The 74 Interview: Melissa Kearney on ‘The Two-Parent Privilege’

This is a photo of Melissa Kearney.
This is a photo of Melissa Kearney.

Melissa Kearney begins her new book, The Two-Parent Privilege with a scene from an academic conference she attended a few years ago.

After days speaking with colleagues about declining U.S. employment and social mobility, the University of Maryland professor asked whether scholars should give more thought to the condition of families. Given their centrality to children’s life prospects, she reasoned, the policy community seemed oddly disengaged from discussions about parenting and household structure. In particular, the gradual increase in one-parent homes didn’t receive expert scrutiny in proportion with its importance to schooling and workforce preparation.

As Kearney expected, her inquiry was met with an uncomfortable quiet. In her experience, while social scientists were willing to acknowledge America’s undeniable trend toward single parenting, especially among the poor and working class, they were reluctant to weigh its consequences — and somewhat skeptical that anything could be done about it. Compared with subjects like taxation, welfare and finance, she writes, families are a seldom-discussed “elephant in the room.”

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But her background as both an economist and a mother of three has given her an ideal perspective on the changing face of family life. Throughout years researching income inequality and social assistance, Kearney has often framed her work explicitly in the context of family formation. Her recent studies of declining birth rates have influenced public discussions of K–12 enrollment and finance as school leaders scramble to cope with rapidly declining class sizes.

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The patterns laid out in The Two-Parent Privilege are stark, though they may not come as a shock to educators. Between 1980 and 2019, Kearney writes, the proportion of American children living with married parents fell from 77 percent to 63 percent. But families vary wildly along lines of education and class: Among children of mothers with four-year college degrees, 84 percent live with married parents (a decline of six percentage points over four decades), while the same figure fell by 23 points (from 80 percent to 57 percent) among children of mothers who didn’t finish high school.

The thrust of the book isn’t doomsaying or disapproval, and Kearney does not advocate a return to “traditional” families with breadwinner fathers and homemaker mothers. Yet she doesn’t shy from reporting the “substantial disadvantages” faced by children raised by single parents, including much harder roads to attaining higher education and earning a middle-class wage. If marriage increasingly becomes a luxury good, the inevitable consequence will be to deepen society’s divides and further encumber disadvantaged children.

The strained family resources granted to children in single-parent homes — whether measured in time, attention, or emotional bandwidth — can also be felt in classrooms, Kearney argues. With teacher burnout soaring as schools tackle the post-COVID academic recovery, schools may have to rely on family support more than ever.

“It’s too much to ask teachers to not only do the job they’re trained and paid to do, but also make up for what kids aren’t getting at home,” she said. “How many more school counselors can we hire, and how much can we pile on top of schools’ mandate, before we decide to take a look at kids’ home lives and think about addressing that directly?”

In a conversation with The 74’s Kevin Mahnken, Kearney discussed why she wrote The Two-Parent Privilege and whether anything can be done to address the problems it identifies.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: You call the importance of parenting and family structure the “elephant in the room” when it comes to policy discussions. What makes those things so hard to talk about?

Melissa Kearney: In our own lives, we all quietly acknowledge how important parenting is. Those of us who have kids spend inordinate amounts of time trying to be good parents to our kids and worry about whether we’re parenting correctly.

But this subject also feels very private. People don’t want to sound judgmental of others, and we bristle when others sound judgmental about our parenting decisions. So whether or not people raise their kids in a married, two-parent home is, on the one hand, one of the most personal decisions they make, but it’s also an incredibly consequential decision for kids. And because families are the fundamental economic and social unit of our society, we can’t talk about things like inequality and child wellbeing at the aggregate level without talking about the impact of parenthood.

Economist Melissa Kearney released her book, <em>The Two-Parent Privilege</em>, in July. (University of Chicago Press)
Economist Melissa Kearney released her book, The Two-Parent Privilege, in July. (University of Chicago Press)

What makes it all the more complicated is that there are differences by socioeconomics, race, and ethnicity. We need to be both honest and empathetic about why those differences exist and what it says about the barriers to marriage and forming two-parent homes. And another issue I’ve encountered is that once you start acknowledging that single-parent homes are generally a disadvantageous home structure for children — and for single women, frankly — you start to sound like you might not want to celebrate the economic achievements of women. There’s a potentially anti-feminist sound to that line of argument, and it’s another thing that raises people’s hackles about whether this is something appropriate to talk about.

You don’t sound surprised by that political dynamic. 

I’ve been talking more and more to younger journalists about this, and they ask directly, “Do people not want to talk about this because it makes them sound Republican?”

Isn’t that interesting? I’m very aware of the social science controversy that stems from differences across socioeconomic, and racial/ethnic groups, and I am pretty close to the feminist struggle and that debate. But for the generation of journalists and academics in their 20s and 30s now, their world is so polarized by political identity that they might just think, “This sounds Republican” and not want to talk about it.

Do you find it ironic that this subject is something of a taboo among educated professionals? I think it’s safe to say that most writers and academics who have kids do so after getting married, and they tend to be quite active parents. Yet they seem reluctant to preach what they practice.

This is so true. I’ve yet to encounter an audience that is as uncomfortable with this topic as the scholars and think-tankers who, as you say, are predominantly raising their kids in two-parent homes. What’s been interesting to me is that the single moms I’ve spoken to have really opened up about why it’s hard for them to do everything by themselves.

“I’ve yet to encounter an audience that is as uncomfortable with this topic as the scholars and think-tankers who are predominantly raising their kids in two-parent homes.”

I’ve spoken more and more with people affected by the issues I’m writing about, and the other interesting thing I’ve heard from them is that many have never really thought about their challenges in these terms. This is just their reality: They’ve been dealt a crappy hand, and they don’t often stop and wonder, “How come all those women with college degrees have partners to help them all day, and I’m doing it all by myself? What are the society-level barriers that disproportionately put me — and my sisters and cousins and friends — in this position?”

It’s a luxury for us to be able to sit and decide that we don’t want to discuss this topic.

You describe marriage as an institution that’s great at conferring both resources and stability. Do you distinguish between the benefits of material resources, like extra money to pay for tutoring or summer camp, and the emotional or psychological advantages that kids get from having two parents at home?

Using the data sets and source modeling that I’m familiar with as an economist, it’s more accessible for me to think about the benefits of marriage primarily as an increase in resources. But I define resources broadly.

Increased income, for example, is a clear benefit that comes from having married or two-parent households. That’s not just because people with higher levels of income are more likely to get married, it’s because a committed, two-parent couple brings in the resources of two people. Of course, it’s not surprising that two-parent households tend to have twice as much income as one-parent households because in the majority of families, mothers now work.

It’s true across the spectrum of education and class. Unmarried, college-educated mothers bring in much less household income than two college-educated parents. On the opposite end of the education distribution, if you’re looking at mothers with just high school diplomas, they also earn about half as much as someone with the same education level who is also married or has a partner in the house with a high school diploma.

Some social scientists look at this phenomenon and say, “That’s something the government can actually address, so we can talk about that.” And in theory, the government can address income differences between single parents and couples. But as a practical matter, we’re just not in a position where the government will start sending checks to households that equal the earnings of another working adult.

A second parent also brings their time, which frees up the time of the first parent. Married mothers are able to spend more time with their kids because somebody else is helping to do all the other stuff that needs to happen in order to make a household run. And this relates to another resource that parents invest in their kids, which is emotional bandwidth.

Raising kids takes a lot of energy and patience, and when there’s a second person in the house that you can tap into for all kinds of things — paying your bills, reading to your kids, driving them around — there’s more emotional bandwidth to engage in what developmental psychologists say is the most beneficial kind of parenting: nurturing parenting, less authoritative parenting. It feels commonsensical, but something we see in studies is that single mothers are more likely to resort to, let’s say, harsher parenting strategies.

When I say something like that, it might make you think, “Gee, that sounds awful and judgmental.” But I’m not blaming single mothers. If I didn’t have a partner that I could lean on when I was stressed, I can assure you that I would also be much harsher, more often, with my kids. There’s no moral failing here. When resources are strained, it’s harder to parent the way you want.

Kids eventually bring their home lives to school with them. Are we essentially asking educators to supply some of the attention, time, and emotional support that many kids in single-parent homes have had to go without? And is that a realistic goal to assign to them?

What happens in the classroom is not my expertise. But from talking to teachers and looking at the numbers of kids showing up in public schools with academic and emotional deficits, it’s pretty obvious that we’re asking a ton of schools and teachers these days.

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A big part of my motivation to write this book was this sense that we can’t just keep saying, “We need to improve schools!” We’re telling teachers to teach students, but first they have to recognize their trauma and deal with the fact that many of them aren’t able to sit and learn all day. It’s too much to ask teachers to not only do the job they’re trained and paid to do, but also make up for what kids aren’t getting at home. How many more school counselors can we hire, and how much can we pile on top of schools’ mandate, before we decide to take a look at kids’ home lives and think about addressing that directly?

That’s the question I’ve arrived at from talking to teachers and reading about what’s going on in schools. Someone else — ideally someone who studies K–12 education more specifically — needs to sketch out the relationship between the decline in the stable, two-parent home and the teacher burnout and disciplinary problems we’re seeing in schools. But I don’t think we can keep having this same conversation about schools needing to improve without being honest about what’s going on in kids’ homes, how it has changed over time, and how much it determines their readiness to learn and their ability to behave in the way schools need them to.

In the book, you cite numerous studies showing that children born to unmarried parents or raised in single-parent homes experience worse educational and economic outcomes later in life. But is there a lot of research evidence examining the links between family structure and behavior in school?

There is a ton of descriptive evidence that is really compelling on that subject, but I want to clarify that I’m looking for more investigation of the links between home environment and teacher burnout and turnover. My guess is that it’s high, and now that I’m saying it out loud, I could probably think of some ways that scholars might look at that.

“It’s too much to ask teachers to not only do the job they’re trained and paid to do, but also make up for what kids aren’t getting at home.”

There’s a paper by Miriam Bertrand and Jessica Pan called “The Trouble with Boys,” which includes nationally representative data on enough kids that they were able to look at sibling comparisons. What they show is that boys from single-parent homes are significantly more likely than their sisters to get in trouble at school, relative to boys and their sisters in two-parent households. This is important because we know that boys are more likely to act out at school.

I want to be clear that none of this is to say that boys are necessarily more disadvantaged than girls by being raised in a single-parent home. We know from the psychology literature that girls are more likely to internalize stress and depression. Compared with boys, they don’t act out as much in the ways that will get them suspended from school. But if we grant the fact that boys are disproportionately more likely to engage in that kind of behavior, that gender gap is larger for kids that come from single-parent homes.

The researchers then go further and ask why that is. In these data that reveal all sorts of things about children’s home lives, they see that boys raised by single mothers get less time with their moms and are more likely to be exposed to harsher punishment; as one example, they’re more likely to be spanked. What’s interesting is that the differences in parenting are not particularly large, but boys are especially responsive to those differences. In plain English, here’s the way I think about that: If I didn’t spend as much time as my daughter — if I parented her less — she still wouldn’t be very likely to act out and get suspended from school. But if my son were struggling, and I ignored him or was harsher in parenting him, he’d be particularly responsive to that in a way that would make him especially likely to get in trouble.

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You devote a chapter to the difficulties faced by boys raised apart from their fathers, who often struggle to mature into suitable partners and fathers themselves. Do you think your analysis dovetails with the common finding, prominently expressed in Richard Reeves’s book Of Boys and Men, that boys are somehow more vulnerable than girls to setbacks at home and in school?

That idea is a pretty good summary of my read of the literature. There’s a really interesting paper that came out in recent years supporting this idea — that boys are particularly disadvantaged when dads aren’t around — but it’s from a very different perspective.

That paper comes out of the Opportunity Insights lab, which is run out of Harvard by [economist] Raj Chetty. They look at the neighborhood characteristics that are predictive of adult earnings, and they find that the factor that is most associated with smaller earnings gaps between white and African American men is the presence of African American dads in a given neighborhood. This suggests that having those dads in the neighborhood is good for all African American boys, beyond the benefit of having one’s own father in the house.

(National Bureau of Economic Research)
(National Bureau of Economic Research)

These findings are predictive, rather than causal, which means that if you ask what it is about having these dads in the neighborhood that’s causally good for boys, we’d have to speculate. But it really lends credence to the idea that an absence of dads within the home, and within the neighborhood, is really associated with worse outcomes for those boys growing up.

That paper was a huge deal. I seem to remember that the finding about fathers wasn’t exactly soft-pedaled, but I saw its importance emphasized more in conservative outlets than, say, the New York Times.

The germ of this idea of writing a book came a number of years ago. I was asked to discuss the first Chetty et al. paper, which tracked the geography of mobility across places. After Raj gave his presentation, I got up and pointed to a figure in the paper that shows that the factor most highly correlated with upward mobility is the share of two-parent homes in their neighborhoods.

(Opportunity Insights)
(Opportunity Insights)

Even at the time, I was thinking, “This is really challenging for us as economists because it’s not what we talk about, and it’s not what we know how to change. But looking at this figure, none of the things we talk about — Earned Income Tax Credit progressivity, college tuition — none of them matter nearly as much as the share of homes with two parents. So we need to shift our attention.”

Frankly, a lot of people don’t want to shift our attention, including some of the authors of those papers. If you look at the policy briefs at Opportunity Insights, including the one I just mentioned, they sort of downplay this finding. It’s really important that we don’t downplay it, and we don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s screaming to be acknowledged.

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Not long after reading that paper, I ran across the story of Dads on Duty, which I mention in the book. It’s hokey, but I’m fundamentally hokey at heart. There was a school in Shreveport, Louisiana, where fights were breaking out all the time, and the adults just couldn’t get it under control. But a group of fathers in the neighborhood got together and said, “We’re putting ourselves on duty: We’re going to hang out at the school and go to the football games.”

They don’t punish the kids, and they don’t act like security guards. They’re just there to keep a watch on the kids and make them laugh. I thought, “Ah, this is how dads act as a public good in their neighborhoods.” That anecdote helped me make sense of this finding, and it also illustrates the burden that kids’ changing home lives is placing on schools.

All of this probably jibes with people’s expectations about family and child-rearing. But isn’t your analysis contradicted by the fact that out-of-wedlock births and single-family homes have increased dramatically over the last half-century — dating all the way back to the 1965 Moynihan Report, which was the landmark acknowledgment of this trend — and if anything, young people seem to be better off? Test scores, high school graduation, and college enrollment are all up in recent decades, while bad outcomes like teen pregnancy and juvenile crime rates are down.

Future U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan authored a landmark 1965 report on African American families. (Wikimedia Commons)
Future U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan authored a landmark 1965 report on African American families. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is a really important question. I’ve run some simulations of this just for myself, but I wound up leaving them out of the book because those kinds of simulations always rely on a whole bunch of assumptions. The point I would raise is that mothers have gotten much older and more educated over time, and teen childbearing has plummeted.

Based on that, we would expect that kids are entering into much better-resourced home lives and consequently doing much better over time.

Just from the fact that kids are now so much more likely to be born to mothers with higher education, and who are better able to provide for their kids and set up their households, we would expect to see a reduction in child poverty and associated challenges. But had rates of two-parent and married parent homes remained what they were in the 1980s alongside those other changes, I think we would have seen kids do that much better. Economists always say this, and it’s annoying, but it’s all about the counterfactual.

“It ‘s really important that we don’t downplay it, and we don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s screaming to be acknowledged.”

So, yes, kids are doing better. Racial gaps in kids’ test performance have been closing. There have been all sorts of gains. But I do think that, had we not had this increase in one-parent homes, those gains would have been even larger. Simulating the counterfactual is really hard, but it’s sort of remarkable to think of the share of kids born to mothers with a college degree, for example. It’s so much higher than it was 20 or 40 years ago, and if you think college-educated moms are in a better position to give their kids enriching home environments, we would expect children’s outcomes to have improved over this period.

That brings us to another trend you explore in the book: that of highly educated and career-focused women struggling to find good candidates for marriage and domestic partnership (i.e., stable, employed men who are interested in having kids). This results in some women putting off marriage, or foregoing it entirely, and sometimes opting to raise kids on their own.

Exactly. And it’s another reason why people might bristle at my negative characterization of the rise of single-mother homes. An immediate reaction is, “But we don’t want to go back to a world where women are dependent on men and have no choice but to be in a lousy relationship.”

I wholeheartedly agree with that. We really don’t want a return to a situation where women don’t have the opportunities to financially provide for themselves, and that’s my position even if doing so would mean that we would have higher marriage rates. I can hold that thought in my head while simultaneously thinking that it’s not advantageous for anybody that economically vulnerable women have to do this all by themselves.

(The Two-Parent Privilege)
(The Two-Parent Privilege)

To be clear, it’s not just that non-college-educated men are more likely to be out of work than they used to be. They are more likely to be out of work, and non-college-educated women are more likely to have access to economic opportunity. Both of those things contribute to a reduction in marriage. Those trends raise the question of why so many men are not presenting as viable marriage partners. That could be true from their own perspective — they don’t feel like they can take care of a family, so they’re shying away from it — or from the perspective of women, who choose not to marry them because they don’t seem to have what it takes to be a reliable partner and provider. Whichever side is making that decision, we’re at an equilibrium where the value proposition of marriage is lower outside the college-educated class.

I think this raises a really important conceptual question: If, as you say, marriage is increasingly correlated with education and class, how do we know that marriage itself is actually doing anything important? The children of relatively affluent and educated couples might do better even if their parents weren’t married, right?

When you talk about the middle class, it depends on what you mean.

One way we could think about the middle class is just “people with a high school degree.” Those people are essentially sitting at the middle of the education distribution, but they are now much less likely to get married and set up a two-parent household than they were 20 years ago.

So it’s not just the middle and upper classes pulling away from the disadvantaged; it’s the college-educated class, which is really the upper-middle class. The highest-income people are the ones who are really pulling away in terms of marriage rates.

It’s important to make that point because this phenomenon has contributed to the erosion of middle-class economic security. Again, it depends on whether you want to call someone with a high school degree, but no college degree, “middle-class.” It’s a reasonable thing to do, and then you can ask why the middle class feel like it’s struggling now. Part of the answer is that they’re much more likely to only have one parent and one potential earner in the house.

But you can also look within education groups and just compare the middle-class kids whose parents are married versus those whose parents are not. For those with married parents, their household has a higher income. They’re more likely to graduate high school, more likely to go to college, and more likely to earn more in adulthood. These differences are not just about who’s getting married, but they are magnified by the class distinctions in who’s getting married.

And it seems to be cyclical. As you put it, this decline in marriage is “both a cause and a consequence of the economic and social challenges facing our nation.”

One thing I think it’s useful to remember is that there were massive cultural changes in the 1960s and ’70s. Following that period, we saw marriage rates decrease pretty evenly across the education distribution. Everyone moved away from marriage, to an extent, given the social and cultural changes of that era.

What happened in the ’80s and ’90s is that the decline in marriage stabilized among college-educated men and women, even as it kept falling for everyone else. At the same time, we were also living through global economic changes that disproportionately benefited the college-educated class and disproportionately harmed those without a college degree.

When we piled those economic changes on top of new social and cultural norms, we got this perfect storm that diminished the economic security of non-college-educated workers and led to a reduction in employment among non-college-educated men. In turn, that led to a decline in marriage and a rise in single-parent households. We have research showing that this isn’t just a correlational statement, there were causal relationships at play. In other words, you have economic shocks leading to comparatively higher levels of two-parent homes among an already economically advantaged group. And because marriage and two-parent homes are economically advantageous situations, those kids have tons of resources thrown at them, and the gaps in kids’ childhood experiences become wider than if they have arisen from income inequality by itself.

In the end, we’ve got this terrible perpetuation of inequality transmitted across generations, such that college-educated people enjoy all the advantages that the economy delivers to them; that’s combined with an advantageous household structure that allows their kids to experience tons of resources and opportunities; those kids are more likely to be academically prepared for college and earn a degree; and they’re more likely to marry another college-educated worker and perpetuate the cycle for advantage for their own children. That’s the cause-and-effect cycle.

I suspect that another reason why policymakers don’t pay more attention to marriage and family formation is that it’s unclear if the public sector can actually do anything to change things. I’m reminded in particular of the George W. Bush administration’s totally failed efforts to raise marriage rates in the 2000s. But are there ways that policy changes can move the needle here?

I definitely think this is one reason why social scientists have been less likely to highlight declining marriage rates, including those of us who are inclined to see them as a problem. We don’t have an obvious policy lever to pull.

I was definitely one of those social scientists who derided the Bush administration’s Healthy Marriage Initiative. I looked at the same results as everyone else, and it looked like they threw money at this problem and didn’t increase marriage at all. But I’ve softened my position in the following way: The bucket of money that was given to the Administration for Children and Families has shifted its scope from trying to encourage marriages to trying to strengthen families. That’s an important goal because a lot of families really do face barriers to setting up a two-parent household and enjoying a healthy marriage between parents, and we need to meet those families where they are. The government can support community programs that work with vulnerable or fragile families.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Another reason I’ve softened a bit is that when you read the interviews with low-income, unmarried couples who have enrolled voluntarily in these programs, they talk about wanting a stable marriage. They may want what other families have, but they don’t quite know how to achieve it. So instead of thinking about these programs as the government swooping in and telling people they should be married — and mostly not being listened to — we can recognize the fact that these couples don’t want their relationships to be filled with strife or violence. They don’t want to be doing this alone. Maybe they lament that one of them is in prison, but they still want to be good parents. Why shouldn’t the government support programs that are well-informed of the barriers and the traumas these families face and that are working to help them achieve in their own lives what college-educated and higher-income folks so readily accomplish?

It’s a policy area that’s vastly underfunded and under-studied. But I’m not convinced that there aren’t programs that could be very helpful, family by family, in communities.