A conversation about two-parent privilege
Melissa Kearney explains her new book
Melissa Kearney is in the odd position of having written a controversial book, “The Two-Parent Privilege,” whose thesis strikes me as relatively uncontroversial.
The population of children raised by two cohabiting parents in a stable relationship (which typically means marriage in the United States) displays considerably better outcomes in life than the population of children raised by solo parents. There are many questions one could ask about what policies follow from this observation, and some of Kearney’s answers are controversial. Many conservatives, for example, believe that the welfare state generates an increase in solo parenting in a way that perversely leaves children worse off. Kearney says, based on her research, that this isn’t true, and we should do more to help the population of poor children — a population primarily composed of kids in single-parent households. Most of the coverage of her book has focused on left critiques of her thesis and on her criticisms of the left, but the argument she makes forcefully about the welfare state in our conversation is arguably the most important part.
If the conservatives praising this book took that message to heart, it would be a game-changer for public policy.
But she also observes that while most poor households are single-parent households, it’s not the case that most single-parent households are poor. And while the non-poor children of single parents are better off than their poor counterparts, they are still worse-off than their peers raised in two-parent households. Some of that is driven by the extra income of a second parent, but the disparity persists even when you control for that — driven perhaps by the fact that two-parent households provide much more parenting.
We talk about the question of what, if anything, can actually be done to leverage these insights to help kids. I am somewhat more skeptical than Kearney that a tractable policy solution is at hand (see Nate Hilger’s critique), but it is possible that more socially responsible cultural messaging would make a difference here.
I also think the uncontroversial basic observation is actually sneakily important.
It’s routine in social science and policy analysis to control for things like parental income, race, or educational attainment before drawing conclusions. It is not routine to do the same with family structure, even though it’s widely understood that family structure has independent predictive power of many outcomes of interest.
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