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Single-parent math

Economist argues money isn’t the only scarce resource


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Single-parent math
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The studies, surveys, and census figures tell a uniform story: Children from one-parent households appear on average to start life at a disadvantage, yet the number of one-parent households keeps rising. Divorce rates are falling mainly because men and women are eschewing marriage altogether, and the widening income gap between married and single women is no coincidence. Author Melissa Kearney, “a mom and an economist, in that order,” has watched the numbers for decades, with growing concern. “I approach these issues as a hardheaded—albeit softhearted—MIT economist” who believes we ignore the facts at our national peril.

In The Two-Parent Privilege (University of Chicago Press 2023), Kearney marshals an impressive set of data that in almost any other context would be impossible to ignore. But too many policymakers have framed criticism of single-parent families as blaming the victims, pining for the old days of mom in the kitchen, or promoting the patriarchy or white privilege. Academics have quietly told Kearney, “I tend to agree with you about all this—but are you sure you want to be out there saying this publicly?”

But much of “this” seems like common sense, and it is time to say it. The book’s central thesis is a simple equation: family minus one parent equals fewer resources available to children. Money, certainly, but also time, opportunity, and “emotional bandwidth,” like sharing the ordinary pressures of life and providing each other respite. For a single mom, full-time work, home maintenance, bills, schedules, and crisis management leave little space for reading aloud, laughing, or just listening.

As for single dads, the decline in marriage has left many men rootless, shiftless, and often jobless. (Fifteen ­percent of men at prime earning age are out of the workforce.) Boys are struggling in school and at home. Unable to form healthy relationships with women, they tend to opt out of relationships altogether.

Kearney devotes a chapter to “Boys and Dads,” using studies and statistics to show that boys without fathers in the home are falling behind girls ­academically and economically. She does not speculate on why boys need positive male role models, but readers can fill in those gaps.

Solutions to the rise of single ­parenting sound tenuous at best. “Addressing the decline of the two-­parent family will require efforts on multiple fronts,” only one of which is government action. The Healthy Marriage Initiative of 2001 was intended to fund state, local, and ­community programs for supporting low-income married parents, but the programs “didn’t meaningfully increase marital stability among participating couples.” Declining marriage is mostly due to personal choice. But the first step in addressing a problem is understanding the problem, and The Two-Parent Privilege helps us do that.


Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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