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The Two-Parent Privilege
A guest essay by Robert Cherry
Many factions of the left have long been resistant to normative ideas about family structure and family life. It should be obvious that, in most cases, children benefit from having the support of two parents instead of one, that life is less precarious with two household incomes instead of one, and that, in a two-parent family, each parent can complement the strengths and attenuate the weaknesses of the other in the childrearing process. Over and over, empirical research on family structure has confirmed these suppositions. And yet the left has been, in the best of cases, hesitant to fund measures that would strengthen two-parent families, and in the worst of cases, hostile to the very idea of the nuclear family.
That is, until recently. The economist Robert Cherry notes that some liberal researchers are beginning to jettison the old opposition to promoting the value of two-parent families. And yet, he says, both liberal and conservative commentators ignore the most pressing problem: the plight of poor, black, single mothers who in all likelihood will not be able to find a partner to help them raise their children. In what follows, Bob outlines the blindspots in current efforts to prevent unwed motherhood and promote two-parent families. He recommends some innovative, pragmatic solutions to problems that few researchers or commentators want to touch. Acquiring large-scale funding for these programs is a problem in itself, but people who control the purse strings ought to at least give Robert’s ambitious but realistic recommendations a hearing.
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The “Two-Parent Privilege” Is Real. But Single Mothers Need Help.
by Robert Cherry
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, drew attention to the damaging social effects of unwed motherhood. It was not received warmly by the left. For decades, the topic was impossible to discuss in liberal policy circles. Indeed, a substantial share of radical feminists, including the founders of Black Lives Matter and the National Council on Family Relations, still believes any emphasis on two-parent families “victim-blames” single black mothers and helps sustain white supremacy.
Accordingly, the publication of Melissa Kearney’s new book, The Two-Parent Privilege, is a ground-breaking event. Kearny, a researcher with impeccable political and academic credentials, documents the substantial benefits to children growing up in two-parent households and advocates for more such families in the future. We should applaud her break with liberal orthodoxy.
But Kearney and the many liberal and conservative reviewers who have praised her book all virtually ignore the policy initiatives that would most help at-risk children, particularly in black communities. While Kearney’s proposals may have a positive effect on marriage rates, for the foreseeable future, most black children will be born to unmarried women. Public policy should focus on improving these children’s success rate.
Kearney believes that demonstrating the risks of single parenting will lead many young women to wait until they are in a secure relationship to consider motherhood. She undoubtedly bases this assumption on her previous research on teen pregnancy. Originally Kearney embraced “the culture of despair” thesis, popularized by Kathryn Edin. It posits that black teens, facing a hopelessness bred by intergenerational poverty, choose teen motherhood as a way to build a meaningful life. The theory fell into doubt, however, when black teen pregnancies declined dramatically during the Great Recession. Kearney found that whenever the MTV show 16 and Pregnant aired, a noticeable increase in Google and Twitter searches for contraception and abortion followed, suggesting that the program’s depictions of the difficulties attending teen pregnancy inspired young people to think more carefully about family planning.
This evidence strongly suggests that simply presenting the data could lead to a significant decline in births to unmarried black women. There may be, she suggests, no need to actively intervene in order to change their behavior. But why this squeamishness about intervention? Kearney is unwilling to take a proactive approach to preventing unwed pregnancy at least partially because of the controversies that followed a Bloomberg-era ad campaign that attempted to reduce black teen pregnancy in New York City. The ads posted on trains and subway platforms featured babies lamenting being born to teen mothers, and all the adverse outcomes that followed. This effort was sharply attacked as a shaming campaign that “blames the victims.”
In reviews of The Two-Parent Privilege, conservatives Ian Rowe and Naomi Schaefer Riley both endorse the “success sequence”: encouraging youth first to finish high school, then gain employment, then marry before having children. They point to data that document the gains from following this sequence.
In his New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof proposes another avenue for increasing marriage rates: increasing the employment and earnings of black men. He reasons, as both Kearney and Kay Hymowitz mention, that black women continue to be reluctant to marry men who earn less than them. Given that there are 50% more black women than black men graduating from four-year colleges, and that black male college graduates have a substantially higher out-marriage rate than black female graduates, there is a substantial shortage of marriageable men for these women.
The focus on this shortage of professional black men is counterproductive for a number of reasons. First, for professional black women, the downside is not having a child without marriage but remaining childless. Second, there is no magic bullet to significantly increase the share of black men obtaining college degrees, given the academic skills of black male high school graduates as measured by standardized tests as well as grades. Among twelfth graders, only 50% of black students have basic reading skills and only 34% have basic math skills, compared to 70% and 71%, respectively, for white students. Indeed, “four-year college-for-all” policies have tried to maximize the share of black high school graduates enrolled in academic programs at two-year and four-year colleges, and those policies have met with little success. Given their skill deficiencies, the vast majority of at-risk students drop out without gaining a degree, and many end up in the disconnected population, with neither a degree nor a steady job.
All of these proposed strategies ignore the problems facing the population most in need of help: black women without a college degree. These women expect a partner who is responsible, which means, at minimum, a partner with stable employment. Attempts to maximize college enrollment have already failed to provide this. Funding occupational training and apprenticeship programs instead of degree programs has been a step in the right direction. But, unfortunately, a large share of at-risk black youth does not have the academic skills necessary to be accepted into the vast majority of current apprenticeship programs.
Instead, these youths require short-term, stackable certificate programs, including credentialed programs provided by the Manufacturing Institute, the Hospitality and Tourism Association, and various medical and IT associations. The first certificate provides access to entry-level positions, with subsequent certificates necessary for advancements. In many cases, they provide a stepping stone to college associate degree programs. Unfortunately, many liberals are adamantly against allowing Pell Grant funding for these certificate programs, fearing it will dissuade these youth from pursuing four-year degree programs.
Currently, among non-immigrant blacks, almost three-quarters of children are born to unmarried women. Even if all of these initiatives are pursued—Kearney’s broad dissemination of the information on the risks of single parenthood, Rowe’s and Riley’s promotion of the success sequence, and an effective occupational enhancement strategy—it is hard to believe that their impact in ten years would do more than lowering this birth rate to 60%. As a result, I contend that even in the most optimistic scenario, a strong majority of black children will not be born into two-parent families. Public policy should focus instead on improving the prospects of these children.
One key yardstick is the academic skills of fourth graders. Currently, less than half of black fourth graders are on grade-level in either reading or math. And in the five largest majority black cities— Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Detroit, and Cleveland—little more than one-quarter of black children meet this standard. Unless something is done, there will be little change in black family formation patterns and the adverse social consequences that currently victimize many vulnerable black urban communities.
For liberals like Kearney, the solution is providing more financial resources to struggling families and universal pre-K programs. More money may help at the margin, but pre-K programs have had no long-term effects on educational performance, because they are poor substitutes for effective parenting. As I document in The State of the Black Family and a previous guest essay for this newsletter, effective parenting requires direct intervention in the home, starting with visiting nurses programs for infants and toddlers. Besides providing parenting skills and strategies to improve early learning, they also seek to reduce toxic stresses and help mothers make effective life choices that go beyond childrearing.
In-house educators can then show mothers how to prepare their children for school, followed by school interactions to keep parents involved with their children’s education. The ongoing parent involvement is found in virtually all charter schools and is slowly entering traditional public schools, particularly in attempts to combat the growing absenteeism problem.
The main problem is that many of the strategies that can be successful, particularly providing in-house services and government funding of certificate programs, seem costly. Unfortunately, much of the social justice movement rejects these approaches, depriving them of necessary support. Many continue to promote four-year college-for-all while fighting against any government funding of certificate programs. Meanwhile, support for the war in the Ukraine and social services for undocumented immigrants devour massive chunks of the federal budget. We must reorient our priorities if we want to help struggling families and at-risk youth instead of doubling down on strategies that have already failed them.