Some people find the evidence that on average the two-parent family is best for children highly unpalatable, and they will resist it strongly. Melissa S. Kearney, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland in the United States is discovering this at first hand with the publication of her new book, ‘The Two-Parent Privilege’.
She has researched the economics of families for over 20 years. Having sifted through the evidence, she concludes that two parents offer their children more resource advantages than one parent alone. If we want to reduce poverty and social inequality, we should promote marriage, she says.
Even before the book was published, she received pushback. She comments: “I happen to know that behind the scenes [at her publishing company] there were definitely some people who were less keen or had strong reactions to the topic”.
Since the publication, things have only got worse. Prof. Kearney has received two kinds of hostile responses to her book: firstly, she is accused of wanting to force people to marry or to stay trapped in an unhappy marriage, which is something that she explicitly rejects in her work.
“We’re in the midst of a conservative push, aided by the mainstream media, to bully women into young marriage. We’re told it will cure everything from male loneliness to child poverty”, tweeted a journalist of the liberal website The Salon.
“I am quite clear that just telling women to marry undesirable partners is not helpful”, Kearney replied.
The second kind of response is more defeatist: there is no point trying to address the decline of marriage as nothing can be done about it anyway.
The problem with this response is that social trends are the outcomes of policies and also of the ideology behind them. Too often, it is impossible to have an honest discussion about the value of marriage without being labelled and ostracised. This is particularly the case in the academic world.
In her book, prof. Kearney recalls a conversation with a fellow economist who told her that she sounded “socially conservative” and so she wasn’t academically serious. The merit of her studies were casually dismissed.
In our liberal societies we don’t like to sound judgemental about people’s life choices, Kearney reckons, but avoiding conversation about empirically supported data is counterproductive.
We need to address uncomfortable questions.
She asks why so many parents are now raising children outside of a marital union.
The decline in the share of people getting married is common in all advanced economies. In Ireland, for instance, 50 years ago the marriage rate was 7.4 per 1,000 thousand people. It dropped to 4.1 in 2019. (Statistics during the pandemic and immediately after it are not significant as many marriages were postponed).
As a consequence, there has been a decline in the share of children living with married parents, particularly outside the educated class. The well-off are far more likely to get married. (Here’s a study by the Iona Institute on marriage and social class in Ireland: Mind the Gap: how marriage and family differ by social class )
This has a tremendous impact on the lives of those children in terms of opportunities and achievements, Prof. Kearney’s book shows.
“The number of parents in a home is a crucial determinant of a child’s experiences and life trajectory. Debates about this issue should not be relegated to the culture wars. Family structure is an urgent policy matter, and we should treat it that way.”, she writes.
The reactions to her publication demonstrate how difficult is to defend the institution of marriage in the public arena, where prejudice prevails even when all the evidence is offered.
It’s not that they are against marriage per se, but they strongly resist the idea is that it matters to society. This is despite the fact that they are far more likely to be married than those less well educated than them are.