The Two-Parent Privilege is Real
A review of Melissa Kearney's important new book.
The surge in economic inequality since the 1980s has led to an explosion of anxious commentary over the last decade. Once minimized or rationalized as the price of market dynamism by mainstream economists, the effects of this inequality are now impossible to ignore. From the decimation of manufacturing towns and deaths of despair to the national housing crisis and stubborn intergenerational poverty, too many working Americans have seen their life chances wither and vanish.
But while trenchant critiques of Wall Street and globalization have underscored the hardships suffered by the working class, particularly the acute impact of trade shocks on men without a college degree, most analysts have neglected the corresponding rise in low-income, single-parent households in the same period. Affluent, college-educated, two-parent families have continued to pull ahead, while there has been a marked increase in the percentage of families headed by less-educated single moms, many of whom struggle to secure the resources their children need to thrive.
Faced with this trend, many progressives might still ask: does family structure really matter for how we approach inequality and poverty? In her new book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, economist Melissa S. Kearney takes an unflinching look at how the fragmentation of the ordinary American family is, in fact, both an overlooked dimension and driver of modern inequality. “It is not only that lacking two parents makes it harder for some kids to go to college and lead a comfortable life,” Kearney contends. “In the aggregate, it also undermines social mobility and perpetuates inequality across generations.”
Backed with abundant data, Kearney argues the collapse of marriage as a social institution among lower-income families has compounded the demographic consequences of stagnant wages and the loss of steady employment in many sectors and regions. This phenomenon, she writes, is inextricable from the education gap, the geographic narrowing of economic opportunities, and policy decisions that have reinforced the advantages of the already well-off.
Kearney’s work is an important intervention, not least because she is a prominent liberal economist affiliated with the Brookings Institution. Our unending culture wars have made it difficult for progressives—even those advocating generous family policies—to talk openly about the highly stratified nature of the decline in two-parent homes and its implications for development and social cohesion. And this unease is accentuated by the complexity of the problems at hand.
As Kearney stresses, the decline in marriage among the less-educated and low-income is not something that can be solved through simplistic pro-marriage rhetoric or the anachronistic initiatives favored by social conservatives. In fact, the interrelated social problems exacerbated by falling marriage rates have become entrenched over time: poor, unsafe neighborhoods; budget-constrained public schools; single-mothers bereft of strong networks, good wages, and child support payments; absentee fathers; the dearth of “marriageable” men; addiction; and boys deprived of sound role models—these and other factors have created “a vicious cycle” that, Kearney warns, “we may not be able to reverse.” Any attempt to do so requires an honest assessment of how two-parent homes usually lead to better outcomes but also a clear-eyed view of how and why marriage norms have eroded in the last few decades.
Rather than be overly prescriptive, Kearney aims to tease out the relationship between economic insecurity and the class-basis of declining marriage rates and clarify the stakes for American society. Only by understanding how structural shifts in the U.S. economy have lessened the desirability and perceived benefits of marriage among the non-college-educated, she suggests, can we begin to think holistically about the kind of policies and concrete investments that would reduce inequality between families. Such policies may in time strengthen—without any regressive or suffocating cultural pressure—the marriageability of men and women whose skills and interests don’t readily conform to the expectations of today’s economy.
Among Kearney’s startling statistics, a few are especially worrisome. The first concerns the drop in partnered mothers that coincided with deindustrialization, huge tax cuts for the wealthy, and greater capital mobility. In 2019, 63 percent of American children lived with married parents, down from 77 percent in 1980; what’s more, according to Kearney, 29 percent of children whose mothers don’t have a college degree and 30 percent of children whose mothers lack a high school degree were without a second parent in their home.
Cohabitation outside of marriage, Kearney emphasizes, does not explain the pronounced drop in married mothers. Nor is the dramatic shift in marriage rates a reflection of college-educated and economically independent women raising children alone. The decline is instead concentrated among society’s lower rungs, whereas the college-educated are marrying at significantly higher levels. Trends suggest that despite the encouraging drop in teen pregnancy—a major issue in the 1980s and 1990s—the rise in single-mother households and overall decline in marriage have persisted despite that success. Kearney writes that in 2019, almost half of all U.S. babies were born to unwed mothers, up from just five percent in 1960.
These changes would not be so troubling if the material outcomes and nurturing of children raised by single mothers defied the loss of a stable father figure and his contribution to the family budget. But the reality is stark: over one in five households with an unpartnered mother live in poverty. The erosion of marriage—not simply as a cultural norm, but as a means to share resources, mutually support engaged parenting, and foster opportunities for young children—has been a defining feature of America’s widening socioeconomic disparities.
Might bold changes to U.S. welfare policy significantly improve the life chances of children with unpartnered mothers? Kearney is doubtful these would make a lasting difference in and of themselves. Though broadly supportive of redistributive measures that would expand mothers’ monthly budgets and increase quality family time—and a critic of the stringent and penurious standards effected by the bipartisan welfare reforms of 1996—Kearney argues the data is unambiguous: benefits flow to children in a two-parent home that cannot be duplicated easily through welfare programs. “Even if policymakers were to dramatically scale up government support and shrink income gaps between one- and two-parent families,” she writes, “there would still be meaningful differences in children’s experiences and outcomes.”
Some progressives may dispute this conclusion. But Kearney notes that in Denmark, an exemplar of the kind social democratic welfare policies many progressives wish to emulate, “the influence of family background on many child outcomes is about as strong as it is in the US.” At the very least, this suggests that even radical reforms cannot substitute in every instance for household and neighborhood environmental factors that promote stable families and limit harmful outcomes later in life.
The wider impact of family structure upon local communities is therefore an essential factor behind inequality, Kearney writes. And it matters for America’s persistent racial inequalities, too. The loss of manufacturing jobs and related issues severely damaged “the economic attractiveness of non-college-educated men,” as Kearney puts it, and has afflicted not just rural whites but generations of black men—a demographic that briefly enjoyed meaningful wage gains between the 1960s and late 1970s, before the full collapse of the New Deal order. Recrudescent economic disadvantages undermined black families and disproportionately put black boys at risk for behavioral issues and self-destructive choices in a society still plagued by racism. Indeed, Kearney rightly highlights the role that prejudice has played in the lives of black boys, from disciplinary measures at school to their encounters with the police and criminal justice system. As with the explosion of drug addiction and myriad mental health problems in low-income rural and urban neighborhoods alike, these extremely adverse experiences have further diminished the presence of “marriageable” men in working-class communities.
This outcome, Kearney writes, has had a demonstrable ripple effect that entraps whole neighborhoods in cycles of fracture and despair. Conversely, two-parent homes boost community stability and have been especially beneficial for black neighborhoods. Drawing on recent studies, Kearney writes that they not only provide a foundation for a child’s future success, but that the strong, steady presence of black fathers increases healthy outcomes and economic prospects for other local black boys as well.
Such evidence might lead some to think that parental training, fatherhood engagement, and “healthy marriage” programs will meaningfully change outcomes. But Kearney cautions that these kinds of programs, several of which have already been tested in recent decades, have had a very limited impact. Simply put, other environmental and economic factors that determine family formation must be taken into account. This brings us to critical questions about pre-distribution policies—that is, choices that strongly shape local conditions for working families and families-to-be—rather than programs that merely ameliorate harsh disadvantages that show no real signs of abating. Although Kearney does not use the concept of pre-distribution, she does emphasize the need to improve the economic position of non-college-educated men while also endorsing the importance of a more generous and accessible welfare state. And as illustrated by the temporary 2021 Child Tax Credit expansion, welfare programs can be structured to be more pre-distributive.
Here, it’s worth outlining a few ways in which policymakers might address the stark realities of Kearney’s “two-parent privilege.” Based on what we know from past cycles of inclusive economic growth, place-based industrial policies seem crucial to giving less-educated men a sense of purpose and direction. The “dignity of work,” a theme sounded by progressive populists such as Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), cannot be discounted, particularly for communities that have witnessed first-hand the ravages that follow plant closures and other job losses. As Kearney observes, crime and anomie end up stultifying neighborhoods and regions that have weathered disinvestment, leaving working mothers deprived of reliable partners and more children exposed to potential harm.
Much stronger investments in vocational training would be a logical, indeed necessary, component of any industrial policy specifically aimed at narrowing income gaps and supporting regional development. In addition to more routine investments in local infrastructure (not just one-off stimulus projects) and a robust federal commitment to early education, healthcare, and subsidies for enrichment programs, we can imagine a different ecosystem of resources that, cumulatively, may instill more working-class men with the confidence that they will make good partners and fathers.
That gendered aspect of the problems Kearney takes up is, in the end, unavoidable. She is careful not to stigmatize low-income, single mothers nor denigrate “so-called missing dads.” On the contrary, Kearney highlights the courage and grit it takes to raise children without a spouse while also acknowledging that long-term macroeconomic changes have made it much harder for huge swathes of men to obtain any kind of livelihood that would ensure more responsible and optimistic life decisions. But it is precisely this crisis of dignified work that makes Kearney worry structural inequality won’t improve anytime soon. Beneath today’s strong employment numbers, Kearney reminds us that, “Fifteen percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 are not in the workforce”—that’s despite the historically tight labor market that’s prevailed under President Biden.
On this score, it is hard to find fault with most of her arguments. Even if one is philosophically disinclined to advocate traditional marriage, or rightfully mindful of the heartache and abuse that can arise from an unhappy one, the upshot is clear: greatly improving economic prospects for less-educated men, regardless of race or ethnicity, would in all likelihood have a very positive impact on childhood outcomes and thus overall development standards. With a reasonable degree of confidence, we can conclude that would also mean a meaningful uptick in committed, two-parent households among the bottom eighty percent of wage earners.
Of course, for those who shrink from Kearney’s argument that society must somehow revive the norm of the two-parent home—and there are likely many—their reservations are well-founded. As Kearney herself makes clear, there are good reasons to avoid aggressive pro-marriage (and, for that matter, pro-natalist) schemes, in large part because they aren’t very effective but also because they could threaten historical advances toward women’s equality and autonomy. Already undercut by draconian anti-abortion laws in Republican-dominated states, these rights cannot be taken for granted.
The effectiveness of more subtle attempts to facilitate “marriageability,” such as place-based development, may also be hard to measure. As a matter of public policy, the starting points for tackling the dynamic between family structure and inequality are quite tricky; on top of all the conceivable pros and cons to be tallied, policymakers must be attuned to what today’s younger generations actually want. Even with the most sensitive appeals and propitious conditions, the decline of marriage may be a permanent fact of modern existence.
At the same time, Kearney’s skeptics would do well to weigh the costs of merely trying to manage patterns of poverty and dysfunction. They should likewise think more expansively about what inclusive growth means, and what its highest goals ought to be. The evidence presented suggests that, as a society, we should no longer deny what feels intuitive and true: healthy, productive, and hopeful lives are, for the most part, linked to stable two-parent homes, typically bound by marriage.
If the right investments and incentives gently convince more working couples that marriage is worth the risk, might that ultimately help realize a vision of America liberals are fighting for?
Justin Vassallo is a freelance writer who specializes in American political development and comparative/international political economy, with an additional focus on social democratic and progressive policymaking.