If you want to increase access to the American dream, there’s one simple trick. 

But there’s a catch: It’s not a very politically correct reality. 

Simply put, to optimize any kid’s chance at success, he needs to grow up with married parents

A new book, “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind,” shows just how starkly a child’s life can be affected based on whether he grows up with married parents or a single parent. 

“[M]ounds of social science evidence … shows how the odds of graduating high school, getting a college degree, and having high earnings in adulthood are substantially lower for children who grow up in a single-mother home,” writes author Melissa Kearney. “The odds of becoming a single parent are also substantially higher for children who grow up with a single mother, again illustrating the compounding nature of inequality.” 

“It is not only that lacking two parents makes it harder for some kids to go to college and lead a comfortable life; in the aggregate, it also undermines social mobility and perpetuates inequality across generations,” adds Kearney, a professor in the department of economics at the University of Maryland. 

This message is hardly a popular one in 2023. As of 2019, over a third of kids do not live with their married parents, according to Kearney. That’s a number that’s substantially grown in recent decades: In 1980, 77% of kids lived with their married parents, meaning about a fifth of kids did not. 

Of course, there are plenty of single parents or divorced parents who aren’t so by choice—whether it’s due to abuse, unexpected pregnancies, death, or other factors. But the growing numbers suggest that, overall, our society is more comfortable with the idea of single parenthood and/or divorced parents.  

In our era where judgment is the worst sin of all and it’s crucial to let people live “their truth,” it’s not easy to speak honestly about how kids really do benefit from married parents. But the data is clear: The ideal should be that kids are raised by married parents.  

What is particularly valuable about Kearney’s research is how it debunks various myths about why children of single parents struggle more.  

Myth 1: Marriage is just a piece of paper. Kids don’t need their parents to be formally married. 

Reality: Most couples who are cohabitating and not married in the United States are not stable couples who are going to be together for the full 18 years of a child’s life and are just choosing to live a bohemian life without the legal paperwork. According to Kearney, “U.S. children are much more likely to experience two or three parental partnerships by age 15, as compared to children in other Western nations.”  

Myth 2: Children of nonmarried parents face difficulties because it’s likely they were conceived by younger adults without college degrees and the advantages that confers. 

Reality: Even among single mothers with college degrees, there’s a big difference in the outcomes for their children versus the children of married parents. About 28% of kids of a single mother with a bachelor’s degree get a bachelor’s degree by age 25. In contrast, about 57% of kids of a married mother with a bachelor’s degree get a bachelor’s degree by age 25.  

Myth 3: The reason children of single parents struggle is primarily financial. 

Reality: Kearney writes that “a child born in a two-parent household with a family income of $50,000 has, on average, better outcomes than a child born in a single-parent household earning the same income.” Kearney speculates that might be because money isn’t the only resource parents need to raise their kids; time is another crucial one, and a single parent generally has less time to devote to her children than married parents do. 

Myth 4: If the United States had a more generous welfare system, children of single parents would thrive. 

Reality: “Even in Denmark, a bastion of public welfare that includes free college tuition, universal access to high-quality health care, universal high-quality pre-K, and a generous childcare and maternity-leave policy, the influence of family background on many child outcomes is about as strong as it is in the U.S.,” writes Kearney.  

She adds: 

A recent study shows that despite the generosity of the Danish welfare state, substantial inequality of child outcomes remains across social and economic classes. Parents affect their children’s lives and shape their outcomes in ways that government cannot fully make up for. We should be clear-eyed about this reality. Even if the U.S. safety net were much stronger than it is today, children from two-parent, highly resourced homes would still be bound to have relative advantages in life.

In other words, even if leftists got their welfare wish list indulged, kids of single parents would still face obstacles and have disadvantages. (To be clear, Kearney herself still calls for expansion of government benefits.) 

But Kearney’s book also shows that it’s going to be hard, even if we’re willing to pursue uncomfortable conversations about how children should ideally have married parents, to turn back the clock and return to a culture where the vast majority of kids have married parents. 

In 2018, Kearney conducted a study with Riley Wilson—at the time, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland—looking at whether improved economic prospects for men would change marriage rates. After all, the decline of good-paying jobs for men without college degrees is often cited as a plausible reason, among others, for lower marriage rates.  

So, Kearney and Wilson looked at areas of the country that experienced job booms due to the increase in fracking for oil and gas which provided significant opportunities for men. They found births increased, but marriages did not, despite the increased economic prosperity.  

In other words, even if lower incomes contributed to the decline of marriage, it doesn’t appear higher incomes will necessarily automatically reverse the trend and increase marriages.  

That means even if better jobs are brought back for blue-collar men, marriage rates won’t automatically revert to traditional trends.  

Which brings us back to the necessity of having this conversation, awkward as it can be, about the importance of marriage for children. Most parents would do a great deal to help their children have the best shot at a good life. Don’t they deserve to know the most important thing they might do for their future children is to find—and stay married to—a good spouse? 

The data may not be convenient. But it’s clear: Children do best with married parents.  

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