I was raised for much of my childhood by a single mother. So I’ve always bristled at the notion that a two-parent family is inherently superior.
After all, the parenting I got couldn’t have been much better, and I know plenty of people who grew up in two-parent households and have complaints about how they were raised.
But I also believe in data. And in a new book, “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind,” University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney makes a convincing case that children who grow up in one-parent households are — on average — at a major economic disadvantage.
Two incomes, not surprisingly, tend to be greater than one. And two parents tend to have more hours to spend on their children. (Of course, averages are just that — some single parents have plenty of money. Some have plenty of time. And some have both.)
Forty years ago, in 1980, Kearney wouldn’t have had much material for a book. At that time, more than 80 percent of children lived with married parents, and the proportions weren’t very different for children with college-educated and non-college-educated parents.
But over the last few decades, we’ve started to pull apart. Now, 84 percent of kids whose moms have four-year degrees live with married parents. Less than 60 percent of kids whose moms don’t have a college degree live with married parents. “There has been a huge class divide in these trends,” Kearney told me. “And we can’t afford to ignore them anymore.”
Kearney writes that the problem has gotten so big and the inequities have become so considerable that they threaten to become a source of multigenerational divisions.
“Adults who have lower levels of education and earnings are less likely to get married and raise their children in two-parent homes,” she writes. “Their kids grow up with fewer resources and opportunities, and they don’t do as well in school as their peers from married, higher-income families. . . . Social mobility is undermined, and inequality persists across generations.”
Why have marriage rates shifted so radically since 1980? Much of the story may sound familiar: Lots of solid jobs — especially jobs for men with high school educations — disappeared. Some of those jobs were automated. Some went overseas. Many men saw their economic status fall.
Meanwhile, women became far more likely to head to college than men. In 1970, nearly 60 percent of college students were men. Now, nearly 60 percent of college students are women.
While men with college educations have thrived economically, those without a college degree have — on average — seen their economic status decline relative to women. And at its unromantic core, marriage is a contract. “That makes the economic proposition or value of marriage less attractive to those affected populations,” says Kearney.
This sets the United States apart from much of the world. Here, 23 percent of children are raised in one-parent households. Worldwide, the average is 7 percent (15 percent in Canada and 7 percent in Mexico).
What’s really important to note is that no one should have to stay in a marriage that’s bad for them or their children. There are all sorts of reasons to exit a relationship, and it’s wrong to question or stigmatize other people’s choices. Single parents are working super, super hard — as anyone who has been or knows a single parent will tell you.
But there is a large-scale trend here that is worth talking about, because not talking about it won’t make it go away. And its impacts on kids are enormous.
Kearney emphasizes that the marriage contract itself has little meaning to the welfare of children. If lots of couples were essentially married — and just didn’t want to formalize the paperwork at City Hall — kids would benefit economically and timewise. But that’s not what’s happening in large numbers in the United States, she says. Instead, many, many single parents — mostly moms — are managing households alone.
This is also, she emphasizes, not a story of divorce. Divorced parents tend to receive child support at far higher rates than never-married parents, which offers their children a more solid economic foundation. This is a story of a recent explosion in unmarried parents.
For years, of course, we’ve fretted that income inequality is out of control, that the haves and have-nots increasingly shop at different stores, live in different places, and access health care and education in widely divergent ways.
Now, as marriage has become much more common among the upper middle class than among the lower class, that inequality is spiraling. Between the early 1970s and the early 2000s, the richest 10 percent of Americans went from spending less than $3,000 per child each year to spending north of $6,000 per child each year (adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile, those in the middle of the income distribution spent between $1,000 and $2,000 per child in the early 2000s, much as they did in the early 1970s.
“And by the way,” Kearney notes, “those numbers understate it. Because those numbers don’t even include housing costs. So if one of the things that rich parents are doing the most to invest in their kids is move to expensive suburbs that have the best schools, that would make these gaps look even wider.”
Is there a way to reverse these trends?
Kearney argues that no matter what choices parents have made, kids should get a good start in life. Which means dramatically expanding the safety net for low-income families. Nearly a hundred years ago, when far too many seniors were living in poverty, we decided that situation was unacceptable. Kearney believes we should deem child poverty similarly unacceptable and potentially create a counterpart to Social Security for kids. And we should energetically aid parents seeking to improve their economic status and that of their families.
But Kearney believes we should go beyond that — and try to change relationships in America. She advocates funding programs through Health and Human Services that strengthen parental bonds and support parents in helping their children flourish. Wealthy people, of course, already have access to precisely these sorts of resources through marriage counseling, nannies, enriched preschools, and on and on.
Even the media, she says, could help promote the idea that two-parent families are good for kids (while committing to never stigmatizing single parents). And there are precedents for that sort of campaign: the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, for example, as well as various anti-smoking campaigns.
Like many other people, I find this topic uncomfortable to talk about, in part because single parents often do a fantastic job. But I also feel uncomfortable ignoring the increasingly divergent realities that kids face: the increased chance they will live in poverty if they are in a single-parent household, the increased chance they won’t graduate from college.
If we care about inequality, we have to start caring about family structure. If we care about inequality, we cannot embrace the fact that marriage is fast becoming a luxury good, a way for those who are already successful to solidify their status.
Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.