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Navigating conversations about the choice to raise a child alone can be quite challenging, as it often feels like there was no choice at all. In her groundbreaking work, The Two-Parent Privilege, Melissa S Kearney acknowledges that she isn’t passing judgment or shaming single parents. However, she firmly believes it is crucial to address the alarming increase in single parenthood in America. Kearney argues that this rise is negatively impacting the affected children, exacerbating inequality, and trapping kids in poverty.
The statistics presented in her book are striking. In 1980, 77% of American children lived with married parents, but by 2019, that number had fallen to 63%. This change was primarily concentrated among children of mothers without a college degree, making marriage increasingly accessible only to the wealthy. The situation in the US is extreme compared to the rest of the world. According to a Pew survey published in 2019, the percentage of children living with a single parent in the US was triple the global average.
With a writing style resembling a think-tank report rather than a biased opinion piece, Kearney, an esteemed economist at the University of Maryland, seeks to explain this trend. She disagrees with the notion that generous welfare benefits are to blame, as she believes they offer insufficient support. Instead, Kearney points to the declining economic opportunities for men without college degrees, whose earnings have stagnated over the past four decades. As men have become less marriageable, women have taken it upon themselves to navigate life independently.
The implications for the children involved are rooted in the understanding that childcare requires substantial financial resources, time, and emotional energy. Having two parents at home generally means more of each. Data from 2015 suggests that families in the top third of income brackets spend twice as much on their children compared to families in the poorest third. Growing up in a higher-income family, which is more feasible with two incomes, increases a child’s opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities. The financial strain makes the already demanding job of parenting even more challenging.
Kearney warns that this cycle of poverty perpetuates itself across generations. A study from 2004 discovered that a legal change making divorce easier was associated with lower education levels, decreased income, and higher divorce rates among the affected children. It appears that the outcomes for boys are particularly influenced by the amount of time spent with their parents. Additionally, black boys, who are more likely to grow up in single-parent households, face compounding challenges due to poverty and racism.
What can be done to address this issue? While mentoring programs can have positive effects on children, they are challenging to implement on a large scale. One trial of responsible fatherhood programs showed a slight increase in the time spent on activities like reading and playing with children, but it didn’t significantly impact the overall time spent together. This makes sense, as parenting classes can’t solve the root issues of economic instability, crime, or addiction. Additionally, they offer limited solutions when trust between parents is completely shattered.
Kearney advocates for economic policies that could make a difference. These policies include strengthening food stamps, child tax credits, housing subsidies, and childhood education programs aimed at helping children. Any steps taken to mitigate the advantages enjoyed by two-parent households would be beneficial. Another potential solution is directing significant resources towards public universities and community colleges to improve the circumstances of young men.
However, improving men’s economic prospects might still not be enough to increase their marriageability. For instance, the birth rate increased during the fracking boom, which improved the financial situation of young men. However, this increase was observed across both married and unmarried parents. Kearney urges policymakers to promote the norm of two-parent households for the well-being of children by emphasizing the benefits.
Readers may express concern that Kearney’s arguments could be misused by racists on the right. Nevertheless, she firmly believes that discussing the benefits of higher education doesn’t imply blaming or shaming those without it. The same principle should apply when discussing the advantages of two-parent families.
The Two-Parent Privilege: How The Decline In Marriage Has Increased Inequality And Lowered Social Mobility, And What We Can Do About It by Melissa S Kearney Swift Press £22, 228 pages/UCP $25, 240 pages
Soumaya Keynes is the FT’s economics columnist
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