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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why The Problem Isn’t Single-Parent Families

The problem is that we don’t take seriously the obligation to give people good lives.

Melissa Kearney’s The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind makes the argument that having two parents in the house is, on average, better for a child than having one parent. Kearney’s book has been hailed by the conservative City Journal for breaking the “taboo in policy circles” about discussing family structure. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times says that it tells an “uncomfortable” truth that liberals would prefer not to discuss. Kearney herself presents her argument as a discussion of “the elephant in the room,” a fact that many people would prefer to ignore because it appears “socially conservative.” 

Kearney suggests that because liberals wish to avoid stigmatizing single parents, they have ignored the giant mountain of data showing that children do better in households with two parents. This “well-meaning acceptance obscures the critical reality that this change [the rise in single-parent households] is hurting our children and our society.” Kearney says that she is not a social conservative, but merely an economist whose conclusions are guided by data rather than political ideology. It is objectively true, she says, that the “normalization of one-parent homes” is bad for society. 

I see arguments that take this form a lot. Liberals ignore the data because it makes them uncomfortable, but actually Facts and Logic compel us to accept Seemingly Reactionary View X. So Charles Murray entitles his latest tract Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America, and says that a hard-headed analysis of statistics compels us to understand that Black people simply have lower IQs and are more prone to criminality. He’s not a racist, just a statistician. (He’s a racist.) Thomas Sowell’s entire body of work consists of berating liberal intellectuals for being unwilling to confront the difficult truths that interference in free markets hurts the very people it’s trying to help. (In fact, Sowell simply ignores the evidence he doesn’t like.) Throughout my book Responding to the Right, I show example after example of how conservative ideology is dressed up as Mere Fact, with controversial normative assumptions smuggled in and disguised as objective truths.

Of course, the fact that this happens constantly, and takes exactly the same form as Kearney’s argument, doesn’t mean that that’s what’s happening here. We can’t just scoff at her claim to be doing Mere Ideology-Free Science unless we show how there is ideology buried in the science. So let me take a moment to do that.

Actually, the underlying facts Kearney presents aren’t really controversial at all. Kearney says that children raised in two-parent households tend to do better than those raised in one-parent households. This is only an average, and she stresses that “many children raised in part by single moms do extraordinarily well,” including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama). But she’s perfectly correct about the overall tendency. 

Why do children raised in two-parent households tend to do better? Well, for one thing, twice the parents means twice the number of total parent-hours available. If we hypothesize that the more time a parent spends parenting, the better off a child will be on average, then the “two parent households do better” finding is not some taboo hidden truth about the U.S., it’s just arithmetic. A child with one parent gets less parenting because the parent has to go to work. Kearney also says that children are better off when both parents live under the same roof, because “two people working together can do more for their household and their children than two people working apart can.” Kearney says that “this principle mirrors the genius of the assembly line in production and manufacturing,” comparing raising a child to building a car.

Kearney explains why two-parent households are better: they simply tend to have more resources in terms of time and money. 

I describe marriage as a long-term contract between two individuals to combine resources and share the responsibilities of keeping a household and raising children. … [T]his more highly resourced arrangement leads to better outcomes for children. But the resource gain to marriage depends crucially on what both partners have to offer. If marriage has declined because fewer men are reliable partners or economic contributors, then the challenge is at least partially economic. … Because single-mother households tend to be lower in resources, children growing up in such settings tend to receive fewer parental investments. …[T]he luxury of resources—whether in the form of more income, a spouse or resident co-parent, or both—makes it easier for higher-income, more highly educated, and married parents to spend more money on, spend more time with, and have more emotional energy for their kids.

So what is presented as a daring factual claim is in fact a rather banal one: two parents means two incomes. Or even in cases with only one income-earning parent, the other has time to spend with the kids. In single-parent households, having to work makes the parent exhausted. They don’t have as much time or money. 

Well, duh. So far, the news here is just: it takes time and money to raise kids well, and single parents tend to have less of both. What, then, is the problem with what Kearney argues? 

The problem is that this banal, obvious fact can be responded to in a couple of different ways, and the way you respond to it depends on moral assumptions. You could say, for instance:

Single parents tend to have less free time and less money. This makes it harder for them to parent as well as those who have the time and money that two-parent households have. Therefore, we need to give single parents the time and money they need to be the best parents they can possibly be.

You could also respond this way:

It’s costly to raise a child. It also takes a lot of time. Therefore, a person on their own who has to work will struggle to raise a child. Two parents tend to have more time and money. Three parents would have yet more time and money, therefore we should encourage three-parent households. Better yet, we should make sure that every child is raised in a supportive community where lots of people are putting time into caring for them. It’s ludicrous to expect one or even two people to do the work. “It takes a village to raise a child.” 

But you could also, as Kearney does, respond that clearly what we need is more two-parent households. Which way you respond is a choice, and the choice of response can be influenced by values that we don’t notice we possess. 

Consider what Kearney says in the New York Times about her response to the (banal, obvious) data she accumulates showing that more income makes parenting easier: 

A higher level of income is a key mechanism through which married parents transmit advantages to their children. One-parent homes generally do not have the same income as two-parent homes. … Even if one thinks, as I do, that the United States should provide more support to low-income families with children in order to help children thrive and also to secure a stronger work force and future for our country, we will most likely never have a government program that fully compensates single parents with the equivalent of the annual earnings of a spouse who works full-time. Congress allowed the expanded child tax credit to expire at the end of 2021, rejecting a policy that provided families who met certain income thresholds with annual tax credits of $3,000 per child age 6 to 18 and $3,600 per child under 6. What are the odds that the government will start providing one-parent families with, say, benefits equal to the median earnings of an adult with a high school degree, which comes to around $44,000 a year? I would put the odds at zero. As long as that’s the case, income gaps between one- and two-parent homes will be substantial, and income matters a lot for kids’ prospects and futures. [emphasis added]

We can see here that Kearney’s belief that we need to encourage two-parent families is in part based on her disbelief in the possibility of a different solution, namely giving every parent adequate resources to raise a child well. I don’t think it’s warranted to say that the odds are “zero” that we will ever have a decent basic income for parents. But moreover, I think it is immoral not to demand that.

That’s because I believe that we should not be trying to find the right family structures to create the best life outcomes. Instead, we should be figuring out how to create the best life outcomes, taking people’s chosen family structures as a given.

To see why, let’s imagine an alternative. Imagine that we had a study of children in poverty. The study showed that when single parents rent out their child’s bedroom, and allow the child to sleep in their room, they have more money, which lets them support their child more, which improves children’s outcomes. You could conclude from this factual data that we ought to be encouraging single parents to take on lodgers. Or you could conclude that it’s a scandal that parents have to rent out their kids’ rooms if they want to give them a decent standard of living. 

We can imagine other, similar analogies, some of them darker. What if it turns out that when poor people are willing to have sex with their landlords, they save money and are able to give their kids better lives? Would you conclude from this data that we ought to encourage poor people to pay for housing with sex, in order to save money?

If you don’t think it’s a logical, objective conclusion that we ought to encourage taking on lodgers, or other ways to make money, that’s because you have some normative view of what people ought to versus ought not to be encouraged to do in order to have a decent standard of living. And you think that there are certain things you shouldn’t have to do in order to provide for your kids, because we should live in a country whose social policies ensure that people don’t have to make those choices. (Try another: parents who sell their organs on the black market have more money to spend on their kids, therefore there ought to be a normative view that parents should sell their organs.) 

I’m giving deliberately extreme examples that people are likely to agree on. (Except the libertarians at the Foundation for Economic Education, who are probably getting inspired to write a policy paper on why parents should sell their organs.) But whether you agree with Kearney about marriage also depends on normative assumptions about what parents should or should not have to do in order to be able to raise a child well. Personally, I do not think you ought to have to get married in order to give your child a good life. Because what if you don’t want to? What if you don’t find someone you can make that kind of commitment to? Should you force yourself into an unhappy loveless marriage? Of course not. It’s silly for the state to “encourage” marriage, unless we have some way to guarantee happy, mutually satisfying pairings.

Kearney shows that single parents have a harder time raising children well under certain conditions, namely the conditions of the contemporary United States, where individuals are left to fend for themselves, we’re atomized and isolated, and achieving a basic standard of living is really, really hard. She shows that under those conditions, you and your child are economically better off if there’s someone else with a second income in the household. (Her book never really explains why people need to actually be married in order to get the two-parent advantage. If, as she says, marriage is a “contract to pool resources”—economists are such romantics!—why can’t the resources just be pooled without a formal contract?) 

Okay, so in the shitty world of contemporary American capitalism, two parents are better than one, because time and money matter and both are hard to get on your own. But it’s a choice to say “and the conditions are fixed, we will never change them.” Kearney could have responded by saying that we need to do whatever it takes to make sure that any given family structure can succeed, remaining neutral on how to structure families because it is not the state’s business to tell people how their families ought to be organized. Instead, her conclusion is that the fundamental conditions that advantage two-parent families must remain in place. 

I think it is dishonest for Kearney to pretend she is simply presenting data without any ideological component. A social conservative looks at these data and says “Aha, we must get more people to marry!” A socialist looks at the same data and says “My God, we must make sure every parent has ample time and money to raise their children, and there is a supportive network of adults to care for every child and make sure parenting doesn’t burden any one person too much.” Moral ideas about what rights people have, and what they are owed, determine the choice of conclusion. Some don’t think people have the right to expect to be given resources to raise a child on their own. Others, like myself, see that right as fundamental, and our policy response to Kearney’s data is to help parents get what they need to thrive.

Kearney is not simply presenting facts. She’s making choices about what to emphasize and what not to emphasize that shape our discussion of how to respond to poverty. It’s not just a presentation of facts. It has underlying values. As James Medlock notes, this kind of narrative “starts with broadly true statements – single parenthood is tough and comes with disadvantages. Then it goes on to suggest we’re not spending enough of our welfare budget on dubious programs to encourage marriage.” Nicholas Kristof says the most important takeaways from Kearney’s analysis are: 

Two-parent families are beneficial for children.

The class divide in marriage and family structure has exacerbated inequality and class gaps.

Places that have more two-parent families have higher rates of upward mobility.

Not talking about these facts is counterproductive.

But we could say that poverty is not beneficial for children, and parents who work too much aren’t able to spend enough time with their kids. We could say that encouraging nuclear families rather than guaranteeing a decent standard of living to all families means that good fortune will be bestowed mainly on those kids with the luck to have parents whose marriages work. And we could respond to that by trying to make sure that what kind of family you have matters less for what your life outcomes will be, rather than trying to get people (against their presently-expressed desires) to form families they don’t seem interested in forming.

Kearney, to her credit, does emphasize a strong role for more generous social welfare programs, and she is emphatic that she does not believe (as the conservative right does) in stigmatizing single motherhood. But ultimately, her idea that it was a mistake to “normalize” one-parent families can’t help but stigmatize them. If you’re saying that two-parent families are better, you are saying that a parent who chooses not to marry is probably hurting their kids. (At one point in her book, Kearney says a cab driver she was speaking to “became flustered” because she pointedly asked him why he didn’t live with the mother of his child: “if you guys get along and you both love your daughter, why don’t you live together as a family?” However much she might insist there is no judgment here, and she was purely asking for research reasons, it clearly comes across as judgmental.) 

How about we take people as they are, and don’t try to socially engineer the proper kinds of family units? Kearney says she is responding to the “live and let live” tendency among liberal policy analysts, who have remained neutral on the question of what kind of family is right. Well, sorry, but I believe in “live and let live.” It is the business of people to enter the romantic relationships that suit them best. It is the business of the government to ensure that every child is guaranteed a decent life. The government should not try to achieve that end by prescribing a proper form of relationship. Instead of looking at single mothers in poverty and trying to eliminate single motherhood, why don’t we just eliminate poverty? 

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