Econ book: Single parent households have Americans falling further behind, kids in crisis 

A new book by a University of Maryland economics professor says single-parent households are causing families to fall further behind, while also harming children and society as a…

A new book by a University of Maryland economics professor says single-parent households are causing families to fall further behind, while also harming children and society as a whole.   

Melissa S. Kearney, author of The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, writes in the New York Times that the acceptance of single-family households “obscures the critical reality that this change is hurting our children and our society.” 

One of the main drivers of this phenomena is society’s damaging race “to be inclusive about diverse family arrangements,” she said.   

“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,” wrote Kearney. “Boys from homes without dads present are particularly prone to getting in trouble in school or with the law.”  

Kearney also contends that the higher level of income available to married households helps transmit the benefits of marriage to the family and to the children.  

Whether that means more supervision or more commitment to education, the benefits of marriage are clear.   

It’s simple math, said Kearney. Two parents have the ability to earn more than one parent, and the divide cuts across “age, education level, race and state of residence.”  

While Kearney presents a lot of new information, the data on the reduction in income for single-parent families has been widely known for over a decade. 

In July 2013, I wrote about this phenomena, observing that “traditionally married couples, with moms as breadwinners, enjoy a household income that is 40 percent higher than the national average and nearly 400 percent higher than single moms.”  

That data came from a 2011 report by The Pew Charitable Trust, which noted at the time that 40% of all U.S. households either had a woman earning more than her husband or a woman as the sole provider – with an important caveat.  

“The income gap between the two groups is quite large,” said Pew. “The median total family income of married mothers who earn more than their husbands was nearly $80,000 in 2011, well above the national median of $57,100 for all families with children, and nearly four times the $23,000 median for families led by a single mother.” 

In fact, much of the argument about income inequality in the United States has to do with the change in composition of the American household to a single-parent household, rather than a real erosion in wages. 

In the piece for the Times, Kearney offers the exact same argument in 2023, noting that the change in household structure results in “less economic security for affected households and even wider inequality across households and childhood environments than economic changes would have wrought alone.” 

While Kearney gives a thumbs up to more federal support for single-parent households, she warns that federal aid isn’t a panacea for a missing parent.  

“A second committed adult in the home can contribute considerable time and energy to taking care of children,” she writes. 

It’s a gap that the federal government and society cannot fill no matter how many after-school programs they fund, the economist said.  

“But again, it is highly unlikely that government or community programs could ever provide children from one-parent homes with a comparable amount of the supervision, nurturing, guidance or help that children from healthy two-parent homes receive,” said Kearney. “That means a generation of children will grow up more likely to get in trouble and less likely to reach their potential than if they had the benefits of two parents in their homes.” 

Kearney urged scholars, journalists and policymakers to admit that there are advantages of a two-parent home for children, and challenged them to come up with ways to promote and support two-parent households.