Why children of married parents do better, but America is moving the other way

Economist Melissa Kearney’s recent book, “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind,” has sparked a wide range of reactions, with some critics accusing her of stigmatizing single mothers, while others view her findings as a validation of their support for marriage. In this book, Kearney argues that children raised by two parents have a higher chance of success, and the marital status of parents significantly impacts their children’s success.

Kearney’s argument runs counter to the trend in the United States, where an increasing number of children are being born and raised by single mothers. The U.S. has the highest rate of children living in single-parent households globally, with approximately 23% of U.S. children under the age of 18 living with a single parent and no other adults.

Kearney’s research shows that this trend is detrimental to children, widens inequality, and has far-reaching consequences for society as a whole. She is sounding the alarm and calling for a conversation on this issue.

“I’ve achieved what I aimed for, which was to initiate a discussion,” Kearney states. “But I am frustrated that the initial reaction is often knee-jerk.”

Critics on both sides have expressed their discomfort with Kearney’s focus on one family structure over another. However, Kearney emphasizes that she is not prioritizing one family type over another but is merely acknowledging the data, evidence, and the reality of the situation.

One undeniable fact is the increasing number of women who are choosing to have children and remain single. In 2019, almost half of all babies born in the U.S. were born to unmarried women, a significant increase from 1960 when only 5% of births were to unmarried mothers. This shift towards single motherhood is not due to divorce, as many unpartnered mothers have never been married.

While some children raised by single mothers achieve great success, the overall data indicates that those growing up in single-mother households face lower odds of high school graduation, college degrees, and high earnings in adulthood. Kearney’s research shows that families led by single mothers are five times more likely to live in poverty than those headed by married couples. The presence of two adults in a household who can contribute to the income significantly reduces the likelihood of poverty. Raising children demands various resources, including financial support, time, emotional energy, and more.

Single mothers often start from a disadvantaged position, with lower levels of education and income. This discrepancy exists across racial and ethnic lines. Many single mothers do not have support from other adults, such as grandparents or family members, which places the full burden of financial support and caregiving on the mother. This situation can lead to exhaustion and added stress, with no one to provide support when needed.

Kearney’s focus on single mothers is based on their large number, as single fathers represent a much smaller fraction. Kearney is especially concerned about boys growing up without fathers as role models, which can have negative consequences. Data shows that boys from disadvantaged homes are more likely to face difficulties at school and within the criminal justice system.

In summary, Kearney’s research underscores that single parenting, particularly when the mother is unmarried, can have a profound impact on children’s outcomes and can contribute to inequality and reduced social mobility. While the decline in marriage rates and the evolving definitions of family structures have changed societal norms, Kearney emphasizes that the data indicates the benefits of a stable, long-term, two-parent household in raising children.

The decline in marriage rates and the challenges faced by men without college degrees have led to more women entering the workforce and an increase in their earnings, making them less likely to marry men who cannot provide economic security or stability. The economic changes and shifts in gender roles have altered the dynamics of marriage and family structures.

Kearney aims to draw attention to the issue of single parenting and its impact on inequality and mobility in the United States, seeking to engage both conservatives and progressives in a much-needed conversation on this complex and important topic.

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