A few years ago, I was in a cab in Boston and noticed a photo of a young girl that my driver had displayed on his dashboard.
“Is that your daughter?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said with joyful pride. “I have more pictures, want to see?” Of course I did. He handed me his phone and invited me to scroll through his photos. I oohed and aahed over how adorable his four-year-old girl was. We chatted. He told me she lived with her mom.
“You don’t live with them?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said.
“Could I ask why not?” I continued. I knew this was nosy, so I quickly qualified it. “I’m an economist, and I study families, so I wonder about these kinds of things.”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “We talk about it. If we save up some money, we might get married.”
I couldn’t help myself, and I pressed further. “I don’t mean to pry,” I said slowly, “but if you guys get along and you both love your daughter, why don’t you live together as a family?”
He became flustered — not impatient or angry, but genuinely flustered. He missed the exit, looked over his shoulder to get a better look at me, and asked, “Did my mom send you or something?”
This encounter, and a million other domestic arrangements that it describes, prompt an important question: Has the social normalization of raising children outside of a two-parent arrangement led to more children being raised in a one-parent household? I suspect yes. And has this trend served the best interests of children? Based on the evidence, I would say, unequivocally, no.
The challenge for society, then, is to find ways to acknowledge the benefits of a two-parent family — including the important role that fathers play in their children’s lives — without coming across as shaming or blaming single mothers. 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 the same in terms of the benefits they deliver children.
Spending less time working and more time with one’s child is a luxury that married mothers, on average, more often have because there is another adult in the household.
Children have no say as to how they are brought into this world and raised. They have no say as to whether their parents live together or raise them together. I wonder how many children in one-parent homes would prefer that both of their parents lived with them.
As a child growing up in the 1980s, I remember being worried whenever my parents fought that they might get divorced. My parents might not have always gotten along with each other, but I was always happy to have them both there at home. I realize that’s not true for all families and some families would not be better off if the parents were together. But we are no longer in a situation where children raised by an unmarried or unpartnered parent happens only in rare or extenuating circumstances. Only 63 percent of U.S. children are being raised in a home with married parents. More than 1 in 5 children in the U.S. live with a mother who is neither married nor cohabitating. More than half of unpartnered mothers today have never been married.
Could it really be the case that so many children have fathers who would not be positive contributors to the family if they were part of their household? If that is even close to the reality for men in America today, then we really do have a terrible crisis.
The decline in the two-parent family relates in part to the struggles of men, which is in turn contributing to the struggles of boys. This cycle is in desperate need of interruption: The U.S. needs to raise boys who are fit to be reliable marriage partners and nurturing, supportive fathers. We need to foster a societal expectation that fathers be present in their children’s lives and support them, financially and emotionally.
I have no idea whether that Boston cab driver would be a good dad or husband or long- term cohabitating partner or co-parent. He seemed like a nice guy, and he seemed to really love his daughter and his daughter’s mom. Is that enough? No, far from it. But the point is that he and his daughter’s mom seemed to believe that the options of cohabitating or living apart were more or less equally good when it came to their daughter’s well-being. And that is just not what the data say.
To make progress closing class gaps in parenting resources will require strengthening families and bringing more fathers into the family fold.
Parenting means more than just having given birth to and loving a child. It means worrying because so much is out of our control. It means trying to protect, love and guide our children with the full force of whatever resources we have. Parenting means, in addition to loving one’s child, devoting time, money and energy to the raising of one’s child or children. Aside from love, there are limits to how much parents can provide.
The pouring of time, money and energy into children can be described in economic terms: We invest resources and parenting inputs into our children in the hopes of producing healthy, happy, well-adjusted, successful adults. Success means different things to different people, but for most, it likely includes some level of educational attainment and economic security in adulthood. This isn’t to say that people only raise children to be adults. We also want to give them happy childhoods and enjoy time with them, and I don’t mean to discount any of that.
Data confirm that having access to more resources enables parents to invest more in their children. More highly resourced parents tend to spend more money and time investing in their children. Why? The evidence suggests that it’s not because more and less resourced parents have different views about what their children need or different preferences about what they want to do for or with their children. Rather, a highly resourced couple has way more resources to draw on when it comes to raising children.
A lack of resources, meanwhile, makes it harder for low-income, single parents to do all they would like to do for their children. Some of this difficulty is about money (since one working adult tends to bring in less income than two working adults, especially if they have the same level of education), but some of it is about having another committed adult to split the workload with, to watch the kids while you’re working or doing something else, or to pick up the emotional load when you’re just too drained.
In the same way that a child who lives in a one-parent home tends to have access to fewer parental resources, the inherent challenges of parenting make it such that children who grow up in single-mother households tend to experience lower levels of parental investments. This is not because single parents don’t want to provide their kids with the same types of advantages as kids from two-parent homes are often getting. Rather, it is because they are resource constrained: One parent tends to have fewer resources (of all kinds) to devote to parenting than two.
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 the same in terms of the benefits they deliver children.
Much of what we know about spending on kids is based on the Consumer Expenditure Survey, a national household survey collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine how Americans are spending their money every year.
A pair of sociologists, using this data in a 2013 study, found not only that parents at the top of the income distribution spent much more on child investment than do lower-income parents, but also that the gap in spending has widened substantially since the 1970s. Parents in the highest income decile increased their investment spending per child from $2,832 in the early 1970s to $5,551 in the early 1990s and to $6,573 per year in 2006-2007.
Some of the widening of this income gap in spending on kids reflects the widening of income inequality in recent decades, with the income of those at and near the top of the distribution taking off. But that’s not the full story. Between the 1970s and 1990s, high-income parents increased the share of their total household income that they devoted to child investment goods. This corresponds to a period when parenting, in general, became a more intensive activity.
The spending by high-income households on kids’ education and enrichment has pulled further and further away from what families in the middle and bottom of the distribution are spending — and likely what they’re able to spend. Among families in the middle of the distribution, per-child investment spending increased (in 2008 dollars) from $1,143 in the early 1970s to $1,548 in the early 1990s, to $1,421 in 2006-2007. The authors estimate that these amounts reflect spending shares of 4.2 percent, 6.5 percent and 5.2 percent of (equivalized) income, respectively. The real dollar amount that families in the lowest income decile spend on per-child investment has also been mostly steady across the three highlighted decades, at amounts of $607, $779 and $750, respectively.
Another way to look at the gaps in the experiences that more and less resourced parents can offer their children is to look at engagement in enrichment activities. Not surprisingly, children from more highly resourced homes are more likely to participate in a variety of extracurricular enrichment activities. A 2015 survey of parents conducted by Pew Research Center revealed large income gaps in the rate at which kids experience enrichment activities. Among parents with family income of more than $75,000, 84 percent report having a child who participated in sports or athletic activities in the past year, as compared to 69 percent of parents with family income between $30,000 and $74,999 and 59 percent of parents with family income below $30,000.
The decline in the share of U.S. children living in a two-parent family over the past 40 years has not been good — for children, for families or for the country.
Kids aren’t just expensive, they are also time consuming. Any parent will tell you, sometimes even without you asking, that raising children takes a lot of time. Parents today spend way more time engaged in enriching activities with their children as compared to parents in previous generations. I am sure many of you have heard it said or remarked yourself — “Back in the day, our parents just sent us off to play in the street!”
The rise of intensive parenting is a real thing. We know this from the American Time Use Survey data, a nationally representative data set collected by the U.S. Census Bureau from 2003 to 2019. The increase in parental time investment has not occurred evenly across the population — predictably, the shift toward more time spent with one’s children has been especially pronounced among more-educated, highly resourced parents.
In a 2008 paper that I co-authored with the economists Jonathan Guryan and Erik Hurst, we found that more highly educated mothers and fathers spend less time doing household production activities like cleaning and vacuuming; they also spend less time in leisure activities like sleeping, watching TV and hanging out with friends. What did they do with this time? They were spending more of it directly engaged with their children in so-called child care activities.
Like the discernible difference in child care time between more- and less-educated parents, there is a gap in child care time by marital status. Married mothers with at least one child under age 18 spend an average of 15.1 hours per week in dedicated child care, meaning that their primary activity is related to the child — dressing them, reading to them, driving them to an activity and the like. They also spend, on average, 45.4 hours with their child(ren), meaning that their child or at least one of their children is with them, even if their primary activity isn’t centered on the child. Unmarried mothers spend an average of 12.7 hours per week in dedicated child care and 37.8 hours with their child or at least one of their children.
Some of this difference is attributable to the fact that unmarried mothers are more likely to work outside the home, leaving them with less time than married mothers to actively engage with their children. In the 2019 American Time Use Survey, 78 percent of unmarried mothers report working outside the home, as compared to 71 percent of married mothers. They also work more hours in paid labor, on average: 28.2 versus 23.5 hours per week. The luxury of being able to spend less time working and more time engaged with one’s child can be thought of in just that way — as a luxury that married mothers, on average, more often have because there is another adult in the household.
The gap in child care hours between married and unmarried mothers is observed across all mothers, regardless of education level. But within education groups, married mothers spend more time in child care activities and more time with their children, as compared to unmarried mothers with the same level of education. It is also the case that for all three levels of education, married mothers spend fewer hours in market work. The same pattern holds within racial and ethnic groups as well. For white, Black, Hispanic and Asian mothers, married mothers spend more time in child care and with their children than do unmarried mothers.
What about dads? In the 2019 American Time Use survey, married dads reported an average of 8.0 hours in dedicated child care activities and 30 hours with their children per week. Unmarried dads reported 5.9 and 23.8 hours per week, respectively. As with moms, this marriage gap in time spent with children is observed for dads of all three education levels. Dads with four-year college degrees spend the most amount of time in child care, even though they also spend the most hours in paid work: 9.3 hours per week among married dads and 7.3 hours per week among unmarried dads. Dads without a high school degree spend the least amount of time in child care, even though they also work the fewest hours: 4.7 hours a week in child care activities among married dads and only 2.8 hours per week among unmarried dads.
Has the social normalization of raising children outside of a two-parent arrangement led to more children being raised in a one-parent household? I suspect yes. And has this trend served the best interests of children? Based on the evidence, I would say, unequivocally, no.
The children of more-educated, higher-income and married parents get more of all kinds of resources — more spending on educational and enrichment goods and activities, more parental time and more attentive parenting. The additional parental investments that these children receive from both their mothers and their fathers on a regular basis contribute to the relative advantages they enjoy in life and perpetuate class gaps in opportunities and outcomes.
Well-designed parenting interventions can potentially improve parenting practices in low-income and single-mother families. This evidence provides justification for philanthropic and public funding to scale up parenting programs with evidence of success. However, we should be clear in our expectations. Such programs can make a positive difference, and they should be supported on those grounds, but we cannot expect parenting interventions alone to close class gaps in children’s outcomes.
Even with community and government support, how can a parent who is raising her child or children without another parent figure in the home lavish the kind of spending, time and emotional bandwidth on her children that children growing up in a highly resourced two-parent home are frequently being showered with?
To make progress closing class gaps in parenting resources — and childhood environments — will require strengthening families and bringing more fathers into the family fold. Doing so will require addressing the many economic challenges facing men today so that more men are “marriageable” — meaning, stably employed, reliable and dependable.
It will also require addressing the social changes that have fostered the normalization of the widespread separation of marriage from the act of raising children.
The decline in the share of U.S. children living in a two-parent family over the past 40 years has not been good — for children, for families or for the country. There has been a massive widening of the family gap, such that a two-parent family has become yet another advantage in life enjoyed disproportionately by the college educated class. The decline in the two-parent family among parents without a four-year college degree is a demographic trend that should concern anyone who cares about the well-being of children and about widespread economic opportunity, inequality and social mobility in America. The trend both reflects and exacerbates inequality. It has been driven by both economic and social forces and as such, reversing the trend will require major changes in both economic and social spheres.
If we do not reverse this trend — if millions of American children miss out on the benefits that come from a two-parent home and if the family gap continues to widen — then children will suffer, inequality will continue to widen and social mobility will erode. We will be a weaker, more fragmented, less prosperous nation as a result.
Reprinted with permission from “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind” by Melissa S. Kearney, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.