- Kearney’s is an intervention against the on-going silence around the problem of family breakdown, an appeal to members of her socioeconomic class to finally take it seriously. Tweet This
- One suspects Kearney emphasizes a spending-forward approach because it is the approach her target audience is willing to swallow. Tweet This
- The choice to get married, and to remain in a stable, two-parent relationship is not a purely economic one. Tweet This
In 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle made campaign trail headlines when he set his sites on the then-popular sitcom Murphy Brown. The night before, the show’s unmarried eponymous character had given birth to a son. “It doesn't help matters,” Quayle said, “when prime time TV has Murphy Brown—a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman—mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’”
The remark prompted swift backlash. President Bush fielded a wave of “Murphy Brown” questions at a press conference that afternoon; the show’s creator issued a denunciation; the New York Daily News said Quayle had called Brown a “tramp.” But almost a year later—after Quayle had lost reelection—a different response came in a long story that ran in the Atlantic. In it, journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead argued that the overwhelming majority of then-current social science supported the idea that divorce and single parenting were, all else equal, bad for children. The essay’s title, its message to the Atlantic’s primarily liberal audience? “Dan Quayle Was Right.”
Alarm about the collapse of the American family is not new. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan—then a policy planner in Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor, later a U.S. Senator—issued an urgent warning about the imminent collapse of the black family. Then, roughly a quarter of black children were born out of wedlock. Today, the figure is about 70%; the rate across all races is 40%.
In the time since the Moynihan Report, tens of thousands of words have been written or uttered about the problem of family breakdown. They have come from the right, as from Quayle; and from the left, as from Moynihan. They have been met occasionally with outrage, as in both men’s cases. But mostly, they have been met with silence.
It is against this backdrop that one should understand The Two-Parent Privilege, the new book from University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney. Kearney’s is an intervention against the on-going silence around the problem of family breakdown, an appeal to members of her socioeconomic class to finally take it seriously. For this, and for her clear mastery of the facts, Kearney deserves praise. But one doubts she will have much more of an impact than those who came before.
She was inspired to write the book, Kearney explains, after an academic conference on inequality, when she raised the idea that family structure might play a role. “As in earlier instances, this set of questions elicited a mute reaction,” Kearney relates. “Uncomfortable shifting in seats and facial expressions that conveyed reservations with this line of inquiry.” Subsequently, a colleague confronted her, asking anxiously whether it really mattered that kids’ parents are married, so long as they are being taken care of. Another colleague, Kearney relates, once “bristled” at the idea that family structure matters, “suggesting to me that I sounded ‘socially conservative’ in a way that implied ‘not academically serious.’”
It is these colleagues—and, by extension, the people in their socioeconomic milieu—who are the target of Kearney’s persuasion efforts. That is apparent from the title of the book, which is about “privilege” in the progressive sense. And it is apparent from Kearney’s more or less constant insistence that she is not trying to shame or judge anyone, just to draw her readers’ attention to a major source of socioeconomic inequality.
And to be sure, the book is as good an effort as any at achieving that. Kearney lays out the argument clearly and forcefully. There really is a two-parent privilege, in the sense that children of high socioeconomic status (SES) are much more likely to live with two parents than those of low SES. The children in one-parent households do substantially worse, on average, than those in two-parent households. This is not just a correlation, but driven by the fact that having two parents’ worth of labor matters: as Kearney puts it, “2 > 1.” The drop in marriage among the low-SES population is primarily a function of men’s declining relative earning potential, a la William Julius Wilson’s “marriageable men hypothesis.” And the rise of fatherlessness, in particular, reinforces this cycle, with boys seeing worse outcomes than girls.
All of these points will doubtless be familiar to anyone who routinely reads the IFS blog. But they are ably presented, with careful visualizations of the data and all the right citations. Kearney is clearly a great economist, and if you or someone you love is the type to be persuaded by economists (I certainly am), then this book is for you. Buy the book for yourself? Why not. Buy it for your left-leaning friend? Definitely.
It should be said, furthermore, that Kearney deserves applause for writing this book. We can bemoan the fact that talking about family upsets academics, but at the same time, we should admire the bravery of one who lays out the facts for an unsympathetic audience. Kearney is an accomplished figure: a tenured economics professor, director of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group, and a fellow of the prestigious National Bureau of Economic research, among many other appointments. That she is willing to wade into the family fray is admirable, to say the least.
That said, one cannot help but be pessimistic about Kearney’s agenda, for two reasons. One is that many of her policy recommendations come down to pulling economic levers: improve the relative economic position of low-earning men (by spending), increase transfers to families, invest in programs that show some evidence of improving parental behavior. There’s nothing wrong with these ideas, per se. But it is not as though investing in low-skilled men’s education or increasing the child tax credit are new ideas, and implementation of those policies have coincided with the continued decline of marriage.
Thus, the second reason for pessimism. One suspects Kearney emphasizes a spending-forward approach because it is the approach her target audience is willing to swallow. Fine, it makes sense, as her readers might say, to give parents a little more cash, train low-skilled men, and implement criminal justice reform—all things they favor anyway. But the choice to get married, and to remain in a stable, two-parent relationship is not a purely economic one. It is, in fact, primarily a matter of people’s individual normative judgements, insofar as any couple, rich or poor, can choose to stay together when it is good for their children. And the sort of person who dismisses a major cause of socioeconomic equality as too “socially conservative” to be taken seriously will never like the idea of such normative judgements.
After all, that notion—that parents should get married because it is what their children need to thrive—is what so offended Dan Quayle’s critics. But Quayle, as even the Atlantic belatedly admitted, was right. Kearney is not Quayle, but she is using a position of substantial influence to advance a position that earned him such ire. She deserves our praise for taking that stand. But if people are not willing to listen to the evidence that is, today, even more overwhelming than it was in 1993, then they are not willing to take the problem seriously, and any effort to get around it will be doomed to failure.
Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.