The advantages of two-parent families are not obvious to everyone

by Grace

… universal preschool is not going to make up for an uninvolved parent …

Megan McArdle writes about the importance of the two-parent family, a social institution offering a type of support for children that government cannot seem to match.

Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” has touched off a wave of print and digital commentary. The book chronicles a growing divide between the way affluent kids are raised, in two-parent homes whose parents invest heavily in educating their kids, and the very different, very unstable homes in which poorer kids generally grow up.

When the problems of single-parent families are debated, some will “argue that there are lots of good ways to raise kids outside the straitjacket of mid-century, middle-class mores”.

I have been trying to find a more delicate way to phrase this, but I can’t: This is nonsense. The advantages that two people raising their own biological or jointly adopted children have over “nontraditional” family arrangements are too obvious to need enumeration, but apparently mere obviousness is not enough to forestall contrary arguments, so let me enumerate them anyway.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are — in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents — is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent. Children will spend less time with their noncustodial parent, especially if that parent has other offspring. Add in conflict between the parents over money and time, and it can infect relationships with the children. As one researcher told me when I wrote an article on the state of modern marriage, you frequently see fathers investing time and money with the kids whose mother they get along with the best, while the other children struggle along on crumbs.

People often argue that extended families can substitute, but of course, two-parent families also have extended families — two of them — so single-parent families remain at a disadvantage, especially because other members of the extended family are often themselves struggling with the challenges of single parenthood. Extended families just can’t substitute for the benefits of a two-parent family. Government can’t, either; universal preschool is not going to make up for an uninvolved parent, or one stretched too thin to give their kids enough time. Government can sand the rough edges off the economic hardship, of course, but even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home.

The share of American children born to single mothers has grown seven-fold since 1960.

More than 40 percent of American children are now born to unmarried parents, down from just five percent in 1960, according to Pew Research Center. Fifty years ago, the vast majority of adults — 72 percent — were married. The same is true for only about half of adults today. The declines in marriage are especially pronounced in families with lower earnings. Tying the knot is increasingly a marker of class status in America.

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Megan McArdle, “How Hollywood Can Save Our Families”, Bloomberg, March 17, 2015.

Seth Freed Wessler, “What Happened to the Middle-Class American Family?”, CNBC, March 18, 2015.

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