From The Wall Street Journal:
For families with young children, morning routines can resemble an assembly line: Make breakfast. Remind the kids to brush their teeth. Negotiate which snacks to include in their backpacks. Remind them again to brush their teeth. Look for shoes. Head out the door. Head back in the door to get the stray backpacks.
In our household, when one parent is out of town, the process seems to intensify and can feel like the “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy takes a job wrapping chocolates. Quickly overwhelmed by the speed of the conveyor belt, she starts shoving chocolates anywhere they’ll fit, and concludes, “I think we’re fighting a losing game.”
Over the past 50 years, the number of one-parent households in America have dramatically increased. In 2019, 57% of U.S. children lived with two parents, down from 80% in 1980. Is the rise of single-parent households an emblem of empowerment or a sign of dwindling support for children?
Discussions of parenting can be fraught, dominated by feelings over facts, and too often tinged with judgment rather than support. The problem is, in part, that there has been limited accessible evidence on the causal effect of household logistics on children’s outcomes.
Enter “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind,” Melissa Kearney’s clear-eyed look at the economic impact of having a second parent at home. Ms. Kearney is an economist at the University of Maryland; her topics of research range from the social impact of the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” to the recent Covid baby bust. As she notes, “discomfort and hesitancy have stifled public conversation on a critically important topic that has sweeping implications not just for the well-being of American children and families but for the country’s well-being.”
Ms. Kearney’s objective is two-fold: first, to offer a data-driven overview of the rise and impact of single parenting; second, to propose strategies to enable more kids to live in stable households.
When it comes to the economic well-being of children, she argues, having two parents really is better than one—on average. Consider the conclusion of a 2004 paper, “Is Making Divorce Easier Bad for Children? The Long-Run Implications of Unilateral Divorce,” by the economist Jonathan Gruber. “As a result of the increased incidence of parental divorce,” Ms. Kearney tells us, “children wound up having lower levels of education, lower levels of income, and more marital churn themselves (both more marriages and more separations), as compared to similarly situated children who did not live in places where unilateral divorce laws were in effect.” Moreover, Ms. Kearney notes that children living with a stepparent also tend to have worse behavioral outcomes than those whose birth parents remained married.
While divorce is common, the spike in the number of single-parent households is mainly driven by an increase in the share of mothers who have never married—particularly among those who are less educated. In 2019, 60% of children whose mothers had a high-school degree (but less than a four-year college degree) lived with both parents, “a huge drop from the 83% who did in 1980” and low relative to the roughly 84% of children of college-educated mothers who lived with both parents in 2019. The author also notes significant gaps in family structure according to race: In 2019, 38% of black children lived with married parents, compared with 77% of white children and 88% of Asian children.
What is driving these changes? Among other factors, Ms. Kearney refers to the lack of “marriageable men,” pointing to a 2019 paper by the economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, “When Work Disappears: Manufacturing Decline and the Falling Marriage Market Value of Young Men.” The paper analyzes the effect of drops in income for less-educated men, driven by increased international competition in manufacturing, and finds, Ms. Kearney tells us, that “the trade-induced reduction in men’s relative earnings led to lower levels of marriage and a higher share of unmarried mothers. It also led to an increase in the share of children living in single-mother households with below-poverty levels of income.” Reintroducing economic opportunities (for instance, through fracking booms) doesn’t seem to reverse this trend—suggesting an interplay between economic shocks and evolving social norms.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal