The Fracking Boom, a Baby Boom, and the Retreat From Marriage

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In 1960, 5% of kids were born to unmarried mothers. Today: 40%. (Photo: Raissa Viza / Flickr)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “The Fracking Boom, a Baby Boom, and the Retreat From Marriage.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

Over 40 percent of U.S. births are to unmarried mothers, and the numbers are especially high among the less-educated. Why? One argument is that the decline in good manufacturing jobs led to a decline in “marriageable” men. Surely the fracking boom reversed that trend, right?

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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Stephen J. DUBNER: As an economist, why are you interested in things like marriage and fertility? Things like that.

Melissa KEARNEY: I’m really interested in issues of poverty, U.S. poverty in particular. It turns out that poverty and family structure are very intertwined in this country. If you’re thinking about the economic well-being of children in particular, it’s really hard not to be interested in questions of family structure.

That’s Melissa Kearney.

KEARNEY: And I’m a professor of economics at the University of Maryland.

We’ve spoken with Kearney before. For an episode called “Is America Ready for a No-Lose Lottery?

KEARNEY in a clip from a Freakonomics Radio episode: In fact, a recent national survey of a thousand adults, one in five American adults said their greatest chance of accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars was through the lottery. That number jumps to 40 percent for folks making less than $25,000 a year. 

And we spoke with her for an episode called “Does Early Education Come Way Too Late?

KEARNEY in a clip from a Freakonomics Radio episode: We find that kids who were preschool age in places where they could watch Sesame Street were 14 percent less likely to fall behind when they got to elementary school.

KEARNEY: In 1960, 5 percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers.

Okay, got that? Five percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers in 1960. Fast forward now — to 2014.

KEARNEY: In 2014, over 40 percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers.

So first of all … wow! Anything that spikes from 5 percent to 40 percent is a big change. But when you’re talking about something as elemental as family structure — what does that mean?

KEARNEY: The kids who are being born to less-educated, single moms are falling farther and farther behind.

That probably doesn’t surprise you. Decades of social-science research have confirmed this sad fact. But what may surprise you — it certainly surprised Melissa Kearney — was what some fascinating new data told her about marriage and fertility. She was pretty sure it would confirm a hunch she had. She was pretty sure it would offer some good news.

KEARNEY: And in fact the data showed the opposite.

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The link between family structure and poverty is something that academic researchers like Melissa Kearney have known about for a long time.

KEARNEY: It’s really hard for researchers to establish the causal effect of family structure or marriage on kids’ outcomes, of course, because we don’t randomly assign kids to married or unmarried parents. But there’s a lot of research that works really hard to isolate factors. That research consistently shows that kids who live with two married parents have lower rates of poverty, have higher cognitive test scores in childhood, have fewer behavioral problems. They seem to have better health outcomes. They’re less likely to live in poverty when they’re 25. They’re more likely to complete college and they’re less likely to become young, unmarried parents themselves.

DUBNER: What is your marital and maternal status?

KEARNEY: I am a married mother of three. But that does not make me a biased researcher.

DUBNER: You’re sure? You’re sure you’re not shaming everybody else by imposing your social norms?

KEARNEY: That’s completely unfair! I am not saying that anybody should get married who doesn’t want to get married. What I’m saying is that we see in the data that kids who are born to married mothers have better short-term and long-term outcomes.

These days, roughly 4 million babies are born each year in the U.S. That’s a fertility rate of 62 babies for every 1,000 women of what’s called prime childbearing age — 15 to 44. If you go back 60 years, to the Baby Boom —well, it’s called that for a reason. The rate of childbearing was nearly double. So that’s one big change in the fertility picture. Another one, as Kearney noted earlier:

Whites have historically had low rates of unmarried births, but that is changing.(Photo: OakleyOriginals / Flickr)

KEARNEY: In 1960, 5 percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers. In 2014, over 40 percent of births in the U.S. were unmarried mothers. This is really a dramatic increase.

And if you’re convinced, as Kearney is, that kids in unmarried households have worse outcomes — well, this is bad news.

KEARNEY: The 40 percent masks really high rates in particular groups. 71 percent of births to African-American mothers now are outside of marriage. 71 percent of births to women under the age of 25 are outside of marriage.

The concern about African-American kids in single-parent homes has been around for a long time.

Daniel Patrick MOYNIHAN in a clip from CBS Reports: It’s not a matter of a bad situation that doesn’t improve but rather a bad situation that worsens.

That’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sociologist-turned-politician who became a longtime Democratic senator from New York. But before that, in the 1960s, he worked in the Labor Department, where he co-wrote a report that came to be known as the Moynihan Report. Its official name — using the nomenclature of the time — was The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.

MOYNIHAN in a clip from CBS Reports: About a quarter of Negro families are headed by women. The divorce rate is two-and-a-half times what it is — and the number of fatherless children keeps growing.

Andrew CHERLIN: Moynihan’s argument was that children do better if there’s a father in the home.

That’s Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins.

CHERLIN: He saw a rise in single parenthood, in children living without fathers in the home. He saw that the rise was bigger among African-Americans and he focused on them.

MOYNIHAN in a clip from CBS Reports: How do you learn how to behave? From your father, your mother, your older sisters, maybe, and the people around you. Well, supposing there is no father, where children are just brought up without any of that support which a family gives him.

The report, as you can imagine, was controversial. Moynihan was clear that racism was a significant factor. And that the lack of good jobs was a big problem:

MOYNIHAN: We’ve got to get men to work. A man can’t run his family if he doesn’t have a job. It just starts there. Is there any secret to that? Do you have to have sociologists tell this country that?

But Moynihan argued that it wasn’t all about the economics. As he wrote: “The fundamental problem … is that of family structure. The evidence — not final, but powerfully persuasive — is that the Negro family in urban ghettos is crumbling. … So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.”

CHERLIN: But here’s the difference.

Andrew Cherlin again.

CHERLIN: Back in Moynihan’s day, this was an issue relating to poor people and African-Americans.

The issue, Cherlin means, of single-parent families.

CHERLIN: It’s still the case that there are lots of such families. If you think of the stereotypical unmarried mother in 1965, you might think of an unmarried teenager living with her mother, who’d likely be from a minority group. If you think of the typical unmarried mother today, she’s white, she’s in her 20s and she’s probably living with the guy who’s the father of the children. That’s the big change that we’ve seen, that huge shift in the middle.

The rate of unmarried births to non-Hispanic white women is nearly 30 percent now — triple what it was in 1980. So that is a big shift. But as Melissa Kearney points out, the most powerful predictor of single motherhood is education level.

KEARNEY: Fewer than 10 percent of births to women with a college degree are outside marriage as compared to roughly 60 percent of births to women with a high-school degree or with less than a high-school degree.

This surge in unmarried births among low-education women seems to present a double-whammy. Number one: these kids are likely born into a household with one income at most. And number two: since low-education moms tend to have low incomes, that means fewer resources. No one, of course, is looking to beat up on low-income, single-parent families. It’s also considered bad form, at least in some circles, to prescribe marriage as a solution. Melissa Kearney gets that. But she also gets that the so-called “marriage premium” is legit.

KEARNEY: I am perfectly comfortable saying that it looks like being born to two, or living with two married parents is beneficial for kids. I know a lot of academics, they don’t want to say that, right? Because it sounds really socially conservative and preachy. But what’s really interesting is if you think of how higher-educated, higher-income parents are behaving, they are still almost entirely having children inside of marriage. Both parents are investing an extraordinary amount of financial resources, time and energy into their kids. In some sense, it’s a luxury to be able to say, “I don’t want to make social commentary like that.” Well, that’s because the kids of higher-educated, higher-income parents — they’re doing extremely well. But the kids who are being born to less-educated single moms, they are falling farther and farther behind.

To not be honest about that — I don’t think that’s doing anybody any favors, even if it’s politically more comfortable.

So, the big question: what has caused this huge spike in unmarried births? One obvious fact to consider is that marriage itself has become a lot less popular in the U.S. We looked at the many reasons for this in a twopart Freakonomics Radio episode called “Why Marry?” And a lot of unmarried couples, of course, live together. Still, what accounts for so many more unmarried births among mothers with less education? Social conservatives tend to point to the breakdown of old-school social norms. Social liberals cite less access to contraception — although that has improved a lot; and, especially, the lack of economic opportunity — that is, men without good jobs aren’t eager to marry or, from the other end of the equation, they aren’t considered good husband material. In Melissa Kearney’s world, this is called the “marriageable men” theory.

KEARNEY: Yeah. That’s based on this idea that’s been around since William Julius Wilson’s really seminal work in the 1980s arguing that this decline in the economic security of less-educated men — and in certain populations or demographic groups in particular — is behind this rise in nonmarital childbearing and retreat from marriage.

CHERLIN: A woman will benefit the most if she can find a guy who’s got a decent, steady income, but those guys have been disappearing because the industrial jobs they used to have are no longer there.

Andrew Cherlin again.

CHERLIN: The people in the middle have been hurt the most by the changes in our economy. It’s the factory jobs that used to employ people with high-school degrees that have moved overseas or have been automated.

So that’s the theory: that the unmarried-birth spike is due, at least in large part, to a shrinking pool of men with good, stable employment. And so …

KEARNEY And so, hypothesizing the reverse, I’ve been keen to find a situation where we’ve seen an improvement in less-educated men’s economic situation …

That makes sense, right? If only Melissa Kearney could find a scenario like that, where less-educated men suddenly had a job and wage boost …

KEARNEY: … and the fracking boom constitutes the rare context where men without a college degree have seen an improvement in their employment and earnings prospects in recent years. That gave us a place to look at how family formation outcomes responded.

DUBNER: Right. I’m just curious, as a researcher, do you get really excited when you see, in the news, something like the fracking boom because you know it’ll provide some great variables, some shocks to the system that you’ll then exploit to answer some research questions?

KEARNEY: Yeah. It’s always a joke among empirical researchers. You see some shock

DUBNER: Bad for them, good for me.

KEARNEY: And whether it’s good or bad for society it is an open question. But you can’t help this instinctive thought of, “That provides great exogenous variation that I can exploit.” The fracking boom, these localized fracking booms, really meets our standard in the sense that it’s determined by pre-existing geological formations in the earth. Even the most persnickety economists will tend to grant that whether there is this geological formation under your county is probably exogenous to family formation preferences.

“Exogenous to family formation preferences” meaning — what, exactly?

KEARNEY: The concern in trying to figure out how economic conditions affect things like family formation outcomes is that if you see a place where the men are working and have high wages, and you want to relate that to their rates of marriage, there’s always an issue of, “The men who live there and have steady jobs, those are exactly the men who would make good husbands and fathers.” This isn’t really independent variation. But when, all of a sudden, because of this technological innovation in the early 2000s, the geology under the county becomes really economically valuable such that now there’s an economic boom and the men are more likely to get jobs and have high earnings potential — that’s really independent to other aspects of who is living there, family formation and other related preferences.

A clip from the Associated Press: Critics of fracking say it harms the environment. They worry that the method contaminates ground water.

There’s also been a massive shift in global petroleum markets. The U.S. started producing so much oil and gas that it reclaimed its title as the top oil-producing country in the world. This led to economic and geopolitical scrambling in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and elsewhere. Melissa Kearney wasn’t concerned about any of these huge changes — not much, at least. The fracking boom was for her a perfect natural experiment to measure exactly what she’d been wanting to measure: if, and how, birth and marriage rates changed when thousands of good jobs suddenly appeared out of nowhere. What’d she learn? That’s coming up, right after this break.

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The University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney, along with her colleague Riley Wilson, have released a working paper called “Male Earnings, Marriageable Men, and Non-Marital Fertility: Evidence from the Fracking Boom.” The central idea: if the disappearance of good jobs for less-educated men over the past few decades was a contributing factor in the huge spike in unmarried births, maybe an economic spike among less-educated men would lead to a rise in married births. The first thing to consider is how economists think about childbearing decisions.

KEARNEY: If people have greater levels of income, all else equal, we should expect they should have more children. But we also know that there’s a price effect. Kids are expensive. If the price of having kids goes up, or the price of child rearing goes up, we expect people will have fewer kids.

DUBNER: Do our choices in having children correspond very much the way that they correspond with buying a new car versus a used car, or no car at all and so on?

KEARNEY: I was afraid you’re going to ask me that. I don’t know that off the top of my head, but I do think the evidence is pretty strong at this point. There are a number of rigorous studies showing that when there’s some exogenous shock to income we see an increase in fertility. For example, a paper I wrote a couple of years ago with a graduate student at the time, Lisa Dettling. We found that during the housing boom, homeowners had more kids and renters had fewer kids. That’s totally consistent with people who owned a house saw their home equity went up.

DUBNER: Okay, so in terms of a job boom or a wage boom, how does fracking compare?

KEARNEY: These fracking booms have been touted as creating tens of thousands of jobs and providing starting salaries at $50,000 for recent high-school graduates with average earnings for folks who are actually working in oil and gas extraction jobs between $70,000 and $80,000. Also, there’s positive spillovers to nearby counties. It’s important to realize that the positive economic shock coming from local fracking is not limited to folks who are working in fracking jobs. There’s a local economic boom, so other industries also see an uptick in business.

DUBNER: Tell us just a bit about the data. How many locations are we talking about generally? Then in terms of trying to measure the relationship between income and childbearing and marriage and all that where are those data all coming from?

Jobs in hydraulic fracturing are appealing to young men. Salaries start around $50,000. (Photo: Loadmaster David R. Tribble / Wikimedia Commons) 

KEARNEY: First let me be clear that we are not looking at North Dakota and Montana, in what’s called the Bakken region up there. That captures a lot of the public imagination or attention when it comes to thinking about fracking.

DUBNER: You’re not looking at them because the scenario’s too pronounced there or it’s too migratory?

KEARNEY: Exactly. We’re not looking at them because it’s a really unique situation up there where a lot of the fracking jobs were filled by in inflowing migrants. North Dakota, the counties that had fracking there, their populations increased significantly in response to the fracking boom. It’s a very different setting. We’re looking instead at Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Ohio, a number of other places where there wasn’t really a large migration response. We’re looking at data from the early 2000s and during this period 966 counties in the U.S. had new fracking wells. We obtained drill-level information from a private company that sells this data. We know the exact location of every well and when it started drilling.

Then we link that with government data on wages and jobs, vital statistics data on the universe of births in the U.S. and on Census data about marriages and rates of cohabitation. There’s a lot of data being pulled together for this analysis.

DUBNER: The underlying idea is that one reason fewer mothers have been getting married over the past few decades is because fewer men have good economic prospects and therefore if there is a job boom or a wage boom, that would theoretically increase the supply of men with better economic prospects. Yes? That’s the theory that you wanted to test?

KEARNEY: That was the hypothesis. That’s right.

DUBNER: Okay. And how’d that work out? What did you actually learn from your data?

KEARNEY: My speculation going in was that an increase in the economic opportunities for men would lead to a reduction in nonmarital childbearing. In fact, the data showed the opposite. Or let’s say it didn’t support that. The data do show that in response to these increased economic activity and earnings potential we do see an increase in births. But interestingly there’s the same response among married births and nonmarried births and no increase in marriage. This does not offer support for what I’ll call a ‘reverse marriageable men’ story, where, if we see more marriageable men, we’ll see an increase in marriage. The data do not support that.

DUBNER: Okay, so there’s a fertility boom when there’s a fracking boom. How big is the fertility boom and can you compare it to the size of the fracking boom?

KEARNEY: What our estimates suggest is that an additional $1,000 of fracking production per capita is associated with an increase of six births per thousand women.

DUBNER: Oh my God.


DUBNER: That’s a lot of babies! No?

KEARNEY: It’s actually consistent with previous evidence. One of the most interesting things in our research was a comparison to the coal boom and bust situation. It’s a similar economic shock. It’s a similar industry. They’re in similar areas: the Appalachian region in both.

DUBNER: A similar employment cohort then as well? Education-wise, age-wise, stuff like that?

KEARNEY: That’s right. It was just a different period. The coal boom and bust happened in the 70s and 80s. What we find is that a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with the coal boom led to very similar-sized increases in married birth rates, as it did in the fracking boom: an 8 percent increase in marital birth rates for a 10 percent increase in earnings with the coal boom, and a 12 percent increase in married birth rates associated with the fracking boom. But the nonmarital birth response is very different: a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with the coal boom actually led to a reduction in nonmarital births. But a 12 percent increase in nonmarital births with a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with fracking. That’s where the response differed.

In the earlier period, when earnings increased associated with the coal boom, marriage increased. And as we’ve been saying, there’s no increase with the fracking boom.

DUBNER: Wow. So a coal boom produced more marriage, more kids and fewer kids born to unmarried moms; whereas a fracking boom produced more kids, but no more marriage and a lot more kids born to unmarried moms?

KEARNEY: Yeah. Equal proportion increase in married and nonmarried births in the fracking boom. We speculate that this suggests that social context is really important to determining the response to economic changes.

DUBNER: I didn’t understand that.

The biggest factor in whether a new mother is married or unmarried? Her education level. (Photo: The U.S. National Archives / Flickr)

KEARNEY: In the 70s and 80s, very few births were outside of marriage and there was a social stigma associated with nonmarried births. And so, in the 70s and 80s, when you got more income, it looks like you had more births but only if you were married. Now, we’re at a period where nonmarital births are extremely common among less-educated populations. Now, what we see is if you get more income you have more babies. Right? But it doesn’t matter whether you’re married or not. That’s a real difference.

DUBNER: Gotcha. How male is the fracking industry?

KEARNEY: Okay. That’s a good question. I don’t know the specifics but what I can say is we do confirm in that data that the increase in wages and job opportunities are twice as large for men as for women in these areas. That’s important to keep in mind because we would expect that the marriage-birth responses to female versus male economic opportunities would be different.

DUBNER: I’m curious whether these jobs in this industry is seen as more cyclical or less durable than other industries?

KEARNEY: Yeah, we wondered about that. The data do show that the impacts of new production on wages are persistent. Two years after the initial fracking drilling begins in a county, two-thirds of the wage income is persistent. It doesn’t seem to be the case that someone comes, fracks in a county and leaves right away.

DUBNER: Well yeah. But if I’m getting the job or if I’m planning to marry someone who’s getting that job, I may think, “Wow, this is a great job and great income right now. But given the nature of the industry, it may be a two or three year boom and that’s it.” I’m just curious how that might change your marital or childbearing prospects?

KEARNEY: I think that’s right. That’s one of the potential explanations for why we don’t find a marriage effect is that maybe this positive economic shock is thought to be temporary. The potential male partner is going to go back to being unemployed or having low wages in a couple of years. There’s a couple of thoughts I have on that: if people really thought this was just temporary, it’s surprising then that there’s a fertility response, right? Because we do see that this fracking boom led to an increase in earnings and that led to increased childbearing. There would still have to be some asymmetry there. I’m not saying it’s impossible but it’s curious.

DUBNER: It’s surprising especially if you’re assuming that the fertility is intentional though. If you’re just thinking jobs mean money, which means opportunities to do things like go out, drink in bars, meet people and have sex — then that’s different than having a fertility plan. That’s all I’m saying.

KEARNEY: The marital birth response is the same size as the nonmarital birth response. So married couples are also increasing their fertility in response to this. I’m less inclined to think that that’s unintentional.

According to survey data from the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 55 percent of all nonmarital births in the U.S. are unintended. This compares to 23 percent of married births. Now, you might think — wait a minute, just because parents aren’t getting married doesn’t mean they’re not living together as a family. In fact, nearly 60 percent of unmarried births are to couples who do live together. And you might think a cohabiting couple and a married couple are pretty the same when it comes to their children’s outcomes. But there you’d be wrong.

Wendy MANNING: When we consider the family structure at birth whether it’s cohabiting or married we see more negative outcomes for children who are born to cohabiting than married parents.

That’s Wendy Manning, a sociologist and demographer at Bowling Green State University.

MANNING: That’s true when you look at physical health, psychosocial outcomes or cognitive indicators. If your parents get married, then you are going to fare better than if you’re a child who’s raised by cohabiting parents who don’t get married. But it doesn’t seem as if cohabiting parents who eventually marry really achieve the same level of health as children with stably married parents. It doesn’t seem as if they’re able to catch up in the same way.

At least not the way cohabitation works in the U.S. In much of Europe, unmarried parents routinely live together for decades — all the semi-permanence of marriage without the ritual, or paperwork. In the U.S., Melissa Kearney says, cohabiting relationships tend to be less durable than marriage.

KEARNEY: At the time of a child’s birth, half of these unmarried parents are living together and another third are living apart but are romantically involved. Many of them express very high hopes that they’re going to stay together and eventually get married. But actually what we see in that data is that five years after the birth of the child, only a third of the parents are still together and new partners and new children are very common. It’s not quite right to think of them as primarily stable relationships.

DUBNER: When people talk about marriage as a commitment device, it seems true, yeah?

KEARNEY: It’s certainly true that married parents are more likely to stay together than cohabiting parents. They’re more likely to pool their resources and the children born into such unions have access to many more resources through their childhood in terms of being much more likely to live in a household with higher levels of income, lower levels of instability, more time input from parents.

DUBNER: Your paper argues that the fracking boom has led to greater employment among low-income men, which did lead to higher birth rates among that cohort but not to higher marriage rates. You sound like, as a human, you’re disappointed to have found out what you found out. Yes? You were hoping that this employment would lead to better outcomes for kids ultimately and it doesn’t seem like it will?

KEARNEY: Yeah. That’s right. It looks like, in the past people, would have responded to an increase in economic opportunities with an increase in marriage and a reduction in nonmarital childbearing is probably good for children in particular. The fact that they no longer respond that way makes me rethink how we can address what I think is a challenge. Not everyone sees the rise in nonmarital childbearing as a challenge, but if you look at the data on the economic circumstances of kids, it’s hard not to think of that as a challenge.  

The challenge is exacerbated, in Kearney’s view, because the unmarried birth trend is moving up the income ladder. It was always an issue among low-income mothers; but now it’s hitting the middle class.

KEARNEY: And what’s interesting and noteworthy is that that’s exactly where we see kids from two-parent families doing appreciably better than kids from a single-mother household. Let me be specific about what I mean for a minute: if we look at longitudinal data on kids and the family structure they’re born into, or their family structure at age 14, what we see is that kids who are born to teen moms or the youngest moms, their outcomes are pretty bleak whether or not their parents are married. That’s potentially not all that surprising because who are the dads that these teen moms or really young moms are coupling with? Probably not all that economically stable or secure. But when you start to look at moms with some college or in their mid-20s, that’s exactly where we’ve seen the rise in nonmarital childbearing and that’s also exactly where we see the greatest differences.

That’s not surprising if you think of this from a resource perspective: if the parents were to marry and to form one household, [those dads] are more likely to bring in a reasonable income. Those additional resources would push the kid out of poverty and make it more likely that the kid graduates high school, for example.

Kearney admits that her research findings have been surprising, and sobering …

KEARNEY: As an economist when I’ve been asked, in policy contexts in the past few years, “What would it take to halt the retreat of marriage among less-educated populations?” My answer’s always been, “We need to see the economic situation of less educated men improve.” Now when I’m asked, “What’s going to help?” Now I have no idea. If it’s not just about economics, but if it’s about quote-unquote ‘culture’ or ‘social norms,’ that’s a lot harder to deal with. I have no idea how to change social or cultural norms. Whereas if you told me it was about economics, I could think of certain policy levers to pull.

That said, Kearney has thought about possible solutions.

KEARNEY: Now there’s been two schools of thought on that. One is, “The marriage ship has sailed. Now we need to adjust to this new reality that many kids in this country in particular many low-income or minority children are going to grow up without the benefit of living in a two-parent household. What is our social contract going to be? We need to potentially increase safety-net resources or just make sure that those kids have more resources.” Making sure that they have adequate food and nutrition and health care is extremely important. We should think about that as an investment in our human potential. We can’t afford to write off all of these kids who are born into economically-disadvantaged circumstances.

Then another school of thought is, or a complementing school of thought, is we need to push on that and think about ways to increase rates of marriage, foster marriage or at the very least foster more stable unions whether or not the couples are actually married.

DUBNER: Should we be thinking about just paying people to get married and penalizing them if they either don’t stay or have kids out of marriage?

KEARNEY: Most of us would be very hesitant to offer financial incentives, specifically, to get people to marry or stay married because we do realize how complicated a decision that is. But I will point out that all of our tax and transfer programs actually explicitly financially penalize marriage. At the very least, we could make our tax and transfer system marriage-neutral. I’m not saying that would solve it, but certainly we’ve set up our system to have the wrong incentives when it comes to marriage.

DUBNER: Has anyone done a good job of measuring how much those tax incentives that penalize marriage have actually affected unmarried births?

KEARNEY: There’s a long literature on this. The generosity of welfare benefits does have some small increase in the likelihood of single motherhood. None of those policy changes have a large enough effect to explain any of these trends. The other thing that’s interesting is to think about marriage as requiring skills. Being married and staying married requires constant negotiation and communication. These are skills, right? I don’t know how much of the higher rate of marriage and marriage sustainability that we see among higher-educated people is associated with higher skills. But it’s not ridiculous to think that some of these couples could benefit. Many of them, we see in the Fragile Family Survey, say they want to stay together.

How much support even nonprofits or community groups could give to these couples it’s not crazy to think that that could move the needle a little bit.

DUBNER: Are you worried that you sound more socially conservative than you may identify with by saying something like that?

KEARNEY: No! Fortunately for me, I don’t have these identity issues.

There have been government programs to teach couples good relationship skills. Like the Healthy Marriage Initiative, backed by then-President George W. Bush.

George W. BUSH in a clip from C-SPAN 2: Not every child has two devoted parents at home. I understand that. And not every marriage can or should be saved. But the evidence shows that strong marriages are good for children.

Alas, an assessment of this project by four researchers — including the Bowling Green sociologist Wendy Manning — found that some $600 million worth of government spending didn’t seem to have many benefits. In any case, as Melissa Kearney notes, if an economic boost like the fracking boom doesn’t help, it’s time to find out what does. She gets that some people are uncomfortable criticizing the decisions of unmarried parents.

KEARNEY: Because it sounds really socially conservative and preachy.

But she also gets that the kid has no say in the decision. There is, however, one hugely positive fertility trend to note, something that pushes against the tide of rising unmarried births. This trend is encouraging not only on its own, but in how it seems to have been achieved. Since 1991, overall teen pregnancies in the U.S. have fallen 64 percent:

KEARNEY: The dramatic fall in teen childbearing has been nothing short of spectacular. There are definitely policies and interventions that move the needle a little bit. But the bulk of that reduction really seems to be driven by universal factors, not just access to better contraception, but also — I’ll use economist-speak here — a reduced demand among young women to become teen mothers. We could think about that as a social or cultural win, but people are trying to figure out what made teenagers do this. My colleague Phil Levine and I wrote a paper a few years ago where we looked at the effect of the MTV reality program “16 and Pregnant.”

A clip from 16 and pregnant: For most American teens, high school is about having fun. But for these six girls, high school will not be the same.

KEARNEY: And what we did was we looked at Nielsen television ratings data. In places where more teenagers were watching MTV, when this show came on the air, you saw those places experienced a larger relative decline in teen childbearing. The places where more kids were watching MTV, this experiment comes on. You could think of it that way. All of a sudden, now they’re watching a show that makes teen motherhood look really hard. You see fewer teen births in that place nine months after the show came on the air. Teen childbearing has been falling steadily at like 2.5 percent a year. Then around the time that that show came on the air you saw a large drop in the sense that it declined 7.5 percent and has stayed at that rate.

Part of that was due to the Great Recession. But a lot of it was due to this show. What’s really interesting about that is that that show affected and changed the way teenage viewers thought about being a teen mom. That’s a really different way [of] thinking of affecting their outcomes. Right? It’s about appealing to teenagers where they are and saying, “Hey, look, this is hard. This doesn’t really fit with the lifestyle you probably want to live as a teen.” It affected their motivation.

Affecting someone else’s motivation, as we’ve seen time and again on Freakonomics Radio, can be incredibly hard. And yet it does happen. Often by accident. Not by the well-intended public policy; not by the right-thinking moral messaging; not by an economic spike that you might think would help solve a problem. So what happens to all those kids who are born into unstable, low-income families? Next time on Freakonomics Radio, we keep this conversation going, with a look at one of the most fascinating and troubling research findings in the history of social science.

Geoffrey SAYRE-MCCORD: It was a little bit like a mystery. You’re trying to track people down and every time you found someone it felt like a little treasure hunt.

Brandon WELSH: Without exaggeration, it is still shocking to this day.

SAYRE-MCCORD: Her first response was to be crestfallen finding that it had hurt people in measurable ways. She had had so much hope for this kind of intervention.

“When Helping Hurts”: that’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio.

Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Christopher Werth with help from Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Shelley Lewis, Stephanie Tam, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Eliza Lambert, Alison Hockenberry, Emma Morgenstern and Brian Gutierrez; the music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, or via e-mail at

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