Melissa Kearney worried about being pigeonholed as she wrote ‘The Two-Parent Privilege.’
Melissa Kearney’s new book, “The Two-Parent Privilege,” is an attempt to explain the importance of marriage to her fellow liberal intellectuals. Sadly, she has her work cut out.
The author is an MIT-trained economist, and as the book jacket explains, she makes “a provocative, data-driven case for marriage by showing how the institution’s decline has led to a host of economic woes—problems that have fractured American society and rendered vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.” Her argument is solid, and she makes it using minimal academic jargon in an impressively brisk 200 pages.
I’m not sure how “provocative” it is, however. When Ms. Kearney writes that “the absence of a father from a child’s home appears to have direct effects on children’s outcomes—and not only because of the loss of parental income,” or that we need to “restore and foster a norm of two-parent homes for children,” it not only makes perfect sense to me but also sounds very familiar. Then again, I’m not the reader she’s targeting. I hardly need convincing that there are strong links between family structure, the well-being of children and outcomes later in life. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said as much in his 1965 report on the black family, and Moynihan relied on research conducted much earlier by black sociologists such as E. Franklin Frazier.
George Gilder wrote about the importance of the nuclear family in “Sexual Suicide” (1973) and “Men and Marriage” (1986). Charles Murray, who had touched on it in his landmark study, “Losing Ground” (1984), made similar arguments in “Coming Apart” (2012). In 1994 David Blankenhorn published “Fatherless America,” and 1996 brought David Popenoe’s “Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society.”
Other books that cover the same ground as Ms. Kearney include Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s “The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially”; James Q. Wilson’s “The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families”; Kay Hymowitz’s “Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age”; and Ralph Richard Banks’s “Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.”
A forthcoming volume from University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox is called “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization.” Mr. Wilcox’s subtitle neatly encapsulates Ms. Kearney’s dilemma. Conservatives likely are familiar with at least a few of the aforementioned titles, yet those books in many cases have been denounced or simply ignored by the same left-wing intellectuals Ms. Kearney is trying to win over.
In a recent podcast interview with fellow economist Stephen Dubner, Ms. Kearney said that writing the book felt like taking “a big risk” professionally because her peers tend to avoid addressing the role of family structure in discussions of social inequality and look down on those who do. “My saying it’s not discussed is probably more reflective of the circles I run in, which is, you know, higher ed, academia, which of course skews liberal,” she said. “And progressive, left-leaning conversations about kids’ well-being and concerns about social mobility—in those circles, in those conversations, I often find that this topic is met with discomfort.”
The author recalled being asked by Mr. Dubner while still researching the book if she was concerned about being labeled as a social conservative if she published her findings. “I took that to heart,” Ms. Kearney said, “because I knew what you were saying, which is, really, ‘Do you worry that academics aren’t going to take you seriously if you sound socially conservative?’ ”
If Ms. Kearney can reach a readership that is lost to George Gilder or James Q. Wilson or Brad Wilcox, bully for her. The author reports that in 1960 only 5% of babies were born to unwed mothers in the U.S. In 2019 it was almost 50%. U.S. children are the most likely in the world to live with only one parent. This is an enormous problem, and there’s no such thing as too many books being written about it.
Still, it’s unfortunate that we’ve reached a point where scaredy-cat social scientists are more interested in being popular than in following the facts, weighing the evidence and reporting the findings. Worse, what keeps you in good standing in academic circles seemingly has more to do with the political correctness of your research and less to do with its rigor or usefulness.
Whether the topic is family structure, climate change or the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” the intellectual cowardice on display in recent years has been stunning. It’s clear that our intellectual class, like every other special-interest group, has its own agenda and its own blind spots. For too many academic scholars, integrity has become a secondary concern.
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Appeared in the September 27, 2023, print edition as ‘On Marriage, an Economist Bravely States the Obvious’.