- Rothfeld doesn’t question Kearney’s analysis of the evidence, just the direction Kearney believes it points. Tweet This
- Regardless of ideological stances on whether or not it is possible for society to construct effective substitutes for marriage, only some of our children are benefitting from the Two-Parent Privilege today. Tweet This
- Rothfeld is right to suggest adding ways to supplement the affection and attention that children receive. But she is wrong to reject what already works just because it has worked for a long time. Tweet This
“Melissa S. Kearney looks hard at the data but doesn’t dare to imagine new possibilities for societal structure.” That was the subhead of Becca Rothfeld’s Washington Post review of Kearney's new book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind. Rothfeld portrays Kearney as unimaginative economist who fails to acknowledge and interrogate her controversial assumptions.
Just what assumptions are those?
First is Kearney’s claim that the contention that marriage benefits children is “the elephant in the room.” Rothfeld asks “But in which room is this bromide anything but a piece of the standard furniture?” I believe she answers her own question by treating the assertion that marriage benefits children like one of those grand entertainment center cabinets that don’t get floorspace—even in used furniture stores—thanks to the advent of flat screen TVs. In other words, she acknowledges that in another world, marriage might have benefitted children, but faults Kearney for promoting the outdated notion.
And yet Rothfeld also asks: “Is there any reason to conclude that marriage is the best solution, except that it is the solution that already (although perhaps not for much longer, if current trends continue apace) exists?” That is, in the same sentence where she asks whether marriage should be considered the best solution for children’s welfare, she simultaneously acknowledges that the current trends are pushing it aside (as if it were outdated furniture).
The crux of Rothfeld’s criticism is that Kearney fails to imagine a world in which affection and attention are not as privatized as they are now. She suggests that working to foster a new norm of communal child-rearing is a preferred alternative to taking the status quo (that there is a Two-Parent Privilege) for granted. In other words, Kearney’s second controversial assumption is that what works in today’s world should inform policy going forward.
I am sympathetic to the call to foster a new norm of communal child-rearing, especially because socioeconomic inequality is continuing to grow, and many children are being left behind. Kearney advocates material aid for children in single-parent families, and Rothfeld is right to suggest adding ways to supplement the affection and attention that children receive.
But she is wrong to reject what already works just because it has worked for a long time. Perhaps two-parent families are more like couches than oversized entertainment centers.
Recall that the Supreme Court struck down the requirement that local jurisdictions get legal permission to change voting practices (Shelby v. Holder). The majority held that because our society had advanced so far since voting practices effectively disenfranchised large numbers of Blacks, judicial review of voting practices was no longer necessary. The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg likened this logic to throwing away your umbrella because you are not getting wet.1
Kearney provided a great deal of empirical evidence that two-parent families provide a broader umbrella than single-parent families, but she was criticized for failing to imagine a world where all children stayed dry under a communal tarp. I think it would make sense to keep passing out the broader umbrellas while constructing other ways to stay dry.
More fundamentally, then, my answer to Rothfeld’s rhetorical question “Why must we continue to act like economists when we enter the realm of philosophy?” is that it makes more sense to include insights from social science when philosophizing about a brighter future for our children than to untether ourselves from existing evidence. Rothfeld doesn’t question Kearney’s analysis of the evidence, just the direction Kearney believes it points.
Even if fewer children live with two parents now than ever before, it is not unimaginative or controversial to find ways to make this family structure more available while remaining open to alternatives. Regardless of ideological stances on whether or not it is possible for society to construct effective substitutes for marriage, only some of our children are benefitting from the Two-Parent Privilege today. I thus join Richard Reeves in advocating for policies that prevent family instability as well as those that mitigate the costs for children affected by instability.
If Kearney really wants to determine whether the current situation is preferable to a realistic alternative, she ought to compare the outcomes of children in single-parent households with the outcomes of children in unstable or violent two-parent households.
That would make sense if unstable or violent two-parent households were the only path to single-parent households. Instead, many children’s parents split up even without significant conflict, and it is the children whose low-conflict homes are broken that suffer the most when their parents split. These are the children that stand to benefit most if we dare to imagine that the retreat from marriage does not have to continue apace.
Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.
1. My thanks to Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop page 81, for drawing my attention to Ginsberg’s commentary.