The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, by Melissa S. Kearney (University of Chicago Press, 240 pp., $25)
Imagine you are twelve years old and your public-school teacher asks you and your seventh-grade classmates to stand side by side in a line. The instructor lists a series of personal attributes and says that you must take an action based on your alignment with a particular attribute, to demonstrate either your privilege or your disenfranchisement:
“If you are white, take two steps forward. If you’re a person of color with dark skin, take two steps back. If you’re black, take two steps back.”
This exercise, part of what is called a Colorism Privilege Walk, actually occurred at public schools in Evanston, Ill., and at many other schools across the country. According to the lesson plan, the goal was for white students to “learn more about white privilege, internalized dominance, microaggressions and how to act as an ally for students of color.” In other words, the point was to reveal the real sources of a person’s privilege: the unearned benefit of being white over the intrinsic victimhood of being nonwhite.
Because of these student Privilege Walks, and since the district had also conducted professional-development sessions that divided teachers by race, an Evanston teacher and the Southeastern Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit accusing Evanston School District 65 of violating the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause and Title VI’s prohibition on discrimination at federally funded educational institutions.
In all likelihood, these racially divisive practices in Evanston will be found legally impermissible — especially given the Supreme Court’s decision deeming race-based affirmative action unconstitutional in college admissions. Yet across a country now transfixed by the pursuit of equity, there is an obsession with determining what factors drive economic inequality and whether a person is inherently privileged or inherently oppressed based on a single characteristic, most notably race.
Against this backdrop, enter economist Melissa Kearney, who has done America a great service by publishing The Two-Parent Privilege. Kearney unequivocally states: “Marriage is the most reliable institution for delivering a high level of resources and long-term stability to children. There is simply not currently a robust, widespread alternative to marriage in US society.” In terms of benefits to children, not all family configurations are the same. Throughout the book, Kearney posits the necessary caveat that no person should remain in an unhealthy or violent marriage, but she makes plain the case that a married, two-parent household is generally superior to alternative arrangements such as cohabitation and single parenthood.
Rather than resort to making a moral or religious argument for marriage, Kearney, an MIT-trained economist, is determined to “bring the social science evidence on family structure from the obscurity of academic journals into the public conversation.”
Kearney simply sticks to the facts and makes an overwhelming data-based case that marriage and stable two-parent families matter monumentally to the life prospects of children — far more than the usually invoked suspects of race and gender. According to Kearney, in 2019, “77% of white children and 88% of Asian children lived with married parents. The share among Hispanic children was 62%. Only 38% of black children live with married parents — a historically low share that reflects a downward trend over four decades.” With such huge differences in family structure by race, how can one not fairly conclude that family-structure disparity is the greatest driving force behind racial disparities in education, crime, and virtually every area of concern for kids growing into young adulthood?
Indeed, Kearney surgically lays out the new dividing line in America’s quest for upward mobility:
There has been a massive widening of the family gap, such that a two-parent family has become yet another advantage in life enjoyed disproportionately by the college-educated class. The decline in the two-parent family among parents without a four-year college degree is a demographic trend that should concern anyone who cares about the well-being of children and about widespread economic opportunity, inequality, and social mobility in America.
One can only hope that during this election season presidential contenders emphasize how crucial healthy marriages and two-parent households are as the foundation for achieving virtually every social or economic policy objective. They would be wise to follow several of the policy recommendations in Kearney’s book, including, most notably, improving the economic position of non-college-educated men so that they are more reliable marriage partners and fathers. But Kearney recognizes that policy alone will not solve the problem. She strongly argues for a cultural shift that fosters a norm of two-parent homes, in part by simply being open and “honest about the benefits that a two-parent family home confers” on children.
In reviewing Kearney’s prescription, my only wish is that she had spent more time in two areas: (1) advocating that marriage and family structure become a standard data category through which child outcomes are analyzed, especially in education; and (2) identifying strategies to engage the rising generation to think differently about their decisions when it comes to the timing of their own family formation.
In regard to the former, the National Assessment for Educational Progress (a.k.a. the Nation’s Report Card) reports reams of educational data disaggregated by race, gender, geography, and other usual-suspect categories. But family structure is not one of them, despite the paramount role that marriage plays in influencing achievement gaps.
Including family structure could create opportunities to implement different types of interventions that could improve life outcomes for the next generation. For example, at Vertex Partnership Academies, the virtues-based high school I launched in the Bronx in 2022, in a class called Pathways to Power we teach the data associated with the “success sequence.” This is research that shows that the vast majority of young adults who graduate from high school, get full-time jobs, and marry before having children reach the middle class by their early 30s. Young people deserve to know this information, especially when they live in environments where most neighboring families have not followed that sequence.
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In May 2001, writing for National Journal, Jonathan Rauch noted that, “according to Census Bureau data, a two-parent black household is more likely to be poor than is a two-parent white household, but both are far less likely to be poor than is a mother-only household of either race. In other words, if you are a baby about to be born, your best odds are to choose married black parents over unmarried white ones.”
Rauch was highlighting then what Kearney so effectively illustrates now, that in economic terms a parent’s marital status has displaced race and class as a primary driver of child poverty and upward mobility.
And perhaps this message is finally getting through. For evidence, look no further than a four-minute video titled “If someone doesn’t understand privilege, show them this.” Across Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and several media platforms, it has been viewed more than a staggering 125 million times. It captures another Privilege Walk, but in this case the personal attributes being presented are markedly different from those posed in Evanston.
The first two directives are: “Take two steps forward if both of your parents are still married. Take two steps forward if you grew up with a father figure in the home.”
In Kearney’s final chapter, she warns that “if millions of American children miss out on the benefits that come from a two-parent home and if the family gap continues to widen” then “children will suffer, inequality will continue to widen, and social mobility will erode.” It does not have to be this way. If we are brutally honest in accepting Kearney’s analysis of what truly privileges children, we know what the next steps forward should be.