Economist Melissa Kearney argues for strengthening of American families

The Notre Dame Department of Economics hosted Melissa Kearney, University of Maryland professor and author of The Two Parent Privilege: How Americans stopped getting married and started falling behind, on October 26 as a part of the department’s Combs Lecture Series. The book provides empirical evidence of the detrimental effects of the rising number of single-parent households. Kearney’s work has received significant backlash from progressives who are wary of criticisms of non-nuclear families as the new norm. 

Kearney has defended her work, arguing that the book shouldn’t be provocative because its arguments are data driven. The “share of kids living outside of two-parent homes,” she reaffirmed in the lecture, “is one of the biggest social challenges facing the U.S. today.” In particular, Kearney said that “the class divergence of family structure in this country” is quite worrying according to her data.

Since the 1980s, the percentage of U.S. children growing up in a home with married parents has plummeted from 77% to 63%. An American child is more likely than any other child in the world to live with only one parent. Kearney said acknowledging the indisputable consequences that this fact has had on social mobility and children’s well-being “takes this issue out of the culture wars” and places it into the economic and social science realm. 

Kearney argued that economists and social scientists have an interest in these falling rates of marriage because of the data showing the benefits of two-parent households. “Kids from two parent homes are more likely to stay out of poverty, they’re less likely to get in trouble at school, they’re more likely to graduate high school, they’re more likely to graduate college, they’re less likely to get in trouble with the law, they’re more likely to have higher incomes and raise their kids in married-parent homes,” Kearney explained. 

Kearney’s research has also brought forth some surprising realities regarding family structure across race, class, and education level. Contrary to modern feminists’ critique of marriage as “inherently at odds with feminism,” the data actually shows that the most highly educated, high-income-earning women—those Kearney says “benefited the most from feminism”—are the most likely to be married and running a household with their spouse. Low-income, non-college-educated women are the most likely to be raising children on their own, furthering the class divide and perpetuating disadvantage for the children of these groups, according to Kearney.

Helen Keefe, Notre Dame Business Honors Program Mentor Program Manager, attended the event, and, in a conversation with the Rover, commented on  the framing of the debate surrounding Kearney’s book: “The title—‘The Two-Parent Privilege’—seemed paradoxical. Doesn’t every human being necessarily have two parents? Obviously, many people do not grow up enjoying the presence of both parents, but it’s amazing to realize the impact such a thing has at a macro level.”

Why do married parents provide such a benefit to their children? Kearney argues that this benefit arises because of the resource-driven economic framework, the idea being that two parents contributing time, money, and emotional bandwidth into a child immensely increases their quality of life and probability of success. She expanded on this idea: “Besides just having more income … you live in better places, you attend better schools, you have better health … you spend more money directly on enriching activities.” According to the data, all of these factors increase a child’s chance of graduating college and going on to raise their own children in married, two-parent households. 

Eric Sims, Department of Economics Chair, reflected on the institution of marriage and its relationship to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity in an interview with the Rover: “The institution of marriage is central to our religious tradition, but it is also central to the economic livelihoods of people. This great presentation focused on the importance of the institution of marriage for economic outcomes for young people. This message is quite complementary to the Church’s long-standing teachings on the importance of marriage.” 

Sims also wondered, “What can we do as a society to strengthen the situations so that a two-parent, married-parent home is a more feasible, attractive, and attainable position?” He continued, “We need to be able to think about how we can strengthen families in America [and] how we can close class gaps in family structure if we’re going to meaningfully make progress on threats to social mobility and advancing child well-being.”

In the final portion of her talk, Kearney addressed the disincentives in our tax code that make it more difficult for low-income couples to make the jump into marriage, as well as the lack of federal funding going toward organizations that strengthen marriages. “We need to be hugely investing in parent’s ability to take care of their kids,” she insisted with dismay at the current situation. She contended that this should not be a partisan issue: “Republicans and conservatives who confess to care about kids should be wanting to spend a fortune more building up and strengthening families. And progressives who … profess to caring deeply about inequality should be willing to put money towards building safe and strong families.”

Kearney concluded: “We do need to foster a norm of two-parent homes for kids …We can’t accept the new reality where the two-parent family is a thing of the past for lower-educated, lower-income families. This is exceptionally defeatist, and this is accepting a new norm where advantage and disadvantage is perpetuated through generations … I do not think our country can or should afford to accept this reality.”

Merlot Fogarty is a senior studying theology and political science. She is passionate about doing her part to increase the norm of married, two-parent households. Men looking to aid her in the endeavor may contact her at

Photo Credit: University of Chicago Press

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