hesitate to talk about how valuable fathers are to their kids, lest it seem they’re detracting from mothers who are going it largely alone, per Kearney.
Her book, she said, wasn’t meant to be a political fire starter. Instead, “there’s an economic case to be made for what happens when kids don’t grow up with two-parent privilege.”
Raising kids alone
Kearney noted that one common reaction to the changing trajectory is to note that women are richer and more likely to be able to afford raising their kids on their own than in the past. But the “crucial reality” is that it’s not the most economically successful women in the U.S who are raising kids on their own.
While the last 40 years have seen a large increase in the share of moms with a college degree, Kearney said the decline in the share of kids living with married parents in that group is quite small. Instead, it’s happening outside the college-educated class, with the biggest change in the middle among those who have at least a high school diploma and among those with some college, but not a degree, she said.
Having access to the resources of one parent instead of two contributes to class gaps and inequality, she noted. At the neighborhood level, the share of married households even impacts upward mobility for those who live there.
Kearney said IRS data puts Salt Lake City atop the upward mobility rankings in the U.S. “and that correlates with also having a very high share of households headed by two parents.”
“This issue of family structure now has both a race and ethnic and education component and this is really important to be honest about because this is contributing to the differences we're seeing in kids’ economic and educational outcomes between and across groups,” said Kearney. “This widening family gap in the U.S. has contributed to income inequality in a very mechanical sense.”
She said that for those in the middle groups, combined stagnant earnings and a 23-percentage point increase in the likelihood households have only one adult, one potential earner in residence, “very mechanically contributed to the erosion of economic security for those households. It’s also contributed to the fact that we’ve got divergent earnings trajectories on top of divergent household structures, and that’s amplifying income inequality in this country.”
Among those who are not college graduates, she said, in the past 40 years “there’s been a deep unbundling of the institution of marriage from having and raising kids.”
Among changes, less-educated men have been hurt by economic shocks that make it harder to make a good living. In the new social norm, said Kearney, an increasing number of women have their kids outside of marriage in part because women have been less likely to see men as viable partners.
More resources to benefit kids
Higher-income homes spend more on their children. And when there are two parents sharing household and child care responsibilities, there’s more time to invest in kids. Parents also have more emotional bandwidth, she said.
She emphasized that doesn’t mean single moms or dads are less nurturing or patient. But, “if you’re the only adult in the household responsible for all this, it shouldn’t really surprise us that what we see in the data is that there’s more likely to be high levels of stress,” and “there’s less likely to be the kind of parenting that developmental psychologists say is beneficial for kids. It takes a lot of energy to sit down and patiently talk to your kids or read with them at the end of the workday.”
While Kearney agrees that more should be done to move single-parent families out of poverty, she’d like to move the conversation away from sole focus on poverty — plus, the majority of single-mother households are not in poverty, she said.
“The point is that the gap in what kids are achieving between two-parent or single-parent homes is about things like graduating college, which is really important to people’s future of economic mobility and success. It’s a bigger issue than improving the social safety net and trying to keep people out of poverty,” she added.
People with a second income tend to live in safer neighborhoods. They spend more time with their children. There’s less likelihood of harsh parenting in two-parent homes where stress is shared. Kearney said boys are especially sensitive to that. And it is hard for a single parent to pursue educational and economic opportunities when that parent has sole responsibility.
Kearney said she’s very empathetic to parents who are doing it alone. But she thinks it should be OK to acknowledge it's easier with two parents without people thinking she’s saying a single parent is deficient.
Media — including TV “entertainment” — impacts social norms. Kearney said we think we’re being entertained, but sometimes we’re being educated. She points out that when “16 and Pregnant” came on, teens saw that having a baby is hard work. A “sizable reduction in teen childbearing” happened about that time, Kearney said.
She called it “edutainment” and said, “I absolutely think TV portrayals of family relationships matter.”
Suggestions for policymakers
Kearney offered a list of do’s and don’ts as people consider what can be done to bolster families. On the “do” side:
- Foster a norm of two-parent homes for children.
- Strive to boost the economic position of men who don’t have college degrees, thus boosting their “marriageability.”
- Meet families where they are and “scale up” promising programs to strengthen families and improve their outcomes.
- Improve the safety net for families, regardless of family structure.
- Don’t “accept a new reality” where two-parent families are a relic of the past for lower-income, less-educated Americans.
- Don’t stigmatize single moms or push couples to stay together if the marriage is unhealthy.
- Don’t lament the economic progress women have made.
- If marriage programs are unsuccessful, drop them.
- Don’t skimp on government assistance programs under the mistaken assumption that will encourage more marriage and two-parent families.