This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Having married parents gives children an advantage in life, one economist told a group gathered in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Two parents have more resources to give children than one alone, Melissa Kearney said. They spend more money on their children, spend more time with them and have more emotional bandwidth, she said.
Kearney discussed her book “The Two-Parent Privilege” during an event Wednesday morning at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Kearney is the Neil Moskowitz Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, and an associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research.
She argues in her book published in September that declining marriage rates are driving many of the country’s biggest economic problems.
There’s been a “dramatic shift” in family structure in the past four decades, Kearney said. The number of children growing up in two-parent households dropped from 77% in 1980 to 63% in 2020.
The drop is more stark among households where women are less educated, she said. That means this “family gap” is “another way the college-educated population in America is pulling away from everyone else,” she said.
Kearney’s research focused on the resources that two parents — regardless of gender, work status or whether one is a stepparent — are able to give children.
“Mounds of data” show the resources a second parent brings to the table lead to better outcomes for children, she said.
Children with two parents are less likely to get in trouble at school, more likely to graduate and more likely to have higher incomes, to name a few advantages, she said.
Kearney stressed she isn’t blaming single parents or saying they’re somehow deficient.
It’s hard to raise children, she said, and harder to do it alone. Suggesting otherwise is “fantasy land,” she said.
Yet some women seem to have a “crappy choice set” and choose to go it alone, Kearney said.
She’d like more women to have the kind of choices college-educated women seem to have — partners with stable employment who are willing to help with household responsibilities.
Kearney suggests a few possible solutions, including:
Fostering a norm of two-parent homes.
Improving the economic position of men without a college degree to make them better marriage material.
Meeting families where they are by scaling up programs that help strengthen families and improve outcomes.
Building a stronger safety net for families regardless of family structure using programs like child tax credits, school lunch and the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children, known as WIC.
Kearney clarified economics can only do so much because government checks and programs don’t make up for the resources a second parent can bring to a home.
It will take a broader change in societal norms and attitudes about marriage, Kearney said, to promote and expand marriage as an institution that seems to help people flourish.
Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.