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What Kind of Family is Best for the Kids?
The share of U.S. children living with married parents has fallen 14 percentage points since the 1980s. This decline is worsening already-significant class divides between college-educated and non-college Americans.
A recent New York Times op-ed by economist Melissa S. Kearney—written in support of her new book The Two-Parent Privilege—sparked a flood of responses debating whether children raised by married parents are really better off than those who aren’t.
In her book, Kearney is unequivocal. She marshals considerable evidence to show that two-parent families are more advantaged than single-parent households. On average, the children in two-parent homes tend to live in households with higher incomes, spend more time with their parents, do better in school, and misbehave less (boys especially)—a resource gap in childhood that carries over into better opportunities and greater educational attainment in adulthood.
Bolstering her argument is a recent piece from Brad Wilcox at the Institute for Family Studies, who writes that, indeed, children raised by married parents experience better social and financial outcomes. In fact, they are comparatively more advantaged today than they were in previous decades.
Specifically, Wilcox contends, the relationships between both family structure and children’s college graduation and family structure and children’s economic success have strengthened over time. See the charts below.
Wilcox acknowledges that some of these differences could be attributed to selection since the share of young adults who grew up in married two-parent households has shrunk over time, especially among those who are less educated and have lower incomes. But this larger gap in outcomes persists even after controlling for various socioeconomic characteristics, including race, gender, and parental education.
He hypothesizes that the growing spread is driven by married parents’ increasing level of investment in their kids relative to single parents. This is supported by Kearney’s book: She reports that between the early 1970s and 2006-07, parents in the highest income decile more than doubled their investment spending per child (= spending on things like education, lessons, and games) from $2,832 to $6,573 per year in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars. Spending among middle-income and low-income parents has also increased, but by much less.
Kearney concludes her book with some suggestions for how U.S. policymakers can promote two-parent families. They include improving the economic position of non-college men to help them be more “marriageable” and promoting a social norm of two-parent families. However, she stops short at suggesting that policymakers promote marriage, noting that the federal government has done so for years but that the program has not meaningfully increased marital stability.
This begs the question: So what does lead to stable married families?
The red-zone model
Policymakers and pundits tend to fall into two camps when answering this question: red zone and blue zone. The red-zone model shepherds young people into marriage typically when they’re young and at the age of first sexual activity. In the heartland, people get married because they put great store in family life and the social norms that underlie marriage. Many are religious.
Statistically, across the country, red-leaning counties are indeed more associated with married two-parent families. The charts below from Brad Wilcox show that counties who gave a higher share of their vote to Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election have a higher share of their population that is married.
To be fair, a higher married share of the population doesn’t necessarily translate into more stable two-parent families. Lots of these people could be marrying young and then later getting divorced.
A better metric would be to look at the share of all teens who live with their biological parents. Here, too, red counties prove to be more family-centered: Teens living in red-leaning counties are more likely to be living with their biological parents than those in blue-leaning counties. This correlation holds for the United States as a whole and for the northern and southern states measured separately.
What’s more, according to Wilcox, this correlation is robust to most other ways of segmenting the population. When education, race, and age is held constant, Republican voters between age 18 and 55 surveyed individually are more likely to be in their first marriage and to report they are “very happy” in their married life.
The blue-zone model
Not so fast, the blue zone says. Yes, the red zone’s religious and normative support for marriage is linked to stabler families—but so, too, is a higher level of education and material security. This is where the blue states shine. Teens living in counties with more college-educated adults are more likely to be living with two married parents, because better-educated Americans are more likely to get and stay married.
This fact is emblematic of how the blue zone approaches marriage. The blue-zone model considers marriage a “capstone” that comes after obtaining solid educational credentials and financial independence. Use of birth control is accepted and encouraged to delay family formation. Typically, blue-zoners get married much later than their red counterparts. In the red-zone model, having a family teaches you to be an adult; in the blue-zone model, you are supposed to become an adult before you have a family. While red-zoners are famous for teaching “abstinence” to teens, the blue-zone ideal of deferring full adulthood into the late 20s or early 30s is also predicated on habits of deferred gratification that may strike many as ascetic, even puritanical.
In their influential 2010 book Red Families v. Blue Families, law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone argue that the blue-zone model is better suited to the 21st-century economy, since it encourages both male and female workforce participation and gives partners time to acquire the maturity they need to more effectively weather the stresses of family life.
One way to assess the strength of the blue-zone argument is to take the individual response data examined by Wilcox (above) and to separate them by level of education. Notice the much higher level of marital stability among the college-educated than among the high school or less.
To be sure, the red-zoners would point out that red-zoners score higher within each group. And once the data are controlled for education, both at the county and the individual level, we know that a red-zone address or political affiliation is still correlated with greater family stability. Even so, the blue-zoners can argue that higher education and (presumably) higher incomes are very strongly associated with marital success. From lowest to highest educational attainment, the odds of a parent being in his or her first marriage improves by about 50%.
As always, correlation is not causation. We could no doubt identify a lot of reasons why more educated people tend to have stabler marriages that do not imply that more education causes stabler marriages. Still, blue-zoners are correct that the higher income and status that accompanies more education does to some extent directly contribute to marital success.
The most celebrated research demonstrating this causal connection is a massive 2019 study led by MIT economist David Autor. Autor and his co-authors examined the impact of increased imports from China on labor markets in more than 700 commuting zones from 1990 to 2014. They came to two conclusions with a very high degree of statistical certainty. First, they found in each zone that increased imports drove down the income and employment rates of non-college men who manufactured the goods now being displaced by imports. Second, they found that this hit to income and employment was directly linked to sizably lower levels of marriage and sizably higher shares of unmarried mothers, with the magnitude dependent on trade exposure in each zone studied.
Is there a middle ground?
It’s very hard to disentangle these two models or conclude that one is superior. Each side has a different story and its own compelling evidence of success.
New data would certainly help. Pretty much all the data used by both sides in this debate precede the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Given that the two parties began to realign in 2016 and 2020—with poorer and less educated Obama voters shifting to the GOP and wealthier and more educated Romney voters shifting to the Democratic Party—it is likely that the association between partisanship and family behavior has shifted. In which direction? That’s hard to say. It’s possible that the correlation between red-zone affiliation and stabler families has grown steeper now that more evangelicals have gravitated towards the GOP. It’s also possible that the correlation has flattened now that more educated voters have gravitated to the Democrats.
Based on the evidence we’ve gathered thus far, maybe the best we can say is that both camps may have something to learn from the other.
On the one hand, the red zone needs to acknowledge that economic forces do impact marriage and childbearing, and that some people—particularly those who are economically disadvantaged—may have a better chance at having a successful marriage if they spend some time early in life learning skills or earning a credential instead of marrying and having kids at an early age.
On the other hand, blue zone families need to acknowledge that there is something deeply hypocritical about claiming (to others) that they are indifferent to marriage and family stability while behaving (in their child-raising practices) in a manner which ensures their own kids don’t risk having a family unless they can bring vast resources to the project. In Red Families vs. Blue Families, Cahn and Carbone observed that the blue model is one of “public tolerance [and] private discipline.” Many blue-zoners raise their own children within two-parent families while bristling at pro-marriage messaging or the implication that any family structure is more advantageous to children than another. By undermining the economic importance of two-parent families in the culture, they are pulling the rug out from those in blue zone who aren’t so privileged or prepared and who might really benefit from this pro-family messaging.
Some critics have knocked Kearney’s book for stating the obvious. It’s no surprise that the resources of two people outweigh those of one person. And arguably, what makes a partner “marriageable” goes far beyond his or her economic potential. People not only want to marry someone who contributes to the household financially, but someone who is responsible, trustworthy, and emotionally supportive. If these qualities are not present, it’s only logical that a mother may decide that she is better off not marrying the father of her child.
This said, the so-called “two-parent privilege” is real and growing—and it is worth thinking about how we can preserve it for more families. We cannot take blue-zoners and force them to value the same things as red-zoners, or vice versa. But perhaps each side can learn something from what works on the other side.
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