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All the Single Ladies
We know marriage is good for men, women, and children—so why is talking about it taboo?
ECONOMIST MELISSA KEARNEY ISN’T ANYONE’S idea of a conservative culture warrior. A self-described “hard-headed albeit softhearted” economist, she has studied poverty, inequality, and family structure for more than 20 years and come to the conclusion that America’s drift away from the two-parent norm has “contributed to the economic insecurity of American families, has widened the gap in opportunities and outcomes for children from different backgrounds, and today poses economic and social challenges that we cannot afford to ignore.”
She is hardly alone among her social science peers in reaching this conclusion. As she relates in her new book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, these insights are more or less commonplace among those who study the matter. The facts aren’t in serious dispute—the wisdom of saying it out loud is another matter. Wary of seeming preachy—or worse, conservative—most social scientists recoil from talking about family structure when considering the matter of poverty and child outcomes. As Kearney writes, there was “uncomfortable shifting in seats and facial expressions that conveyed reservations” whenever she would raise these issues at academic conferences.
Unsurprisingly, her book has been greeted skeptically by progressives and enthusiastically by conservatives. Progressives were quick to label Kearney a “scold” and to object that they were being “lectured” to get married.
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As someone who has been a combatant in the marriage wars for many decades, it’s interesting to see how the arguments have shifted. A number of commenters on Kearney’s book have responded that, sure, everybody’s for marriage, but there are obstacles (usually placed by conservatives) in the way for the poor and working classes.
But not everyone has always been for marriage. Not at all.
As I documented in my own book, Sex Matters, the liberal view on marriage was distinctly hostile in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminists joined hands with the sexual revolutionaries to overturn all the bourgeois norms about sex and family. Kate Millet’s bestselling prescription for happiness, Sexual Politics, included a call for:
an end to traditional sexual inhibitions and taboos, particularly those that most threaten patriarchal monogamous marriage: homosexuality, “illegitimacy,” adolescent, pre- and extra-marital sexuality . . . The goal of revolution would be a permissive single standard of sexual freedom, and one uncorrupted by the crass and exploitative economic bases of traditional sexual alliances.
Millet’s revolutionary zeal was matched by Germaine Greer, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Steinem, and many others. If pseudo-academic prose wasn’t your thing, the era produced a bumper sticker that summed up the mood of second wave feminism: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
Feminists argued that marriage was essentially a male conspiracy to keep women unfulfilled, submissive, and servile. Radical feminists scorned married women for “sleeping with the enemy.” Both no-fault divorce and eliminating the stigma of unwed childbearing were touted by liberals and feminists as liberating and empowering for women.
Their arguments carried the day, or at least contributed to what came next. Marriage rates have plunged in the past 50 years. As Kearney documents, 85 to 90 percent of men between 30 and 50 were married in the 1960s and marriage rates were similar among people of all classes and education levels. By the 1980s, those trends diverged. College-educated men’s marriage rates leveled off at about 72 percent, while rates for high school/some college men dropped to 54 percent and rates for high school dropouts sank to just above 50 percent. Trends for women followed the same pattern, but with high school grads and dropouts converging in 2020.
The consequences for children were stark. In 1980, 77 percent of American children lived with their married parents. By 2019, only 63 percent did. There is a large class divide in these data. Among the college-educated, 84 percent of children still live with married parents, which is a solid majority, if down a bit from 90 percent in 1980. But among those with a high school degree or some college, only 60 percent of children are living with married parents (down from 83 percent). So today when you enter a hospital nursery, 4 out of 10 babies will be children of single moms. As significant as the class divide is, the racial divide is wider. In 1960, 67 percent of black children lived with their married parents. In 2019, only 38 percent did.
As Kearney carefully documents, children in mother-only homes are five times more likely to live in poverty than children with two parents. And children in father-only homes were twice as likely to be poor as those in married-couple homes. Poverty is not conducive to thriving, but even for kids who are not poor, those who grow up with only one parent fare worse than others on everything from school to work to trouble with the law. And the consequences of fatherlessness are more dire for boys than girls. Boys raised without fathers and/or without good adult male influences in their lives are less likely to attend college, be employed as adults, or remain drug-free.
Well, objects feminist commentator Jill Filopovic, rates of single parenting are higher in red states than blue states, so clearly progressive social policies aren’t to blame. Not so fast. Many of the red states Filopovic points to are also poor states, and as noted above, single parenting and poverty go together. But some of the states with the lowest levels of single parent households are the most conservative—Utah, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho.
It’s unfair to suggest, as many of Kearney’s critics have, that she is a scold. She’s not chastising single mothers. Her book overflows with sympathy for the difficulties of raising kids alone. If she’s scolding anyone it’s the educated class that has imposed omertà on the subject of family structure. Nor is she unaware that some marriages cannot be saved and that many kids raised by single parents turn out fine.
Progressives tend to respond to the family gap with calls for more government support for single-parent families. Kearney is fine with that, and advocates it herself. But her book is realistic about the limits of financial resources to address this problem. Two parents provide more to kids than money. She notes that a “child born in a two-parent household with a family income of $50,000 has, on average, better outcomes than a child born in a single-parent household with the same income.”
One reason is that two parents share the stress of parenting—the sleep deprivation, the appointments, the scheduling conflicts, the missed work, the terrible twos—the lot. When there are two parents to share the load, both have more “emotional bandwidth” to meet their children’s needs and more opportunity to take care of themselves. In true economist style, Kearney notes that having two adults permits for “task specialization.”
Frankly, the case that two are better than one when it comes to raising children is open and shut.
But the critics do raise a point that Kearney cannot answer—and neither can I. It’s the problem posed by the Washington Post’s Christine Elba, among others, who agrees that two-parent families are best and that marriage is the gold standard, but:
Single mothers do understand that a two-parent household would probably be better-resourced to raise a child. Their problem is that in real life, plausible marriage partners for heterosexual women are thin on the ground. All the elite infighting in the world won’t change the fact that a good man is increasingly hard to find.
This is indeed the trap door that has opened beneath women today. Fifty years of fatherless homes have produced a large number of men who cannot shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood. Many men raised by single mothers do fine, of course, including two who recently became president, but that doesn’t contradict the larger point that a significant percentage of fatherless boys grow up to be aimless and lost men. A 2012 Pew study found that among never-married adults aged 25 and older, 32 percent of women had college or postgraduate degrees, compared with only 25 percent of men in the same cohort. The same survey found that single women place a high value on a potential spouse being employed, but fewer men are in the labor force than in the past.
There may not be a solution for all of today’s single women who are hoping for marriage. Pew estimates that one in four unmarried adults (as of 2012) would likely never marry. But for the kids who are growing up now, Kearney does have ideas. These include increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit and other programs that will enhance the economic position of low-income men, scaling up the efforts of groups like Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Becoming a Man, promoting and supporting co-parenting among non-married couples, and above all, reviving the norm that marriage is best for kids.
As a bonus, it’s also good for grownups.