David Leonhardt Links Two-Parent Families to Low Social Mobility, Without Taking Race and Socio-Economic Status Into Account

By June Carbone, Robina Chair of Law, Science and Technology
University of Minnesota Law School. Jointly published with New Economic Perspectives.

David Leonhardt strikes again. As he now seems to do with some regularity, he takes a complex body of work and reduces it to a soundbite, eliminating the complexity and uncertainty that underlies the research. His soundbite this time links two parent families to upward mobility, and notes that two different dynamics produce two parent families: high income and religion. He then replicates maps that purport to show these linkages.

There are two problems with these single minded linkages. First, the geographic analysis of two parent families and the connection to social mobility is meaningless without taking race into account. The striking thing about Utah, Idaho, the upper Midwest and New England – all areas with relatively low rates of single parent families – is that they have much smaller African-American and Latino populations, and white families tend to have strikingly different demographic patterns than non-white families, in part because of differences in socio-economic status. The second chart Mr. Leonhardt’s column includes captures this point even more effectively. It shows the least social mobility – and some of the highest rates of single parenthood – in a belt that runs through heavily African-American communities, primarily in the South. These communities are as notable for their high rates of poverty, segregation, and isolation. There is sophisticated demographic analysis underlying these figures, but Mr. Leonhardt’s column doesn’t capture it. Instead, he largely dismisses the influence of racial factors, particularly their role in compounding the effects of poverty and isolation, as minor.

Second, the link between single parent families and social mobility raises the question of which comes first – whether the link is a unidimensional one of single parent families causing low social mobility or poor, isolated communities causing low high rates of single parent families. The research on this is somewhat complex. Virtually all studies show that, all other things being equal, two parents are better than one. Yet, the modern examination of upward mobility also indicates that children in single parent families do better in wealthier communities, eliminating much of the disadvantage that comes from single parenthood itself. In a similar fashion, African-Americans, irrespective of family form, do better in integrated communities. Poor, isolated, and segregated communities on the other hand tend to suffer disproportionately from factors that increase rates of single parenthood, including high rates of unemployment, underemployment, and employment instability, racially targeted police practices that increase the portion of the male population in prison or on probation or parole, and higher rates of domestic violence and substance abuse.

In our work on ideological division (Red Families v. Blue Families) and class influences on family formation (Marriage Markets), we tried to capture the dynamic forces underlying these trends. We argued that what “blue” family patterns reflect is an adaptation to the economic forces that reward investment in women. In this system, couples defer childbearing until their educations are complete and they establish sufficient employment and financial stability to manage children. This system, as the Leonhardt column indicates, works and has taken hold in the wealthier parts of the country. What we described as “red” is a religiously based system that still celebrates marriage at younger ages. It, too, “works” for couples embedded in religious communities and for men who still have stable employment.

The problem with both systems is what they offer for communities where good jobs have largely disappeared. In these communities, church attendance has declined with employment, and both divorce and non-marital births have risen. Some research indicates that the persistence of young average ages of marriage increases the divorce rates of the people in the same communities who also marry young but are less likely to attend church. And the major factor affecting a recent decline in non-marital birth rates nationally is a decline in fertility – i.e., a blue strategy that involves greater use of contraception and more delay in childbearing – rather than more marriage, though the married couples who deferred childbearing during the Great Recession are now having children at later ages increasing the overall percentage born within marriage.

Leonhardt’s column, however, misses these demographic subtleties along with the issue of what the red/blue divide is really about. We argued that what underlies “blue” is a modernist effort to adjust to changing economic realities. Elites, whether in red or blue states, have done so effectively; the battle is over how to translate their systems into something that works for those at the losing end of economic changes. “Blue” prescriptions emphasize giving women more autonomy; that is, more control of their sexuality and greater ability to avoid unplanned pregnancies and unwanted births. For those who want to have children, however, blue policies would also provide greater support for the children who result, producing overall a smaller, better educated population. “Red” prescriptions, which celebrate religion and marriage, also tend to work by limiting women’s autonomy. They make it harder to access contraception, much less abortion, and favor limiting women’s ability to go it alone with respect to childrearing. What no emphasis on the family alone can do, however, is bring back the jobs that once supported two parent, working class families. Leonhardt’s column, by reinforcing the myth that family form somehow causes low social mobility, is a disservice to the real debate about what underlies family change.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Rosairo

    Being a child largely raised by my mother (who did quite a good job by any subjective measure) I will be the first to argue the cultural perception of single parenting as a “problem” is what should be taken to task and is more the “issue” that Leonhardt (or any conservative) can’t seem to come to terms with. Children from single parent households may have a harder time only because society regards them as being a problem in the first place. This is classic chicken or the egg. This cultural warrior stuff is a rerun from the Victorian age. Predictably simple moral messages that can be digested in one sitting.

    1. johnnygl

      If i recall correctly, in countries with stronger welfare states, like the Scandanavian countries, kids from single parent homes do mpre or less the same as those from two parent homes.

      It’s a problem of poverty and isolation, not morals and culture.

      1. Aaron Schutz

        Yes. And in studies in the US, all other things being equal, when you take income into effect, single parenthood has no discernible impact on children, if I remember correctly. The whole “broken families” meme is a myth.

      2. Rosario

        I completely agree with the problem being poverty and isolation materially, but in terms of policy, applying moralistic components to family arrangements the way Leonhardt does creates social perceptions that make welfare assistance for single parents harder to come by. Just look at what Clinton did in the nineties with Welfare to Work. His arguments were loaded with moralistic nonsense. I’m arguing there is nothing wrong with single parents, unfortunately there are many people in American society that feel it is a problem and many of these people control positions of employment and politics. My mom got little sympathy being a single mother and that perception, I argue, still goes all the way to the top amongst the political and social elite. Unfortunately moral perception does matter and should be fought against on the ideological front.

      3. digi_owl

        To the point that ladies may invite a guy into her life long enough for there to be a kid on the way, and then show him the door. It may even reach the point were one guy ends up being the “stud” for multiple ladies in a region…

    1. diptherio

      Yeah, I noticed the same thing. When I saw the headline I thought “well, since social-mobility these days is mainly downward, maybe that makes sense…” but then I read the article–“Two-Parent” in the headline should be “Single-Parent”.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I came to this post thinking I would read about how two-parent families where both parents work were less geographically mobile, especially where both partners had well-paying employment. I was thinking of all the complications of moving to a new job if one of the parents gets transferred or gets laid off and cannot find work locally — reading work mobility in place of social mobility.

  2. Bobbo

    As a parent in a two parent family, I know that parenting is hard work. At least it is if you approach it the way I do — I always think that there is always more than I could be and should be doing. The real problem is not a problem of material resources. It’s a problem of limited time and limited energy. I admire and respect those single parents who somehow manage to pull it off, but I don’t think as a society we should encourage single parenting. I just don’t see how a single parent would ever have enough time and energy, assuming he or she has a full time job in the real world. Yes, many kids from single parent families will do just fine in life, even if they do grow up impoverished from the love an attention that they otherwise might have received from a second parent. Does anyone really think that love and investment from the second parent doesn’t really matter?

    To the extent we as a society have allowed our situation to deteriorate to the point that someone working one full time job is still below the poverty line, we have a serious problem. If the problem is that single parents do not have enough time to be parents because they need to work multiple jobs, then we should not at all be surprised by the end result. But short of that, I do not think the problem is one of material resources. It’s a question of priorities. Raising kids properly is a monster task that requires a huge investment.

    I am puzzled why we even bother to do the type of research that led to the article. Shouldn’t it be obvious that children from stable two parent families have an advantage? Why would we need research to tell us that? And why waste energy criticizing the studies and trying to find alternative explanations? I don’t get it.

    1. jrs

      I think it may be common sense (but common sense may be wrong) that a functional two parent family is better than one. But then since I also often suspect over 50% of families are dysfunctional it may only be so relevant.

      “Yes, many kids from single parent families will do just fine in life, even if they do grow up impoverished from the love an attention that they otherwise might have received from a second parent. Does anyone really think that love and investment from the second parent doesn’t really matter?”

      But plenty of children from two parent families grow up neglected. Whether two dysfunctional parents are better than one, I’d say maybe, unless there’s violence and abuse etc..

      How to spot a conservative (not the poster above necessarily), they’ll always talk about “intact families” but never about “functional families”.

      1. Bobbo

        I find the concepts of “intact families” and “functional families” to be a bit awkward and unhelpful. What does it mean to be “intact”? Does that imply that there is some benefit of keeping a family together even if there is violence, emotional abuse, drug abuse, etc? And what does it mean to be “functional”? That seems to set the bar really low. Unless is means “not dysfunctional”. But isn’t virtually every family dysfunctional in one way or another?

        I prefer my original wording. I talked about stability and love — two things that are essential for any child, regardless of one’s politics or religion (and separate and apart from the question of whether we are talking about a one parent family or a two parent family or other type of family structure).

        1. ambrit

          The concept of extended family has been sidelined for the last century or so, possibly as an artifact of rising standards of living. Now that standards of living are falling all across the so called “First World,” the function of extended family as caregivers for the children is returning out of necessity. I know several people here in the South, we being the poorest in general, who are raising their grandchildren.

          1. Nathan Tankus

            “The concept of extended family has been sidelined for the last century or so, possibly as an artifact of rising standards of living. Now that standards of living are falling all across the so called “First World,” the function of extended family as caregivers for the children is returning out of necessity. ”
            exactly. A great classic movie about this that has been making the rounds recently is Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray. A little note, it probably has less to do with rising living standards then with social insurance. Without social insurance, a “normal” extended family has to live off “market income” (whether savings of past market income or a current person’s market income). This has many problems but one benefit is that the elderly tend to do that kind of necessary domestic work as a form of mutual aid.

            However, I think the reliance on extended families is a regression. We should reorganize society so that raising children is less familial and more of an integrated network between family and friends and of course various state supports including paid day care are necessary. any problems single parents have isn’t their fault, its the fault of our current social arrangements.

            1. LWA

              Are extended families necessarily incompatible with intentional community?

              The right makes a lot of hay over the sneaking suspicion that the chirping happy talk from the left about the village caring for children is merely a mask for the state attacking the family.

              I assert that one flows from the other, that stable extended families facilitate the development of state support for families of all forms.

      2. cwaltz

        The key words being functional. Just once I wish that these “studies” included 2 parent families where there was a drinking problem or where there were mental health issues instead of pretending 2 parent families are the be all and end all for children to escape poverty. Many single parent families exist because the second parent ISN’T functional.

    2. Spring Texan

      Sigh, because people like David Brooks are constantly saying this sort of thing to blame individuals and their “low morality” for all their problems so nothing need be done about poverty or lack of opportunity.

      Moreover, what is “obvious” is not always true, so investigation can be warranted.

      Moreover, one reason raising kids is such a “monster task” is because we don’t have adequate social supports in place and that puts a huge burden on parents. Parents have a huger burden now than when I grew up in many ways because a) college was cheap; and b) kids were not expected to be supervised or attended every minute (which is expensive) but wandered around on our own freely after about age 10. Of course, many families had more kids then and they could afford to because the investment was NOT so huge at that time.

    3. Aaron Schutz

      We do the research because it turns out that as another poster says, common sense is wrong. If we supported families better as a society, it turns out that single parenthood wouldn’t affect kids. We can argue about why, but the research is robust on that point.

  3. alex morfesis

    great job tearing apart d/l’s broken logic…ny times could use a fresh set of eyes and new columnists….

  4. Sam Kanu

    The real agenda in all of this is to promote the Horatio Alger myth: “the poor are in that condition because they are lazy”.

    But this isn’t true. If you look at the Scandinavian societies:
    – they have managed to make life outcomes for children completely independent of their parents marital status
    – they have also made solid inroads into making children’a life outcomes independent of parents social and economic status.

    The reasons why are many, but a couple stand out:
    – focus on distribution, not Redistribution. Basically employers defacto have to provide a living wage, or they are seen and treated as social pariahs. So work pays and even single parents have a more solid footing already.
    – focus on universal schools that are centrally funded,so that people in poor neighbourhoods have better schools
    – solid investment in social housing programs

    What this does is it reduces the job of the social welfare apparatus o basically providing the social scaffolding necessary such that whether one parent or not, poor on not kids have the resources to develop themselves into mentally healthy and professionally productive adults.

    Of course, in the US, we’d rather wave Horatio Alger novels around while we routinely pay sub-living wages and cordon off the poor into brutally polced ghettos.

    1. Spring Texan

      Sam, you answered Bobbo (who may have been reading Bobo) much better than I could. Thanks!

    2. Aaron Schutz

      One scary problem with this is that I’ve seen research showing that it is only homogeneous countries that have such supports. Once there is a “them” that is mooching on “us,” support for this starts to fade. How to deal with this?

      1. Bobbo

        The fact that the US is a multicultural society makes it all the more important for the parents to have time for the children. The parents need to pass on the unique values and traditions of the culture. Anonymous/neutral “social institutions” cannot do that. A homogeneous society can much more easily expect the schools and other institutions to help raise the children. But that is not working out so well in the U.S., and it is hard for me to imagine any scenario where that would work out very well.

        1. Ziontrain

          The whole thing about “homogenous” is a red herring.

          In fact those societies are not “homogenous” as claimed.

          More interestingly, many of those so-called “homogenous societies”, problems and all——still do better for the kids of minorities than we do here in the US. So one has to go back to the issue of solid distributional policies i.e. living wages and then the impact of a universal services as opposed to balkanised “commercial” ones.

          As the world’s richest country – and we are by far – we cannot continue to make excuses. We have to actually see out children – all children – as a valuable resource to be protected and nurtured. But basically we brualize them and then wonder what happened when they grow up. That mindset has to change.

          The key there is self-awareness. And that is where our society falls down. We are a plantation and frontier society – the beverly hillbillies – and a lot of our ills are rooted in blind acceptance of the leftovers of that heritage. but we can’t carry on like this, wasting the potential of countless kids.

          You understand the true character of a person in how they treat the weakest in a group. When you look at us, how we treat the poor, the minorities, the children – it speaks volumes about our character.

  5. LWA

    What is perplexing about the use of family form as a engine of success, is that no one ever wants to follow the logic far enough.

    If we accept that people deprived of the nurturing and society-forming influences of parents and siblings will suffer failure to bond and network and achieve success in the economic sphere, doesn’t it seem reasonable that when entire communities are ostracized, isolated, and deprived of the kinship and society-forming influences of fellow communities they also will suffer failure?

    It reminds me a little bit about how in the early days of gay liberation, conservatives would point to studies which drew the astonishing conclusion that homosexuals who were shamed and ostracized and despised by community suffered higher than normal rates of neuroses.

  6. kevinearick

    At least be honest enough to say what you are saying, that you want to subsidize single female households with debt forcibly assigned to future generations, which can only result in falling living standards for yourself.

    The Fed’s only way out, short of global calamity, which the market makers caught in the TBTF trap want, is to print cash and give it to the few remaining commercial lenders with some experience in lines of credit, to be distributed to those with skill mobility, at nominal rates, ultimately born by holders of debt instruments.

    But, go ahead and prove me wrong.

    No politician represents labor, at any level.

    Scandinavia is a poor example, as geopolitics will shortly reveal.

  7. Ziontrain

    At least be honest enough to say what you are saying, that you want to subsidize single female households with debt forcibly assigned to future generations, which can only result in falling living standards for yourself.

    How about we “subsidize” them with cash taxed from the filthy rich in the present generation? Will result in rising living standards for the majority of the population. Sounds sensible to me.

    Speaking of “subsidies” how is it that the word is only mentioned when the recipient is poor?
    – I did not hear any bleating about “subsidies” when Wall St was bailed out to the detriment of future generation.
    – Am still not hearing the word “subsidy” through years of stealing the savings of ordinary people under the guise of “quantitative easing” etc.

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