“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.
The United States has the highest rate of children living in one-parent households anywhere in the world, and experts are increasingly giving more attention to how the low rate of two-parent households affects the country as a whole.
In her new book, The Two Parent Privilege, economist Melissa S. Kearney argues that America’s declining marriage rate — and resulting increase in the share of one-parent families — “poses economic and social challenges we cannot afford to ignore.”
The rate of children in single-parent households shot up from just 9% in the 1960s. Though the share of two-parent homes has dropped across the board, it’s been especially concentrated among certain groups. While three-quarters of white children lived with two parents in 2022, just 43 percent of Black children did. There is also a major class divide when it comes to family structure. According to Kearney, kids whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree are substantially more likely to live with both parents than those whose parents did not go to college.
Kearney and a number of other experts who have studied the impacts of family structure say research shows children who grow up with two parents at home tend to have fewer behavioral issues, fewer problems with the law, reach higher levels of education and earn more money when they grow up — even when you control for factors like race and income. This, in turn, makes them more likely to get married themselves, making the gap compound over generations.
Why there’s debate
In light of all this evidence, experts from across the political spectrum make the case that promoting two-parent families is one of the most important things the United States can do to reduce poverty and shrink inequality. But there’s intense debate on how to do that.
Conservatives generally prioritize cultural solutions, like government messaging to emphasize the value of two-parent homes and a broader social realignment around the public’s attitudes toward marriage. Many also call for policy changes to eliminate so-called “marriage penalties” that can lead some families to pay higher taxes or lose access to public benefits when they get married.
Liberals say the best way to produce more two-parent families is to create a more generous social safety net and increase the number of high-quality blue-collar jobs so people have the stability they need to establish strong relationships that are built to last. Others say greater reproductive freedom, like increased access to contraception and abortion, will mean that fewer children will be born to parents in less-secure circumstances.
A third group, primarily on the political left, says it’s a mistake to focus on family structure in the first place. They make the case that there are proven ways to dramatically reduce inequality and child poverty — like the temporary expansion of the child tax credit — that can benefit all children, regardless of how many parents they have at home.
The importance of marriage must become a core cultural value again
“What to do about the problem? One route would be for politicians to implement and fund policies and interventions that promote healthy marriages. Another, perhaps more important, change would be for our cultural and economic elite, who are disproportionately likely to be stably married, to preach what they practice—to not only enjoy the benefits of marriage in their private lives but also to advocate for them in public.” — Brendan Case and Ying Chen, Wall Street Journal
The government should just make people’s lives easier, no matter what their family looks like
“Most people would rather have and raise children in two-parent families, and the best way to help them do that — and other things they might choose to do — is to reduce incarceration, increase access to affordable housing, and provide people with comprehensive, guaranteed health care. A policy to promote two-parent families is a proven failure, but providing for people’s needs is good.” — Philip Cohen, sociologist at the University of Maryland
The government needs to stop encouraging single parenthood
“Government welfare programs can encourage women to have children out-of-wedlock due to the benefits they receive, particularly mothers who are poor. To achieve personal happiness, marriage is seen as unnecessary by many. And if one is unhappy in a relationship, it is seen as appropriate for that person to leave the relationship to meet his or her needs, regardless of the needs of the partner and any children.” — W. Gibb Dyer, Deseret News
American men need more good jobs, especially in blue-collar fields
“Another possible target: improving the supply of ‘marriageable’ men. … Women in the United States lack for partners who can bring something tangible to the relationship. Fixing that might mean revitalizing traditionally male-dominated fields such as manufacturing.” — Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post
Stable families come from empowering parents to make their own decisions
“If you want more people to get married, and if you want those marriages to last longer, make sure that everyone can afford to live a decent, steady, stable life. And also make sure that women can decide for themselves whether or not to have babies. That’s it, that [is] the whole plan that will increase marriage rates — or at the very least will increase rates of children being brought up in two-parent homes.” — Jill Filipovic, CNN columnist
Single parenthood is the result of inequality, not the cause
[Marriage advocates] confuse cause and effect and are incorrect in the claim that marital privilege is the cause of the inequity rather than a further symptom of it.” — Rebecca Traister, The Cut
The focus on family structure is an excuse to avoid doing the hard work of helping those who need it most
“The United States doesn’t want to contemplate, let alone create, a policy infrastructure that supports single parenthood. … It won’t do this even though it seems obvious that a large share of children are going to grow up with one parent going forward, and even though we aren’t realistically going to increase the marriage rate among lower-income Americans.” — Annie Lowrey, Atlantic