👪 Parenting as pro-progress, Up Wing policy
Looking at 'The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind' by economist Melissa Kearney
Quote of the issue
“But to assume that even the most promising of emerging technologies of today can neither be helped nor hindered by public policy would be an unwise risk to take.” - James Pethokoukis, The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised
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👪 Parenting as pro-progress, Up Wing policy
Any basic economics class will teach that the key elements in economic growth are the efficient use of labor, capital, and ideas. But here’s a different framing or perspective (one explored in my new book The Conservative Futurist How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised): Economies function by processing information to create meaningful value. More advanced economies have greater “computational capacity” to generate complex products that are formed from accumulated knowledge. Such economies, such as America’s, turn human imagination into physical objects, what statistical physicist César Hidalgo calls “crystals of imagination.” (Less developed economies generate simpler goods.)
The difference lies, according to Hidalgo, in network size and density. In other words: The American economy is a $25 trillion supercomputer of connected companies, cities, governments, and universities that processes information. Its purpose is reordering matter to create greater abundance and prosperity. Public policy must help each node of this economic supercomputer work creatively to produce educated, connected people who can acquire knowledge and collaboratively generate complex innovations.
Economic growth, much like(but not exactly like!) Soylent Green, is made out of people. And people grow up in families which are the basic units of society. Also: They are the building blocks of human capital. Families shape the skills, values, and aspirations of individuals, who in turn contribute to the economic supercomputer. Families provide stability, support, and socialization for their members, who can then participate more effectively in the networks that form the economy.
But not all families are equally conducive to economic growth and the economic prosperity of their members. Research analysis by University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney shows that there has been a major shift in family structure in the US over the past 40 years. The key points from her excellent new book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, provide a comprehensive review of the available literature. The main findings (the charts and direct quote from Kearney’s recent AEI event):
The Shift. There’s been a major shift in family structure in the US over the past 40 years, with fewer children now living in two-parent homes. In 1980, 77 percent of children lived with married parents vs. 63 percent today. This is not being driven by an increase in divorce rates, which have actually fallen, but rather by fewer parents getting married in the first place.
The Gap. Within that broad shift is the growing "college gap" in family structure — children of college-educated mothers are far more likely to live with married parents compared to children whose mothers have a high school degree or only some college.
The Disadvantage. Across various socioeconomic outcomes, from household earnings to educational attainment to poverty, children living without two married parents are at a disadvantage compared to those with married parents with the gaps tending to be largest for children whose mothers have some college or a high school education.
The Divergence. This divergence in family structure has amplified income inequality, as single-parent households tend to have significantly lower household earnings and resources. Having two parents in the home, on the other hand, provides more income, sure, but also more time, stability, and emotional energy for raising children. There’s evidence that the absence of a second parent, usually the father, has particularly detrimental effects on boys' outcomes. Studies find boys in single-mother homes receive less parental time, are more likely to experience harsh parenting, and are more negatively impacted by these deficits. The result is boys in single-mother homes tend to perform worse in school and are more likely to get in trouble, widening the gender gap in outcomes.
The Explanation. What happened? In the 1980s, the diminished emphasis on marriage encouraged acceptance of non-marital childbearing, while economic struggles — especially among non-college educated men — eroded the financial incentive to wed. Concurrently, the rise of cohabitation presented an unstable alternative to marriage, and the scarcity of "marriageable" men, particularly among lower economic groups, further depressed marriage rates
The Answers. What can we do? Kearney:
Here's the most controversial thing I say in the whole book. I do think we need to foster a norm of two-parent homes for children, and for a lot of people that's a tough pill to swallow. But I think that being honest that this is a beneficial family structure for kids is important and that will allow us to spend more energy and time and public funds and research efforts thinking about ways to do that: to build up families, to help unmarried couples with relationship challenges, with co-parenting challenges. I don't think we should accept a new reality where the two-parent family is a thing of the past for less-educated, lower income Americans. … I think we can hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time: economic empowerment of women has been a great thing [and that] the economic disadvantage of non-college educated men and what that's done for family life outside the college-educated class has been a bad thing. I don't think we should stigmatize single mothers or encourage unhealthy marriages, of course, but there has to be a way where we could talk about the need to strengthen families without doing that.
Lots of policy research on how to strengthen families — at least as much as is devoted to improving education — beyond just safety net ideas is needed. This is about more than just income. But this main takeaway should be remembered: Marriage matters for economic growth because it matters for human development. It’s not some quaint relic of the past or an elitist privilege, but a vital institution for the present and the future. It’s not a conservative or a progressive issue, but a common good that benefits our entire society both today and tomorrow. Let’s hope Washington and state governments can eventually see the issue in a non-partisan, non-ideological way.
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