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I suspect that many social scientists were taken aback to read a blurb for a forthcoming book by David Autor, a leading economist and public policy analyst. Here’s what the MIT professor wrote:

“Among the many great advances that American women have made since 1960, single-parenthood is not one of them. It’s brutally challenging for mothers. It’s epidemic among the families who can least afford it. And it deprives children of the economic and emotional resources that foster success in adulthood. This candid book by a superb scholar sets aside judgments and bromides to confront the urgent question of how America can do better by its children.”

Professor Autor was writing in praise of an upcoming book entitled The Two-Parent Privilege by Melissa Schettini Kearney, an economics professor at Maryland and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The book argues that “declining marriage rates are driving many of the country’s biggest economic problems.”

Even before its release, the book’s argument has already received some barbed criticisms. One Twitter critic claims that the book will “culturally stigmatize and structurally penalize single motherhood.” In another detractor’s words:

“We should acknowledge that the freedom women gained to have, keep and raise children without being married is a tremendous advance. And we should never lose sight of the despicable state and family violence done to women and children before that advance.”

Professor Kearney’s response: “This is exactly the type of rhetorical attack that has made it so difficult for us to have this necessary conversation.” Absolutely true.

The problem is that the critics have misinterpreted and misrepresented Professor Kearney’s argument, which is not a thinly veiled critique of single parenthood or a George W. Bush-like call for marriage promotion, but a plea for initiatives to better support the growing number of children who are growing up under difficult circumstances.

I have pre-ordered Professor Kearney’s book, which I have not yet read. I very much look forward to her take on one of the most contentious issues of our time: The impact of family life on life outcomes and what society should do about this.

I have, however, read her many articles calling for a child allowance or an expanded, refundable child tax credit as a way to cut child poverty rates and improve children’s health and school performance, and increase the number who graduate from high school and go to college. As she demonstrates, direct payments to low-income families do more to promote children’s well-being than things that are much tougher to do, such as promoting marriages or even strengthening schools in high poverty areas. This is similar to Senator Mitt Romney’s plan to reduce child poverty with a monthly child benefit.

As someone whose scholarship focuses on the history of families and children, I think it is essential to acknowledge that:

  1. The United States has a much higher rate of single-parent families than any other high-income society for a host of reasons, cultural and social as well as economic, including higher rates of incarceration, teenage childbearing, and divorce; greater income inequality and family instability; and a culture that attaches more value to autonomy and the pursuit of happiness; and
  1. American children are much more likely to grow up in poverty or to experience a major disruption in childhood—a divorce, parental separation, or a shift in a parent’s cohabitating partner—than in peer societies.
  1. Family structure makes less difference to children’s well-being in the long-term than do family dynamics.

Without a doubt, two-parent families can, on average, provide children with more resources in time, money and physical presence. They can also, in many cases, provide more connections that can contribute to children’s opportunities and outcomes. However, family structure correlates closely with class status, making it hard to distinguish causation and correlation.

But positive family dynamics—in communication styles, relationship dynamics, role modeling, guidance, emotional connections, and methods of discipline and conflict resolution—lead to better outcomes for children irrespective of family structure.

As my fellow family historian and friend Stephanie Coontz has put it: “You can’t judge a family’s health by its form.” Neither single parenthood nor unmarried cohabitation result in ineffective parenting. In Professor Coontz’s words: “We must recognize that there are healthy as well as unhealthy ways to be single or to be divorced, just as there are healthy and unhealthy ways to be married.”

Professor Coontz is among the rare humanists who has succeeded in reaching a broad public audience with her scholarly writings. In those works, she draws several lessons from the history of the family that Americans would do well to understand.

  • Many facets of family life that people consider novel in fact have longstanding historical precedents. Remarriage, stepfamilies, out-of-wedlock births and paternal absence are nothing new, and were surprisingly common in the past, nostalgia-laden myths to the contrary.
  • Family life in the past, like family life today, was very fragile, even if the main contributors to family instability in the past, premature death and desertion, differ from the major causes today: divorce, separation, cohabitation or the simple desire to remain single.
  • The history of the American family is neither an unambiguous story of progress or decline. Take some relatively recent examples. Rates of teen pregnancy and divorce are significantly lower today than in the 1970s. Also, between 1994 and 2012 (the last available comparable figure), reported incidents of domestic violence declined about 60 percent, while substantiated rates of child maltreatment, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and emotional maltreatment, fell by nearly 40 percent from a peak in the early and mid-1990s to 2017. Meanwhile, declining birthrates mean that parents can devote more resources and time to each individual child.
  • The isolated, inward-turning, emotionally bonded nuclear family is a relatively recent development, which fails to accurately describe most families in the past and a substantial share of families today. Throughout recorded history, most families could count on the support from networks of extended kin, friends and neighbors in ways that are uncommon among today’s upper-middle class.
  • The biggest obstacles to marriage and a stable family life today, as in the past, are low wages, poverty, unemployment, and other contributors to social disadvantage.
  • Marriage, which originated as a way to regularize sexual relations, organize childrearing, share resources, and acquire and transmit property, is no longer the predominant way that “societies regulate sexuality and parenting or organize the division of labor between men and women.” This is true not only in the United States but globally.
  • The expectations invested in marriage as a source of happiness, romance and sexual fulfillment have risen even as marriage has become more optional. These trends, which are deeply rooted in contemporary culture and not easily reversed, have made marriage less stable and more brittle.
  • While about half of all marriages end in divorce, those that do persist report higher levels of happiness than those in the past.
  • Even today, schedules for schools and most service providers reflect the assumption that a female homemaker / male breadwinner family remains the norm.
  • A revolution in family life has liberated many people from restrictive social roles and oppressive norms even as it “has stripped others of traditional support systems and rules of behavior without establishing new ones.”

Over the past half century, American family life has undergone a sea change.

  • For the first time in U.S. history, a majority of adults now live outside of marriage—as single parents, as partners in a cohabitating relationship or as singles.
  • More American adults never marry than at any time except the late 19th century. Today, 28 percent of 40-year-old men and 22 percent of similarly aged women have never married.
  • Marriage and marital stability have increasingly become a class privilege, reserved for those who have the financial wherewithal to meet those expectations—or to purchase services that can relieve the partners of some of marriage’s burdens and responsibilities.
  • Once the gateway into adulthood, marriage is now viewed as a culmination and confirmation of the attainment of adulthood status: Having completed one’s education and entered into a stable, financially remunerative career.
  • More than at any time in the past, childbirth, childcare and childrearing take place outside of marriage. Roughly 40 percent of children are born outside of wedlock, up from 28 percent as recently as 1990.
  • The overwhelming majority of young children—in 2022, 67.9 percent of children under age 6—have a working mother, compared to just 30.3 percent in 1970.
  • A majority of American children today experience a major disruption in family structure before reaching their mid-teens: a divorce, a remarriage, or a change in a parent’s cohabitating partner.
  • The U.S. birthrate, for the first time since the Great Depression, has fallen below the replacement rate. After a brief late-pandemic increase in births, the birth rate has slipped again, making the United States more of an adult-centered society.

The decline in marriage and fertility and the rise in the share of children born outside marriage is not just a U.S. phenomenon; it’s occurring globally. Among women in their late 30s or early 40s, 29 percent are unmarried in Denmark; 18 percent in Italy; 22 percent in Lebanon; and 32 percent in Libya.

What lies behind these trends? Is it a “me ethic,” as a piece in The Wall Street Journal once suggested, rooted in a yearning for personal freedom, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency—and an aversion to sacrifice? Or are other forces at play?

Several factors are at work. These include new economic realities which no longer require women to marry for financial reasons; new gender norms, which undercut past notions that a husband should head his household and his wife should subordinate her needs for his; higher expectations about the level of intimacy, companionship, communication and sexual fulfillment that marriage is expected to deliver; and a deepening ambivalence about the institution itself.

This ambivalence takes many forms. For some, it is a sense that marriage is an outmoded relic of patriarchy that demands disproportionate sacrifices from women. For others, it is a belief that marriage is too limiting and fails to allow individuals the freedom to grow. Still others are repelled by the dysfunctions found in too many marriages. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that half of all adults felt that there was no harm to society if people had higher priorities than marriage or children.

The drift from marriage is also a product of the rising expectations about what marriage requires in terms of finances and personal sacrifice.

The main reason society cares about marriage is because of concern about children’s well-being. Since one of marriage’s historic responsibilities has been to care for and socialize the young, any threat to marriage raises pressing questions about how those essential functions will be fulfilled. Among the great challenges of our time is to develop institutions that can build on the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of today’s diverse households.

Here is a major reason for concern: Family instability is associated with poorer educational and employment outcomes. Today, half the children born to cohabiting but unmarried parents will see them break up by their third birthday. The same is true for 11 percent of kids born to married parents. Even middle-class children whose married parents do divorce when they are young are at high risk of downward mobility. Over a quarter of adults who live in poverty spent at least some of their childhoods in a two-parent middle-class family.

Today, many children are disconnected from their biological father. Their mothers only receive spotty child support payments. Step-partners tend to invest less, in terms of time or resources, in those children. Rates of turbulence, including domestic violence, abuse and neglect tend to be higher in complex families.

Marriage promotion efforts are a pipe dream. If we want to improve children’s well-being and future life outcomes, we know what to do: Augment existing families’ strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.& That won’t come cheap, but it’s the best way to bring many more children to a bright future.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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