Response to Douthat on Two-Parent Families

Conor here. Naked Capitalism recently ran Matt Bruenig’s analysis of the flaws in the methodology used to argue that offspring benefit from married parents. Here Bruenig expands on that piece and responds to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s thoughts on that post.

By Matt Bruenig. Originally published at his website.

Ross Douthat had a response to my response to the various promotional pieces about Melissa Kearney’s new book. Douthat’s response is generally OK but, in addition to clarifying my point, I do want to respond to one part of Douthat’s piece here, as he says something that has been annoying me for a while but that I’ve avoided responding to just because most people are probably going to think my response is really offensive and overly personal. Oh well.

If you haven’t followed along so far, Kearney has a new book where she bravely argues that it is good for kids to have two parents in their household.

I responded to this argument by rehashing what I take to be the common view on this topic, which is that parent cohabitation is sometimes good and sometimes bad, depending on the characteristics of each parent and how those parents get along. Based on this view, the relevant inquiry is how many of the 22 percent of kids who live in single-parent households would actually be better off if their specific parents lived together.

This is a different inquiry than the one Kearney and her ilk engage in, preferring instead to produce meaningless statistics that do not control for underlying relationship quality and that assume that missing parents have average characteristics, both in the labor market and in the household.


My point here is sometimes oversimplified as being about whether men are unmarriageable and Douthat engages in some of that simplification. But there are actually four reasons why parental cohabitation may be a net negative or even impossible for the 22 percent of kids who currently do not have it:

  1. One of the parents may be dead, in prison, or living remotely for job reasons. This is not a huge slice of people, but it probably does shave a couple of percentage points off the total.
  2. Dad might be a bad guy.
  3. Mom might be a bad lady.
  4. Dad and mom might be alright but don’t mix well.

There is a tendency in some of this writing to focus on dad, presumably because mom typically has the kid and so it seems like the question is just one about whether to add dad to the household. But this is a mistake. The behavior of mom can be just as much a problem for cohabitation as the behavior of dad.

Another worthwhile point of clarification here is that non-cohabitation is not the same thing as abandonment. In some of these cases, mom and dad are both active participants in their kids’ lives, even if they don’t live together, something typically called “co-parenting.” Indeed, if anyone actually cared to study this, they’d find that some non-cohabitating parents spend more time with their kids than many cohabitating parents do. I say this not to endorse the idea of non-cohabitation but just to underscore, once again, that the relevant inquiry requires looking at the specific circumstances of these 22 percent of kids, something Kearney doesn’t do.

What Upper Class People Do

In his piece, Douthat also writes this:

From a left-wing perspective, the difficulty in dismissing the importance of marriage and married childbearing is precisely the fact that the upper and upper middle classes still marry at high rates, defer childbearing until marriage and divorce less frequently than other social strata. Because when the well-off follow a particular practice so consistently, the normal left-wing assumption is that the choices must serve their class interests in some way.

Why do upper-class people so often send their kids to private schools, for instance, or hire private tutors, or pressure their offspring to attend elite colleges and universities, or seek to protect their family wealth from the taxman? For the sake of the reproduction of privilege, naturally.

Before getting to my point, I must indulge in a slight nitpick here and point out that the vast majority of upper class people do not send their kids to private K-12 schools. That’s a northeast weirdo thing driven primarily by ruinous intraclass status-seeking and paranoia.

Regarding Douthat’s marriage point here, he makes a mistake that nearly everyone in this discourse makes and it’s kind of driving me crazy over time. The mistake is saying that, contrary to lower class people, upper class people are getting married. The reason this is a mistake is that upper class people are not getting married to lower class people.

If we follow Douthat’s recommendation to look at the behavior of upper class people to determine what kinds of behavior are privilege-enhancing, then we are forced to conclude that marrying an upper class spouse is privilege-enhancing while marrying a lower class spouse is not and should be avoided. That’s how upper class people actually behave. Right?

Another common and pithy way of expressing Douthat’s point here is that upper class people should “preach what they practice,” with proponents of that phrase seemingly thinking that it means that upper class people should tell lower class people to marry. But what upper class people practice is not “marriage.” It’s “marriage to upper class people.” Right?

Indeed, if you want an example of how a certain marriage proponent approached marriage in her own life, she conveniently had the New York Times announce the details of her marriage in 2001.

Melissa Jean Schettini, a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Louis A. Schettini of Montville, N.J., was married yesterday to Daniel Patrick Kearney Jr.

The bride and bridegroom, both 27, met at Princeton University, where they graduated, she summa cum laude.

Mrs. Kearney is a candidate for a Ph.D. in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,

Her father owns Per Forms, a Montville company, which manufactures and markets business forms.

Next month, Mr. Kearney is to become a law student at Yale. He received a master’s degree in classical studies from Boston College.

The bridegroom’s father retired as the chief investment officer of Aetna, the insurance company in Hartford. He was also the president of its investments and financial services division.

Is the upshot from this kind of behavior really “people should get married”? Or is it “when the upper class boyfriend gets the letter from Yale law school, go ahead and lock that down”?

Is it offensive to write this? I gather from my surveying of the society that is. But why is it offensive? Is it because second-guessing people’s relationships is offensive? And if so, what should we make of people who write whole books doing that?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. ALM

    Breunig has spectacular analytical abilities. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. If there’s a flaw in an argument or data crunching, he will see it. He’s always worth reading.

  2. .Tom

    > Is it offensive to write this? I gather from my surveying of the society that is. But why is it offensive?

    Because people don’t like being shown the biases and behaviors they deny having? I’m just guessing.

  3. John Makowiec

    It isn’t the quantity but the quality that counts. Raising children is a difficult time consuming process.The material things you give them aren’t as important as the time you spend with them.

  4. Alex

    the relevant inquiry is how many of the 22 percent of kids who live in single-parent households would actually be better off if their specific parents lived together.

    To answer this I’d look at the couples who divorced just before and just after no-fault divorce was allowed in a given state.

    1. redleg

      The other side of the equation should also be examined: how many of the 78% would be better off with one parent? The answer isn’t zero.

  5. chris

    Yes, this article has it exactly. I’ve been involved with marriage counseling through different church organizations and I am one to suggest people not get married. Because there are plenty of reasons you can see before people say their “I do’s” that will make for an obviously awful union. Adding children to that mix is a recipe for misery.

    Similarly, I’ve attended meetings and conferences where priests and monks will tell you that yes, the Bible does say that the man is the spiritual head of the household, but there’s an if in that statement. IF the man is selfless, IF the man is focused on God, IF the man is communicating what God wants for the family and his own desires, then yes, the man can be the head of the household. That’s a clarification most ignore.

  6. Doc

    America has a number of class divides that no one wants to acknowledge. This comes down to income. Clearly, a single parent is going to struggle to provide for and pay attention to a child or multiple children. It is unfortunate that we cannot recognize families outside of the 1950s nuclear one. It is sad because both parties say they want to help families and care about children but only pass laws that benefit those who need it the least.

  7. Lee

    For those interested, Kearny is interviewed at length on the radio program Freakonomics. At one point in the interview, two-parent households are characterized as having become a luxury good.

    And then, for something quite different, after the Kearny interview, members of the Twin Oaks intentional community are interviewed, where child care is a shared and remunerated responsibility of all adults. To my mind, this mimics a large extended family approach to child rearing, which seems like a pretty good arrangement if one can manage it. Worth noting is the ratio of adults to children is about 5 to 1, and permission to have a child must be sought and granted by the group. The reason stated for this is economic constraints. The group’s various collective enterprises can support only so many.

  8. Neutrino

    What factors are demonstrated to lead to outcomes like out-of-wedlock births, criminal behaviors, drug and alcohol addictions, mental health stresses, persistent need for welfare and others?

    Why are children from single-parent households over-represented in those outcomes?

    What policies may be applied to reduce those outcomes?

    Wouldn’t one policy to consider be to reduce barriers to achievement and maintenance two-parent households? Not a panacea, but given the issues above, worth a review.

    Name other approaches, too.

    1. JBird4049

      Yes, but finding the root causes and then applying the changes would threaten both neoliberalism and the national carceral state; the rice bowls of a lot of often wealthy people would reduced. The War on (Some) Drugs of the past fifty years, which has profitably enslaved millions during this time as well as expanded the prisons and policing including private ones are just one example. The increasingly corrupt NGOs that are used both as a adjunct for government services and as a spoils system is other. The need to reindustrialize hard most of what was offshored is another.

      The reason why people could have intact, often extended, families raising children sixty years ago is because of the very mixed economy, urban and suburban neighborhoods where children were often overseen informally by the whole neighborhood, which the neoliberal regime has spent fifty years destroying. Getting to where having intact families across all classes means destroying the destruction and rebuilding what took two centuries of deliberate effort to build under the American System. (Sob) Almost nobody with power or influence wants that as they make too much money being parasites.

  9. Ghost in the Machine

    Education also changes things like interests, goals, concerns, etc. that would affect attraction. If someone did ‘marry down’ I would guess there is a higher chance the ‘less certified’ individual has taken it upon themselves to educate themselves. For example, I don’t see someone who is very concerned about climate change marrying someone who isn’t. Same for eating habits, TV watching preferences, etc.

  10. PelhamKS

    Part of Douthat’s argument hinges on the idea that middle- and working-class people today have higher incomes and are better off than they were as recently as the 1960s — but they still are marrying less. Granted, they’re marrying less, but are they better off? Income charts I’ve seen suggest that inflation-adjusted wages have flatlined since the 1970s. And the nature of work today is much different from that of the past, with far, far greater precarity.

    But wouldn’t having two incomes in a household tend to make marriage more attractive and potentially resilient? No. Because it takes two to make a knock-down-drag-out argument over economic torment. Better to have one cruelly insufficient income and live alone with no kids than sentence oneself to a lifetime of homebound sturm und drang. Besides, for men at least, there are now AI alternatives to human lifetime partners.

  11. ArvidMartensen

    So I read research recently that found that the old saying of opposites attract wasn’t the case, it was more like attracts like.
    So in that case, of course upper class people attract each other. They have similar backgrounds in terms of schooling and resources and parental attitudes.
    And probably lower class people attract each other because of similar backgrounds of struggle and dealing with deprivation.
    And ‘mixed marriages’ classwise, might not work so well.

    An example. She comes from a middle class background. He comes from a poor background but has managed to educate himself so that he now has middle class earnings.
    But. He cannot shake the precariousness of his upbringing and it drives her crazy

    eg she wants to send the kids to private school, and he says no way, we can’t afford that and the local school is fine. And she says, yes but I went to private school and loved all the opportunities. And he says we need to grow our savings in case I lose my job or you lose yours. Because no matter how much he has, he will never feel financially safe.
    So there is a conflict borne of class, right there. And if the kids don’t get into prestigious colleges for any reason

    , then more fireworks will fly because she may blame him.

    1. JBird4049

      And the more degraded the economy becomes, the greater the stress. When you have been poor paranoia with money is really understandable with people who have never been hungry not getting the deep aversion to risk. However, in our economy of a dying middle class, a growing underclass, and all the wealth going to a smallish class of the well connected, you want your children to have the connections that come with the “right” schools, which is expensive. Both entail different risks. The greater chance of losing the house versus reducing the children’s ability to buy a house in the future? The almost genetic financial tendency of one or the other just gets stronger.

      The American economy grows more uncertain each year, and who wants to marry and raise children in it?

  12. Even keel

    I mean, marriage is not about economics. It is about trying to love someone unconditionally.

    Yeah, there are secondary effects on society, and children. And whatever.

    But the work of trying to unconditionally love someone is what it is about. That’s really hard work, and really rewarding to try. Especially when the other is committed to trying to love you in the same way. And then you fail, or succeed, but either way you keep on trying. Forever.

    I encourage people to discern whether marriage is for them, because it is a great challenge, and a rewarding and life-altering experience, to take on. Your entire world view can change.

    There are some things you can’t aim at directly. The secondary effects of good marriages are one of them. You have to aim at the primary thing: people taking vows to unconditionally love another forever.

    Talking heads nattering about “policy levers” that will drive the outcomes they want are way off the mark when they think of marriage in those terms.

    Really, not everything needs to be financialized.

    1. Even keel

      I suppose that’s a religious perspective. And maybe not one that is broadly shared. But most marriages were religious, with civil attributes grafted on.

      So, if people aren’t members of a religion that has a specific, non-economic, reason for getting married, then I doubt they will. Regardless of secondary considerations. Perhaps only strong social mores can replace the religious purpose, and I doubt whether that can last more than another generation or two.

    2. caucus99percenter

      In the 1970s, I knew Catholic couples who were doing something called Marriage Encounter — which seems to have spun off a worldwide movement that now welcomes non-Catholics as well:

  13. H. Alexander Ivey

    What the hey!? Isn’t anyone going to stop and ask the foundational question: under what circumstances or context does society have the right to interfere with a parent raising a child?


    Thought so.
    (and don’t start with non-starters like child labour issues and such and don’t propose foster homes are a solution – that still doesn’t answer the question of when the state should intevene).

    So the argument goes round and round since the boundary line for state intervention is not drawn or even questioned.

    The reason why this point of asking the foundational question is important is, while Matt Bruenig is correct in his analysis, he aids and abets those he seems to be against. Is this a case of a PMC perpetuating the PMC?

Comments are closed.