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Economist details backlash for saying kids need two parents
Melissa Kearney, economist

‘It worries me deeply that there are right answers and there are wrong answers among academics,’ professor said

Economist Melissa Kearney has the research to back up a common-sense conclusion: on average, children raised by married parents have better life outcomes than children raised by a single mother or father.

Kearney (pictured) is a professor at the University of Maryland, the director of the bipartisan Aspen Economic Strategic Group, and the mother of three children, according to her X bio.

“Only 63% of US children are being raised in a home with married parents,” Kearney wrote in her new book, “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.”

Additionally, in 2019, “more than one in five children in the US live[d] with a mother who is neither married nor cohabitating,” she wrote.

“Only 38% of Black children lived with married parents— a historically low share that reflects a downward trend over four decades,” according to Kearney.

In an interview published Saturday with Bari Weiss at The Free Press, Kearney  said she encountered opposition in her research because fellow academics found her evaluation of marriage outdated or regressive.

Publishing the book “wasn’t an easy process,” Kearney said. “I got four reviews, and one of the reviewers basically told [University of Chicago] Press, ‘You should not be publishing a book in 2023 that calls for a return to marriage.'”

“So even at the Chicago Press, which you might think is the most committed to just telling the hard truths, it wasn’t a walk in the park to get this book past the reviewers,” she said.

“It worries me deeply that there are right answers and there are wrong answers among academics,” Kearney said.

“There are clear pressures of what topics are valued, what topics people should pursue, what topics are going to get published in the best journals,” she said. “I think that is really antithetical to what we should be doing as scholars.”

Nonetheless, “in a very straightforward way, we see that kids growing up in single-mother homes are five times more likely to live in poverty than kids growing up in married parent homes,” Kearney told Weiss.

In the book’s first chapter, Kearney wrote that at a recent academic economics conference on inequality, she raised her hand and asked how she and her peers ought to “think about the role of family and home environment” in affecting the phenomena under discussion.

“If we are talking about how people perform in school and the labor market, isn’t the kind of household they grew up in an important determinant of that performance?” she said.

Her questions “elicited a muted reaction— uncomfortable shifting in seats and facial expressions that conveyed reservations with this line of inquiry,” she said. “The apparent consensus I took from the room, expressed through limited language and unencouraging gestures, was that family and marriage were personal matters and somewhat out of bounds for this type of discussion.”

Another academic with whom Kearney discussed the topic in a different setting “bristled,” telling her that she sounded “‘socially conservative,’ in a way that implied, ‘not academically serious,'” she wrote.

However, such academic silencing and reluctance to discuss the topic have damaging consequences, according to Kearney.

“It seems that this discomfort and hesitancy have stifled public conversation on a critically important topic that has sweeping implications not just for the well-being of American children and families but for the country’s well-being, too,” she wrote.

Children raised by two parents are ‘set up to be in a better position to thrive in life,’ according to Kearney

Kearney told Weiss in the interview that none of her research is meant “to denigrate single moms or single dads.”

However, “we see in the data that married parents … [are] more likely to report having strong, nurturing bonds with their kids,” she said.

“We also see that kids from two-parent households are less likely to have behavioral issues,” she said. “They’re more likely to reach educational milestones. They’re less likely to get in trouble with the law. All things that set them up to be in a better position to thrive in life.”

Kearney told Weiss that policymakers and citizens must consider cultural as well as economic factors in addressing the rise of single-parent homes.

Kearney said she became persuaded of the power of social norms while surveying data on Asian Americans, who predominantly raise children with two parents regardless of education or income level.

“It’s not explained by different economic situations,” according to Kearney.

Non-college-educated Asian men saw falling wages and fewer jobs over the last several decades, just like white, black, and Hispanic men, but “without the subsequent reduction in marriage,” Kearney said. “That makes me think that there is a strong role here for social convention.”

MORE: Universities should encourage marriage, family: Notre Dame researcher

IMAGE: Social Science Space

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