“Freakonomics” was one of the first podcasts that I ever listened to, and it remains one of my favorites. The show and the associated books delve into “the hidden side of everything” and often turn up surprising data-based information that undercuts our assumptions about economics and life. And sometimes, the data confirms the obvious. That was the case with a recent episode about marriage.
“Mawiage,” as the “Princess Bride” tells us, “is what brings us together today. Mawiage, that blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream. And love, true love, will follow you forever, so treasure your love.”
But in reality, marriage isn’t just about love. Marriage for love is a relatively recent innovation. In the past, marriage was often about building national alliances or enhancing family wealth, as in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” when a father arranges a marriage for his son to a maiden with “huge tracts of land.” But even today, marriage is an economic arrangement whether we admit it to ourselves or not.
Marriage often gets a bad rap. In the sitcom world, marriage is a joke, a trope used to lob insults and putdowns back and forth between man and wife. In the sitcom world, when fathers are present at all, they are often of the Al Bundy mold. Even going back to the 60s, television families were often single-parent households. Shows such as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “My Three Sons,” “Bonanza,” “One Day At a Time,” “Alice,” and even “The Beverly Hillbillies” depicted families raised by a single parent long before the “Murphy Brown” controversy of the 80s.
Sometimes life imitates television, at least to some extent. That is partially the case with single-parent families. Since the days of “The Andy Griffith Show,” the share of single-parent households has risen sharply in the United States to the point where they represent almost a quarter (23 percent) of the living arrangements of American children.
I was surprised to learn that this is not so everywhere. In fact, the US has the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households. The average rate elsewhere is seven percent, about a third that of the US.
This really isn’t something that we want to be Number One in. Despite the fact that most single parents truly love and want the best for their children, it is an empirical fact that children raised in single-parent households have higher chances of a number of bad outcomes that range from aggression to engaging in high-risk behaviors to living in poverty.
This makes sense because it is obvious that having an extra parent provides a family with numerous advantages. Often there are two incomes, but in families with one wage earner, the other parent usually takes care of the children. Not having to pay for childcare can be the near equivalent of another income. It also means that someone else is available to share the labor and mental stresses of raising children.
When all this is considered, it’s easy to understand Barack Obama’s 2008 comment about not wanting his daughters to be “punished with a baby.” Obama’s statement drew widespread criticism at the time, but I think that we all understand what he meant. Having a baby is a consequence of actions. It isn’t a punishment, but sometimes it can feel that way.
Having a baby is a life-altering experience and, if someone is unprepared, it can be a significant financial drain. Despite the costs, babies are still a blessing, but the situation can be stressful for a great many parents, just as it might be economically and emotionally stressful to care for an elderly parent.
That brings us to the “Freakonomics” conversation with Melissa Kearney, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of “The Two-Parent Privilege.” Kearney’s research found that, even though her liberal circles seemed uncomfortable facing it, inequality and social mobility were closely related to family structure.
“I could totally see my dad being like, “How much did you have to study to write a book that two-parent households are helpful? Like, duh,” she jokes.
Kearney first defines the nature of the problem, which isn’t what you might think. “A really important fact is that the trends I’m talking about have not been driven by divorce,” she notes. “They’ve been almost entirely driven by an increase in never-married. Meaning, they’ve been driven by an increase in non-marital births. So, unpartnered mothers now are much more likely than in the past to never have been married than to be divorced.”
“Teen childbearing in particular has fallen tremendously — over 70 percent since the mid-nineties,” she continues. “Based on that alone, we would have expected a decline in single-parent households, and yet we’ve seen this large increase in single-parent households.”
Left unaddressed in the podcast is the topic of abortion. Freakonomics became infamous in the past for its discussion of abortion about 20 years ago when the authors posited that there was a link between higher abortion rates and lower crime rates. Given what we know about the negative outcomes of children in single-parent families, I don’t doubt their statistics, but I do disagree with the notion that abortion is a good solution to the crime problem, which incidentally is an argument that the “Freakonomics” did not make.
Sometimes economic outcomes run afoul of morality and ethics. I don’t believe that killing unborn children is a moral solution to the problem of crime any more than I believe that euthanizing the elderly and infirm is a moral solution to the problem of allocating scarce medical and financial resources.
Kearney does not advocate for abortion in the podcast either. She does suggest a two-pronged approach in which we try to incentivize marriage while also providing financial support to low-income single-parent households.
One way of incentivizing marriage is to remove what she calls the “secondary-earner penalty” but is more commonly known as the “marriage penalty.” Our tax structure is a holdover from the days when most households had one wage earner, but those days are long past. Similarly, many aid programs are means-tested and parents can lose government benefits if they get married and have to count a second income. Reform is needed to provide incentives (and remove disincentives) for couples to get married and stay married.
I’ll add here as well that as a society, we need to change the expectations about weddings. It’s common for couples to wait years to get married so that they can spend tens of thousands of dollars on the equivalent of a royal wedding. This may be the princess dream of many young girls, but it isn’t practical in a great many cases. Many couples would be far better off having a small wedding and using the money as a down payment on a house or to pay off student loans or save for their children’s education. Let’s break the stranglehold of the Wedding Industrial Complex that tells us that weddings have to be over the top, especially for low-income couples that already have children.
Along the same lines, I’m going to break with a lot of my Christian friends and say that marriage doesn’t have to involve a government certificate. If two people want to make a religious commitment to each other and leave the government out of it in order to avoid the penalties of marriage, I’m fine with that. In Biblical terms, I believe that it is the public affirmation of commitment that is important rather than a government stamp of approval.
The second prong of Kearney’s strategy is to provide aid to low-income families. Kearney points out that “scholars showed the amazing reduction in child poverty associated with the increase in the child tax credit, as well as all the other fiscal transfers, such that during a pandemic and a recession, we actually dramatically reduced child poverty in this country.”
The problem, she notes, was that “Congress, led by Republicans who didn’t want to make this permanent — the worry was, if we go back to just giving unconditional cash to families who don’t work, we’re essentially going back to the pre-96 welfare world. And then the other complaint, which was a reasonable one, was, this is expensive because we’re sending checks to really high-income families; like 90 percent of families got it.”
These are reasonable objections. If you subsidize something, you typically get more of it. And subsidies are expensive. In fact, the largest share of federal spending already goes to entitlement programs.
One answer would be means-testing to target aid programs to needy families. Phasing benefits out slowly as families become self-sufficient would also help, as would occupational education programs to help give unskilled workers a hand up.
And that brings us back to abortion. I’ve noted before that in states with restrictive abortion laws, an intended consequence is going to be more births. A lot of those births are going to be to low-income single-parent households. This is a reality that needs to be addressed.
I’m an advocate of personal responsibility, but we need to realize that people aren’t going to just stop having sex because their state passes a heartbeat bill. Real pro-life and pro-family policies should include free or very cheap contraception, sex education, and aid programs for poor families, not just bans on abortion. This is going to be expensive, but the states need to take responsibility for the children that are going to be born due to restrictive abortion laws. The cost of daycares and health insurance will probably be less than the social costs of high crime rates, drug epidemics, and the like.
Think of it as the social equivalent of Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule for foreign policy: “You break it, you bought it.”
But we also need to encourage personal responsibility and good choices. For years now, I’ve tried to teach my children the Brookings Institute’s three simple rules for avoiding poverty and joining the middle class:
Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of Brookings found that “people who followed all three of these rules had only a two percent chance of being in poverty and a 72 percent chance of joining the middle class (defined as above $55,000 in 2010).”
People are going to make mistakes. Sometimes there will be circumstances beyond your control that cause financial problems. I think that most Americans agree that safety nets are needed (if you don’t think that Republicans favor safety net programs, just start talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare in a right-leaning social media group), but it turns out that marriage is one of the best safety nets. Incentizing marriage is where we should be able to get a lot of bang for our buck.
As Melissa Kearney argues, “It’s not a moral argument. And there’s not a plausible way to have sufficient government transfers or community programs make up for an absent parent.”
Sometimes traditional norms are there for a reason. Marriage and two-parent families are a good example of that. As G.K. Chesterton once advised, “Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.”
We’ve taken down the fences that protected families and children and now we are learning why they were there. It’s going to be a challenge to put them back up.
OTHER BENEFITS OF MARRIAGE: I want to tout another benefit of marriage as well by giving a shout-out to my wife. I’ve mentioned my cancer diagnosis from earlier this year. If I had to deal with that alone, it would have been very difficult from both a financial and a mental perspective. I owe a lot to my wife for her help and support and for keeping me grounded as I went through my surgery and recovery.
FETTERMAN FIGHT CONTINUES: The New York Post, a paper not known for its investigative reporting, sent a reporter dressed like Senator Fetterman to dine in New York’s finest establishments. The results were predictable.
TWEET OF THE DAY: Ukrainian propagandists win the internet today with a short video mocking Russia’s use of old tires as protection against drone attacks. Watch it here: https://x.com/jackryan212/status/1705951444732358997?s=20