As more American women have children while remaining single, economist Melissa Kearney has some words of caution about what this trend means for U.S. society.
The University of Maryland professor’s research confirms that the economic prospects for single-parent families lag behind those with two married parents under the same roof, and she believes it’s time for greater public discussion about it.
“What’s happened over the past 40 years is a very sizable increase in the share of kids who are born to never-married parents. This increase has happened primarily among the children of adults who don’t have four-year college degrees,” Kearney said. “It doesn’t reflect an increase in divorce rates [which are down], nor does it reflect an increase in birth rates among groups that have historically had high shares of single mother households. It’s a bit surprising… given that there’s been as large of a reduction in birth rates, in particular, teen birth rates as there’s been.”
Kearney will be in Utah next week to share the premise of her new and provocative book, “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.”
“I am concerned about widening inequality and eroding social mobility in the U.S.,” wrote Kearney, herself a married mother of three. “My research has me convinced that the decline in marriage and the corresponding rise in the share of children growing up with only one parent in their home is both a cause and a consequence of economic and social challenges facing our nation.”
In other words, the decline in marriage, particularly among those who are not college-educated, is helping to further drive income inequality taking a particularly hard toll on boys.
Kearney headlines two events on Wednesday, Nov. 8, hosted by the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business and moderated by Adam Looney, director of the school’s Marriner S. Eccles Institute.
“It’s obvious that children in two-parent families have strikingly better prospects than do other children,” said Looney, a professor in the newly formed Division of Quantitative Analysis of Markets & Organizations, or QAMO. “The challenging questions are why fewer children are growing up in two-parent families, and whether we can—and whether we should—do something to address that trend. It’s important that Dr. Kearney is confronting these questions head-on in her book, and I’m excited to learn from her during her visit.”
Looney will moderate a thought-provoking discussion of Kearney’s ideas at 3 p.m. in the Garff Auditorium, where Kearney will share the stage with U sociology and gender studies professor Claudia Geist and Alan Hawkins, manager of the Utah Marriage Commission and Brigham Young University professor emeritus.
Earlier in the day, Kearney will speak off campus at Gardner Policy Center’s Newsmaker Breakfast from 8-9:30 a.m. at the Monson Center, 411 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City.
Nearly half the babies born in the U.S. in 2019 were born to unmarried women, a dramatic increase since 1960 when only 5% of births were to unmarried mothers.
“This is not a positive development,” Kearney wrote in a Sept. 17 op-ed in the New York Times. “The evidence is overwhelming: Children from single-parent homes have more behavioral problems, are more likely to get in trouble in school or with the law, achieve lower levels of education and tend to earn lower incomes in adulthood.”
Her book eschews the religious and values-based arguments that have long dominated this conversation in favor of a data-driven examination. One key data point is the decline in the number of children living with married parents. Since 1980 the share has dropped from 77% to 63%, and most of this shift occurred outside the college-education class.
Based on two decades of research, including her own, Kearney’s book shows how the class division in marriage and family structures exacerbated economic inequality and places with more two-parent families have higher rates of upward mobility.
“Research shows that boys are particularly disadvantaged from growing up in homes without dad’s present,” Kearney said. “The real worry here is that then when they’re adults, they’re less likely to be what we’d refer to as desirable marriage partners. If we don’t break this cycle, this is really going to perpetuate itself.”
While marriage rates have fallen dramatically, no alternative institution has taken its place as a stabilizing economic force for individuals and families. Kearney’s work stresses the importance of not stigmatizing single mothers, but avoiding an examination of these inequalities—however well-intentioned that may be—is counterproductive.
“There are people who want to deny the basic fact that on average kids really benefit from having two parents in their homes,” she said. “We really should be able to acknowledge that reality and then have a productive conversation about what it means. What do we do? What can we do to increase the share of kids who have the benefit of two parents in their homes? What are the barriers keeping adults from forming healthy relationships? These are the questions we should be discussing.”
About Melissa Kearney
Melissa S. Kearney is the Neil Moskowitz Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland. She is also the director of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings. Her academic research focuses on domestic policy issues, especially issues related to social policy, poverty and inequality. Her work has been published in leading academic journals and is frequently cited in the popular press.
About the Marriner S. Eccles Institute
The Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis provides transformational, interdisciplinary opportunities for students in fields related to economics. With support from the George S. & Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation, the University of Utah is recruiting leading economists as academic faculty, supporting innovative research and providing student scholarships as part of the institute.