NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, January 23rd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next: The Two-Parent Privilege. WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney cites a recent book that confirms the benefits of marriage for society—and especially for children.
JANIE B. CHEANEY: Some observations just seem like common sense. For instance, children from one-parent households appear on average to start life at a disadvantage. And yet the number of one-parent households keeps rising. More men and women are opting to stay single, and the widening income gap between married and single-parent households is no coincidence. Author Melissa Kearney has watched the numbers for decades with growing alarm. She writes, “I approach these issues as a hardheaded—albeit softhearted—MIT economist,” an economist who believes we ignore the facts at our national peril.
In her 2023 book The Two-Parent Privilege, Kearney assembles an impressive set of data that in almost any other context would be impossible to ignore. But too many policy makers 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. Fellow 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?”
The book’s main point is a simple equation: family minus one parent equals many fewer resources available to children. Money, certainly, but also time, opportunity, and what Kearney calls “emotional bandwidth”—that is, sharing the challenges of life and providing each other room to breathe. For a single mom, the stress of a full-time job, home and car maintenance, bills, schedules, and crisis management leaves 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. (15% of men between the ages of 25 and 54 are out of the workforce.) Lacking a consistent male role model, boys are struggling in school and at home, and often fail to form healthy relationships with women.
While recommending more government action to address the problem, Kearney is careful to steer clear of politics and avoid pointing fingers . That's not true of some of her critics. She says, “Addressing the decline of the two-parent family will require efforts on multiple fronts,” only one of which is government action. But some critics of her thesis blame the marriage decline almost entirely on policy. Writing at The Cut, an online opinion page of New York Magazine, Rebecca Traister insists, “It’s not marriage—it’s money, and the racist and economically unjust policies that leave some Americans with less of it to begin with, regardless of their marital status.” She goes on to blame Republicans for denying the poor the stability they need to get married. Jill Filipovic, writing for CNN, agrees, while adding: “Our cultural respect for marriage hasn’t receded. What’s changed is that Americans feel like we should be adults before we get married: that we should be financially stable, that we should marry someone we love and who is also a force for stability and support.”
Speaking for myself, it was marriage that made me an adult: God’s sanctifying tool, forging my husband and I into a loving, financially stable whole. Marriage is more a process than an achievement. That’s the part that doesn’t seem like common sense to the contemporary world, and I don’t know that it ever will. Declining marriage is mostly due to personal choice, in places policy can’t reach, but Christians can model a better way.
I’m Janie B. Cheaney.
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