The U.S. Economy Needs More Two Parent Families

10 minute read
Kearney is the Neil Moskowitz Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland and and is the Director of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group. She is the author of The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind (University of Chicago Press)

A few years ago, I was in a cab in Boston and noticed a photo of a young girl that my driver had displayed on his dashboard. “Is that your daughter?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said with joyful pride. “I have more pictures, want to see?” I did. He handed me his phone and invited me to scroll through his photos. I “ooh”ed and “aah”ed over how adorable his four-year old girl was. We chatted. He told me she lived with her mom.

“You don’t live with them?” I asked. “Nah,” he said. “Could I ask why not?” I continued. I knew this was nosy, so I quickly qualified it. “I’m an economist, and I study families, so I wonder about these kinds of things.” “I don’t know.” he shrugged. “We talk about it. If we save up some money, we might get married.”  

I pressed further. “I don’t mean to pry,” I said slowly, “but if you guys get along and you both love your daughter, why don’t you live together as a family?” He became flustered—not impatient or angry, but genuinely flustered. He missed the exit, looked over his shoulder to get a better look at me, and asked, “Did my mom send you or something?”

This encounter—and a million other domestic arrangements that it describes—prompt an important question: Has the social normalization of raising children outside of a two-parent arrangement led to more children being raised in a one-parent household? Surely, yes. And has this trend served the best interests of children? Based on the evidence of how beneficial two parent (especially two biological parent) homes are for children, the answer is an unequivocal no. 

This presents our modern American society with a challenge: we need to find ways to acknowledge the benefits of a two-parent family—including the important role that fathers play in their children’s lives—without coming across as shaming or blaming single mothers. By being honest about the benefits that a two-parent family home confers to children, we can break the pattern in which a desire to be inclusive of different family types too often leads to a reluctance to acknowledge the negative consequences of the rise in one-parent families and address it as a matter of public policy.

Research Shows Children Thrive in Married Parent Households

The evidence is clear, even if the punchline is uncomfortable: children are more likely to thrive— behaviorally and academically, and ultimately in the labor market and adult life—if they grow up with the advantages of a two-parent home. Numerous academic studies confirm that children raised in married parent homes are less likely to get in trouble in school or with the law; they are more likely to graduate high school and college; they are more likely to have higher income and be married themselves as adults. Research suggests that boys are especially disadvantaged by the absence of dads from their homes. These facts are indisputable. But there is disagreement among scholars about what to take away from them and what the policy implications are.

Some of these differences reflect the fact that parents who are married are already likely to be more successful and thus pass advantages down to their children. Those inclined to downplay the role of marriage often emphasize this point and conclude that we should thus not focus on marriage per se, but instead focus on shoring up government support to single-parent families. I disagree. We should be asking why it is that the most economically successful people in our society are so much more likely to be married and have the advantage of a spouse with whom to raise their children.

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We should not be content with marriage and married parent families becoming yet another luxury good of the college-educated class and another source of disproportionate advantage for their children. Interviews conducted with low-income unmarried couples often suggest that many of these couples aim to be married and make their relationships work, but they face barriers to doing so. It should be a policy priority to help such couples achieve stable, healthy relationships, and to promote positive approaches to co-parenting that benefit their children.

Furthermore, the gaps in outcomes between children from married and single mother homes is not just reflective of more successful adults being more likely to be married. Gaps remain when comparing outcomes across the children of mothers of the same age, race, and education level. A lot of this reflects the basic fact that homes with two adults have two potential earners, and therefore have more income. Married parents also have more collective time, energy, and emotional bandwidth to give to their children. I agree that we need more public support to economically insecure families, but a government check is never going to make up for all the income and other types of support a loving, working second parent in the home would bring. Even in countries with much more generous welfare states than the U.S., family background matters for children’s outcomes. We should have a stronger safety net in the U.S., but we should also invest directly in parents and their ability to establish strong families.

Of course, some families would not be better off if the parents lived together, and some parents are not positive influences in their children’s lives. But we are no longer in a situation in the U.S. where children are raised by an unmarried or unpartnered parent only in rare or extenuating circumstances. Only 63 percent of U.S. children live in a home with married parents. The share being raised in a home with two parents, regardless of marital status, is only slightly higher—around 70 percent. Statistics show that many of these cohabiting arrangements will break up, bringing the burden of instability to children’s lives.

The share of children living with married parents is even lower among the children of parents who don’t have a four-year college degree; this is true overall, as well as within race and ethnic groups. The interaction of education, class, and race is quite determinant. The children of non-college educated Black mothers are at an especially high risk of living with only their mother—around 60 percent of children in that group live with only their mother. The gap in family structure between education and race groups both reflects and exacerbates inequality, and it threatens to entrench advantage and disadvantage across generations.

Are Men Not Marriageable?

Some observers see these trends and object to the idea that marriage itself is something we should be focused on as a matter of social policy. A frequent line of argument is that women are not marrying the fathers of their children because these men would not be good providers or partners.

Could it really be the case that so many American children have been borne of fathers who would not be positive contributors to the family if they were part of their household? If that is even close to the reality for men in America today, then we have a terrible crisis of men.

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In fact, the evidence does suggest that part of the story of why marriage has declined outside the college-educated class in America—and consequently the share of children living without the benefits of two parents in their home has increased—is a response to the decade-long economic struggles of non-college educated men. Social science evidence points to an important role for the decline in the economically “marriageable male.” When a man is unlikely to be an economically reliable partner, marriage is not an attractive proposition. The decline in marriage in the U.S. since the 1980s reflects, in part, the declining economic position of non-college educated men (which is still a majority of U.S. men).

But the economic trends that have been punishing to many men in society have been amplified by a social acceptance of having and raising children outside a committed partnership—and these forces have not been good for children, or society more generally.

Social Norms Matter, and Are Malleable

It’s not just economics; social norms are also an important contributor to the rise of the single-parent household. Where social norms come from and how to change them are complicated questions. Academic evidence does give us some useful answers. For one, role models matter. Young people take inspiration and cues from trusted adults in their lives. Children, teens, and young adults will approach their own family formation in ways that are reflective of the examples and lessons they take from the adults around them.

There is also compelling evidence that people’s attitudes (and ultimately behaviors) are influenced by media content, even in the complicated sphere of family formation. For instance, economists have documented how the portrayal of family structures Brazilian telenovelas produced changes in the country’s family and fertility outcomes—a drop in fertility, a rise in divorce and separation—between 1965 and 1999. Similarly, the depictions of the difficulties associated with being a teen mom as shown on the MTV reality television show 16 and Pregnant led to a decline in rates of teen childbearing in the US.

Social messaging that comes organically in the form of entertainment and social media can have an impact on how people think and act when it comes to decisions about family and fertility.

Promoting Two Parent Households as Economic Policy

The decline in marriage, the corresponding high share of children living with only their mothers, the economic disadvantage and inequality that results is producing a cycle in desperate need of interruption. The U.S. needs to raise boys who are fit to be reliable marriage partners and nurturing, supportive fathers. We need to foster a societal expectation that fathers are present in their children’s lives and support them, financially and emotionally. I have no idea whether the cab driver I mentioned above would be a good father or partner. But he was obviously employed, and he seemed to love his daughter and her mother; he was also seemingly ambivalent about whether they should raise their daughter in a home together, and whether they were committed to each other as marriage partners.

Restoring the prevalence of marriage between parents outside the college educated class will require both economic and social changes. It will require bolstering the circumstances of men, so that they are more reliable marriage partners and fathers. In broad strokes, this will likely require heightened economic stability, but also addressing the multitude of barriers that make it hard for some men to form healthy relationships, including substance abuse, violence, criminal engagement, and other challenges. Restoring the prevalence of marriage will likely also require fostering a norm of marriage—or at least committed, long-term cohabitation—among parents. These are efforts that can be tackled on the federal, state, and local level through economic policy choices regarding married versus single people, as well as through the excellent work being done by non-profits and advocacy groups across the nation that help people learn to become stronger marriage partners and parents.

The economic data is clear: to make our nation’s economy stronger for all men, women and children, marriage and family structure must be acknowledged as a driving force of economic well-being. And we must promote positive, shame-free ways of changing our social and economic views on marriage to make improvements that help the nation now and in the decades ahead.

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