Melissa KEARNEY: I’m not a risk taker. Even writing this book was a little bit risky for me. And it’s really not that risky, in the scheme of risks I could be taking in my life. But it felt like a big risk for me.
Melissa Kearney is an economist at the University of Maryland.
KEARNEY: My fields are public economics and labor economics, but I’ve always researched topics related to U.S. inequality, poverty, and the economics of families.
Her new book is called The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind. It is built around a rather startling fact: in 1960, only five percent of babies in the U.S. were born to unmarried parents; today, that number is 40 percent. For Black babies in the U.S., it’s 70 percent.
KEARNEY: U.S. kids are the most likely in the world to live in a home with only one parent — by a lot.
But at the many academic and policy conferences that Kearney attends, she finds this startling fact is rarely discussed.
KEARNEY: My saying it’s not discussed is probably more reflective of the circles I run in — which is higher-ed., academia, which of course skews liberal. And progressive, left-leaning conversations about kids’ well-being and concerns about social mobility. In those circles, in those conversations, I often find that this topic is met with discomfort.
But Kearney decided to embrace the uncomfortable. Why?
KEARNEY: I can’t go to another 20 years of policy conversations about inequality and social mobility and not have family structure be something that we can talk about.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: an idea that might not seem all that radical.
KEARNEY: 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.”
We’ll find out what’s been driving the decline of two-parent households.
KEARNEY: Let’s be crass about this, the economic desirability of these non-college educated men was a bit eroded.
And: if two parents are better than one, how about three parents, or five, or 85? We asked our friends at the Atlas Obscura podcast to help answer that question.
ZADEK: When they hear that we live on a commune, they think hippies and drugs and stuff.
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DUBNER: In the book, you define marriage as “a long-term contract between two individuals to combine resources and share the responsibilities of keeping a household and raising children.” So, first of all, very sexy description of marriage!
KEARNEY: It’s so romantic. That’s what I said in my vows.
DUBNER: But also, is that how most people who get married see marriage? I mean, nothing about love or companionship. I’m curious if that definition is a little bit too economist-centric.
KEARNEY: Actually, forming a family and deciding how to make a family work, in light of all of the economic responsibilities and career choices, it’s fundamentally an economic decision that has a lot of important consequences for everyone involved.
DUBNER: Tell me about the study of family formation within the field of economics — versus sociology and so on. Is this a relatively recent concentration, and/or relatively niche?
KEARNEY: Yeah, I think it’s a niche field. And frankly, as more and more women have entered the profession, there’s been more of an emphasis on it.
DUBNER: Why is it niche, though, since everyone comes from and/or has a family?
KEARNEY: I ask a similar question often, which is why don’t more economists and business leaders and people who profess to care deeply about the economic situation in the U.S. care more about kids in this country. I mean, a lot of economists are sort of hard-headed and maybe think families and kids are sort of too squishy. But kids are the future of our economy and families are really the fundamental economic unit of our society. And so it shouldn’t be niche.
The story of Melissa Kearney’s own life is really the story of the two-parent privilege she’s writing about.
KEARNEY: I grew up in suburban New Jersey. I was the oldest of four sisters. We went to public schools. I had two parents. They were very proud of the fact that they had moved themselves out of the Bronx, where they had grown up. And many of their cousins and friends didn’t “get out,” as they would say. And they set up a really nice life for us. My mom was a part-time secretary while we were kids. And then when I went off to college, my mom actually enrolled in our local community college and started the path to becoming an elementary school teacher. And my dad had a series of odds-and-ends jobs when we were little, and then eventually he ran a printing business out of our house.
Kearney wound up studying economics at Princeton. As she recalls it, she told her advisors that she wanted to “study poor women.”
KEARNEY: I didn’t really know what that meant, except that I was interested in the circumstances of women who were struggling to make ends meet, or who didn’t have a lot of advantages or education. I’ve always been fascinated by my own grandma, and her sisters, and their story of how they made it in America. Their parents came from Italy. They lived in the Italian section of Lower East Side of New York, in a tenement building. And they took in, like, piecemeal seamstress work to make ends meet.
DUBNER: Did any of those aunts and/or your grandmother even think about college, or no?
KEARNEY: No, they didn’t even go to high school. My grandma had an eighth-grade education, and I think she might have been the most educated. But as my mom will tell me when I ask why she didn’t go to college, or why her mother didn’t go to college, she, for a long time, said, “Well, women didn’t do that back then.”
In the summer before her junior year of college, Kearney got an internship in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
KEARNEY: This was the era of welfare-reform experimentation, and so I went and worked at this welfare-to-work center. I basically taught classes for welfare moms who, in the state of Connecticut, under their new waiver program, they had to take classes and be working towards employment in order to keep their cash benefits.
DUBNER: This was during the Clinton presidency, is that right?
KEARNEY: That’s right. These women were my age and they had kids. Many of them had multiple kids. And here I am, super-earnest college junior, teaching them math. Working with them on their resumes, teaching them basic word processing. And I just listened to a lot of their stories, and had lunch with them every day.
DUBNER: What were you thinking about then, either emotionally or intellectually?
KEARNEY: I remember even at the time, being struck by just how funny and cheerful they were. I remember one woman who — she was like 20, she was pregnant with her third kid, and she just still was very jovial and cracked jokes. In my mind I was like, their lives seem quite hard to me, but they laughed a lot.
DUBNER: Did you form any sort of conclusions that summer internship about what it meant to be a single parent?
KEARNEY: I don’t think I formed any conclusions, but in my mind I had a lot more questions leaving than I did going in.
In the nearly 30 years since then, Kearney has been trying to answer those questions. Most of them have to do with the causes — and consequences — of income inequality. Which brings us to this new book, her first book, about what she calls the two-parent privilege. In the U.S., nearly 25 percent of children under age 18 live in a single-parent household; globally, only 7 percent of children live in single-parent households. In the U.S., 80 percent of single-parent households are run by mothers. Melissa Kearney thinks the single-parent trend has been a major driver of other big problems.
KEARNEY: The increase in one-parent homes means that their household situation is less economically secure. They have fewer resources, not just income, but also time and emotional bandwidth to invest in their kids. And as a result, we see that these children are more likely to have behavioral challenges, get in trouble at school, ultimately achieve lower levels of education, and less likely as adults to achieve higher earnings or be married themselves.
DUBNER: What about other adverse outcomes, like crime, substance abuse, and so on?
KEARNEY: We do see that boys in particular from households with only moms are much more likely to be involved with the criminal-justice system, and incarcerated. Let me be very clear. I’m not saying single moms cause that. I’m saying that there seems to be a protective factor of having two parents, and specifically a dad in the house for boys, such that they’re less likely to find themselves engaged with the criminal-justice system.
DUBNER: You write in the book that, quote, “It’s really challenging to discuss the topics of marriage and family without it feeling like a conversation about values.” What’s wrong with having a conversation about values? Because it seems like even academics are happy to discuss certain values — like hard work and discipline — in the context of education or employment. So why not in family formation?
KEARNEY: Here’s the way I think about it. We are very open in both economic policy and media conversations about the fact that people with a college degree have lower rates of unemployment and higher earnings. And then what’s our policy response? “Okay, let’s do more to supplement the wages of people who don’t have a college degree. And at the same time, let’s work to try and get more people through college so they have those skills and that benefit.”
DUBNER: Those sound good to me. Are they not good?
KEARNEY: No, that’s great. But we should have an analogous conversation about households. Two-parent families are very protective. They’re very beneficial. Let’s help one-parent families achieve economic security at the same time that we try to figure out how to help more people achieve this advantageous household structure. This problem raises a lot of sensitivities. And for a long time, there’s been a very counterproductive way of talking about this problem, which comes across as shaming or blaming parents. And that leads us to the unfortunate position where this is like the elephant in the room in conversations about inequality and social mobility. I think it should be eminently possible for us to be both empathetic to the parties involved and still honest about the data and evidence.
To write this book, Kearney collected, cleaned up, and analyzed an enormous amount of data from a variety of data sets. One big pattern immediately stood out: the variance in two-parent households among different ethnic and racial groups. In 2019, the most recent year Kearney analyzed, only 38 percent of Black kids in the U.S. lived with married parents. Among Hispanic kids, the share was 62 percent. For white kids, 77 percent lived with married parents; for Asian-Americans, the number was 88 percent.
KEARNEY: I am not an expert in Asian-American economics or culture, so this was something that I learned doing this data work, and was surprising and interesting. For every economic situation, holding constant economic conditions or education, kids of Asian parents are more likely to be in married-parent households. That was interesting because that was the first obvious question was, was the economic situation different? The answer is no.
DUBNER: So if it’s not different there, what does your brain go to next?
KEARNEY: So then I think, “Oh, are the social norms different there?” And I’ve never really delved into the social ethnography or cultural norms in Asian-American families. The first thing I do is ask Asian-Americans, like, “Hey, does this surprise you?” And they say, “No, that doesn’t surprise me. There is a real social norm around this.” Like, divorce is really frowned upon. Single-parent households are really rare in Asian cultures. So it’s quite plausible that that sort of social norm is imported in the U.S.
DUBNER: Talk about the relationship between two-parent households and religious observance. What can you tell us there?
KEARNEY: I have not looked into that.
DUBNER: Really? I’m surprised only because I would suspect as much as you’re talking about social norming and expectations and culture, that religion would be quite possibly a pretty significant explainer because it intersects with all those things.
KEARNEY: I mean, of course over time, religiosity in the U.S. has decreased at the same time of these trends. So, it’s plausible that that decrease in religiosity is part of what has led to an erosion of these norms. It’s just not something that I am well versed-in.
DUBNER: So when I read your book, I also got hold of an older book that I’m curious if you’ve read, it was by Richard Ralph Banks, the Stanford legal scholar, it was published over a decade ago. It’s called Is Marriage for White People? How the African-American Marriage Decline Hurts Everybody. And back then, he was arguing that “single is the new Black.” And he continues this conversation that William Julius Wilson and others had had about the lack of marriageable Black men. I’m guessing you know this literature well, or at least are familiar with the argument.
KEARNEY: Right, exactly. So when men were out of work and/or incarcerated, they weren’t very marriageable, or not very attractive as marriage partners. The racial element is one of the reasons why this is such a sensitive topic to talk about. But I also think it heightens the imperative. If we want to close racial gaps, we have to be honest about the fact that Black kids in this country are much less likely to have the benefits of two parents in their household. So why is that? And the long literature says, there’s all sorts of systemic racism and barriers that have kept them down, that have led to increased rates of incarceration, high rates of unemployment. I was just talking last week with someone who runs one of these fatherhood programs and works with largely Black dads in an urban environment. And I said to him, even though these dads don’t have stable employment or earnings, can’t they still positively engage and contribute to their kids’ lives? He says, “Absolutely, and I’ve yet to meet a dad who doesn’t want to.” And I — again, earnestly and naively — said, “They could still go to the kid’s basketball game or show up at the parent-teacher conference.” And he said, “No, they can’t, because almost all the dads I work with have a drug charge or a gun charge in their background. They’re not allowed near the school.”
In addition to looking at the consequences of kids being raised in one-parent households, Kearney looked at the likely causes of the falling marriage rate. Coming up: a lot of causes you might think would be important, but aren’t; and the big one that is.
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Melissa Kearney wanted to understand why the U.S. leads the world in children being raised in single-parent households.
KEARNEY: A really important fact is that the trends I’m talking about have not been driven by divorce. 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.
Nor is the rise in single-parent households driven by teenage pregnancy.
KEARNEY: Teen childbearing in particular has fallen tremendously — over 70 percent since the mid-nineties. 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.
This trend isn’t driven by gay parents, either.
KEARNEY: Even though that’s a really important social change, it’s a very small fraction of households with kids. It’s not driving the changes I’m talking about.
Another thing not driving the trend: couples who live together with kids but aren’t married.
KEARNEY: Cohabitation is not as widespread as people think. Only eight percent of kids live with a parent — either their biological mother or father — and their parent’s partner.
DUBNER: Non-married, cohabiting parents and households seem to work better in other countries than in the U.S., why is that?
KEARNEY: I don’t know why it is, but it’s true in the data that cohabitation between parents tends to be a more stable, long-term arrangement in, let’s say, Europe than the U.S.
So what has been driving the huge rise in single-parent households?
KEARNEY: If you look at the ‘60s and ‘70s, and all of the major social and cultural revolution that happened, you see a decline in rates of marriage across education groups that’s essentially equivalent. It’s proportional. And then what happens post-’80s is, things diverge. So, college–educated men and women continue to get married and basically everyone else continues a downward trend. There’s a real inequality dimension to household structure in the U.S. now, such that the college-educated class continues to raise their kids in married-parent homes, showering resources on their kids, and that household structure seems to have become increasingly hard for the non-college educated class of people in this country to achieve. And as a result, their economic security has been eroded. And their kids are at both a relative and absolute disadvantage compared to kids born to college-educated parents.
DUBNER: So if you had to identify a most powerful driver or contributing factor to a two-parent household, it sounds like it’s hands-down education, yes?
KEARNEY: Yes, yes.
DUBNER: That didn’t sound like “hands down,” that sounded like —
KEARNEY: I’m comparing my percentage-point differences. If I look across racial-ethnic groups, you see level differences. But the largest gaps are between the college educated and non-college educated. Black moms are much more likely to be single moms than white, Hispanic, and Asian moms. But even when you look at the children of Black moms, the kids whose moms are college-educated, are twice as likely to be living in a married-parent home.
DUBNER: What’s the cause and effect here? Surely you’re not suggesting that graduating college somehow magically leads a person to get married and stay married?
KEARNEY: The cause and effect runs both ways. People who are stably employed, who have a lot of education, who have a lot of resources, that puts them in a better position to achieve — and I am going to call it “achieve” — a two-parent married household. Why? Do we think that college-educated people are more likely to fall in love than everyone else? Or do we think that having more resources, being more highly educated, makes it easier to sustain a relationship?
DUBNER: Or, this is what people like you — meaning economists — call assortative mating, right? You are putting yourself in a circumstance where you can find people who you deem worthy of partnership for life, yes?
KEARNEY: Assortative mating has long been around. College-educated people tend to partner up and marry college-educated people. Less-educated people tend to partner up and marry less-educated people. But what’s been more important to the increase in inequality across households is not that assortative mating has increased per se, it’s that assortative mating has continued among the highly educated. And among the non-college educated, they are less likely to get married at all.
DUBNER: What does that really mean? Does it mean just that the idea of marriage has become less attractive? Does it mean that marriage is seen as too hard?
KEARNEY: Our ideas about whether we should get married or when to get married, or whether we should have kids and how many kids to have — our ideas about that are not just influenced by economic conditions, but they’re also influenced by the examples we’ve seen, the lives we’ve experienced. If I grow up in a neighborhood where lots of people have kids outside marriage, that’s my reality. That’s my normal. So when I’m approaching childbearing, that feels like more of a reasonable, available option to me than somebody who grew up in a community where that was very unlikely.
DUBNER: There’s a kind of community snowball effect.
KEARNEY: Yeah. And back in the day, there was a lot of stigma. So I guess what I’m talking about is not that there’s no —
DUBNER: Bring back the stigma, you’re saying.
KEARNEY: No, no, I’m not saying that at all. Very explicitly not. I’m just saying, in certain communities, this is normalized. Here’s what I worry about: We recognize that kids from one-parent, unpartnered-mother families have fewer resources. And what have we been doing? Well, generally, we’ve been putting it on the schools to address. We make sure teachers are able to recognize these challenges. We hire more school counselors. We cannot just keep relying on schools, which already have really complicated and multi-dimensional mandates, to make up for deficits that kids are bringing from home. Nothing’s easy in D.C. these days, but a relatively straightforward thing to do is at least double, triple, quadruple the budget that the Department of Health and Human Services puts toward programs to strengthen safe and stable families — which right now, by the way, is one percent of the relevant administration’s budget, as compared to 15 percent of the budget going to foster care. So we can’t just keep removing kids from their homes without thinking about, what would it take to strengthen this family home life?
DUBNER: Well, what would it take? I mean, one percent, let’s say it was tripled. What would that money actually be put to use doing?
KEARNEY: I don’t have the answers. What I’m trying to do in this book is raise awareness of the challenge and give us a way to talk about it with data and empathy. There are programs all around the country that are working with shoestring budgets, trying to help families. Being married and having a stable relationship is hard. There’s a lot of programs aimed at fatherhood responsibility, helping dads, many of whom have unstable employment and criminal histories. How do you help them be good dads, or good co-parents? Those kind of programs we should be supporting, ones that show any evidence of promise. We should be studying the heck out of them, much like we study early-childhood-education programs, college-completion programs. This should be on the policy agenda.
DUBNER: Is there anything in how domestic violence is policed and prosecuted now that’s different than in the past that may be contributing to the rise in single-parent households?
KEARNEY: I’m glad you brought this up, because a common reaction to any work that suggests we should promote marriage or two-parent households is, “We do not want to return to a situation where women felt like they had no choice but to stay in abusive marriages.” I 100 percent agree with that. And so to the extent that the decline in marriage and the rise in one-parent families reflects women escaping abusive situations, I will not lament that. It’s doubtful to me that 30 percent of kids outside the college-educated class, their moms would be in an abusive situation. That is, I think, an extreme case that we should all be able to agree, that’s not what we’re talking about when we’re trying to incentivize or help parents.
DUBNER: What are the specific mechanisms by which kids from two-parent households do better on average? We know that there’s more money going on, and money obviously helps. But there’s more to it than that, plainly.
KEARNEY: Now, money does a lot of things. It means people can live in better neighborhoods with better schools, less crime. It also means that parents can spend more on their kids and invest in them in ways that advance their likelihood of going to college and completing college. We also see that single-parent households — and again, the research really is focused on single-mother households — there’s a lot of stress in the household. And again, this isn’t blaming anybody. I mean, I’ll come home from work and I’m often too stressed to parent my kids the way I want to. And I have someone else in the house I could turn to and say, “You help them.” If you’re the only one in the house who has to do everything for the household and be there for the kids, it’s not surprising that that’s a stressful situation. So all of that matters. It’s money, and time, and emotional bandwidth.
DUBNER: I mean, those all sound obviously important and perhaps obviously causal as well. But how can you prove it’s causal? Could it be that the kind of parent most likely to be in a two-parent household has other underlying characteristics that are driving the results in these kids?
KEARNEY: Let’s say that in plain English. Because this is the argument that I frequently get. “It’s not that there’s a second parent in the house bringing in money and spending time or supervising the kid. It’s that moms who are not married are so deficient in some underlying unobserved way, that even if there was a second parent in their house, their kids wouldn’t do well.” Is that really what we’re inclined to believe? That it’s some unobserved trait about those moms as opposed to all the obvious stuff that we can see?
DUBNER: You sound like you’re not a blamer in general, Melissa — am I correct there?
KEARNEY: I hope not.
DUBNER: If you had to assign blame, or at least maybe rank-order the factors that are driving this society-wide move away from two-parent households over the past couple generations, I’m really curious to know how you would rank these things. I can toss out some candidates. There are personal preferences, there are social norms, there are government policies — including in the U.S., a relatively weak social-safety net. There are employment trends, including the decline of a lot of formerly good-paying jobs in male-dominated industries like manufacturing and so on. So how do you think about ranking those drivers?
KEARNEY: I rank economic changes pretty high on the list of things that have happened. And here’s why. So we had this major social revolution. It affected everyone seemingly equally. And then in the ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, you have widening economic inequality. You interact that with these changes in social norms, and you get this really large class divide. And you’ve got the situation where it sort of liberalized the idea that people should be married to have kids. You interact that with a situation where some groups, it’s harder for them to do well economically. The men are less economically attractive as partners. There are a number of very credible studies showing that shocks like increased import from China that led to a reduction in manufacturing jobs in certain communities in the U.S., increased adoption of industrial robots that led to a decrease in jobs and earnings among non-college educated men, those shocks causally led to a decrease in marriage in the affected communities and a rise in single-parent homes. The tight link between having and raising kids and being married is broken in a lot of communities — again, outside the college-educated class, predominantly. So now in those communities, people feel like, “Okay, we could have a kid, there’s no longer the tight social link with marriage.”
DUBNER: So if I ask you a brutally blunt question, such as, “Is marriage today in the U.S. to some degree a luxury good?”, what’s your answer to that?
KEARNEY: It appears so, yes. When I think about the abundance of advantages I have as a mother, and my kids have from the fact that there’s a second parent in our house, that is something that I would like more people to be able to accomplish. It’s not all that luxurious to do this on your own, to have to pay the bills, and be the only worker in the house, and the only one to help the kids with their homework, and drive them around, and cook dinner.
DUBNER: In the book, you write that you would like to “improve the economic position of men without a college level of education so that they are more reliable marriage partners and fathers.” How do you propose to do that, Melissa Kearney?
KEARNEY: Let’s really bolster federal support to community colleges. They’re in all communities around the country, they serve half of people trying to get higher education in this country. Make sure they offer high-quality programs that allow people to get the skills they need to succeed in today’s global economy. Expand the earned-income tax credit at the individual level, so we’re subsidizing low-wage workers, helping them achieve a family-sustaining income, even if part of that is coming through a tax credit on top of their wages. There’s all sorts of innovations happening, even experimentation with things like removing the college requirement for a lot of jobs. Or trying to make it easier for people with a criminal record to get employment.
DUBNER: During Covid, there was an enhanced child-tax credit, and there was quickly evidence, produced by economists like you, that this aid helped move a lot of young people out of poverty. But then that enhanced aid was not extended. What would be your pitch for why it was wrong to not extend that aid?
KEARNEY: You’re right, and I don’t want to take credit for this — other 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. That’s amazing. And then 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. My pitch is: we need to do so much more to reduce material deprivation among kids in this country. We have mounds of evidence showing that increasing income to low-income families has all sorts of benefits for kids. They do better in school, and they ultimately are healthier, and they become more productive as adults. My compromise would be: okay, fine, if you refuse to send the full amount to parents with no earned income, at least give them half. But even if you won’t do that — fine, give them nothing. Phase it in steeply and still maintain the higher rate for all the low-income working families, because, by the way, there are millions and millions of kids there.
DUBNER: You also write in the book that one remedy would be to “restore and foster a norm of two-parent homes for children.” What does that mean, and how do you propose to do that?
KEARNEY: That’s actually probably the most controversial line in the book, even though it sounds like a nothing prescription. But the reason why I thought it was important to say that is because a lot of social scientists will look at the exact same data as me, they will agree with everything I’ve written in terms of this is what’s going on in the data, this is how it both reflects and exacerbates inequality, but then they will conclude: we need to recognize that the two-parent family and marriage is a dying institution, and we need to do everything we can to support single parents. And so really what I’m doing in making that policy prescription is that I reject that response.
DUBNER: And you reject it because there’s evidence in favor of it? This is not a moral argument, it’s an empirical argument?
KEARNEY: 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.
DUBNER: Now, when you say that the problem isn’t discussed much in public — you know, one could argue that it is discussed quite a bit in more conservative circles, but in progressive and academic circles and in mainstream media, it’s not. Would you agree with that?
KEARNEY: I think that’s right.
DUBNER: Because someone like Mitt Romney, right — he talks about this all the time. But it doesn’t seem as though it has entered the mainstream conversation unless you subscribe to a certain political philosophy.
KEARNEY: This should not be something that only social conservatives care about or recognize as a problem.
DUBNER: Why do you think it is the case that this has become a sort of litmus test for progressives versus conservatives?
KEARNEY: I don’t know. It’s an unfortunate reality. You know, Stephen, you and I had a conversation a few years ago where I mentioned this topic. It was related to some research I had been doing. And you said to me, “Do you worry you sound socially conservative?” And I took that to heart because I knew what you were saying, which is, really, “Do you worry that academics aren’t going to take you seriously if you sound socially conservative?” I vacillated in my own emotions about writing this book, which is — one is like, “Why am I doing something so controversial?” to like, “This is so obvious I’m not saying anything interesting,” right? I mean, I could totally see my dad now being like, “How much did you have to study to write a book that two-parent households are helpful? Like, duh.” What I’m really hoping is that the folks I really want to engage are the folks who just are less inclined to be comfortable talking about this topic. And I hope I’m proposing a way to do it that’s evidence-based and data-based, not values-based. It’s not about blaming or shaming, but it’s recognizing this for the social challenge and economic challenge that it is.
DUBNER: So put on a policy hat for a minute. Why does U.S., let’s say, tax law, not only not reward marriage, but really penalizes marriage?
KEARNEY: This is a holdover from the fact that our tax code was created when wives were much less likely to work. And frankly, we just haven’t updated the tax code to reflect the reality that in most marriages there are two earners. So what we’re really penalizing is households with two workers relative to one worker. This is often referred to as a marriage penalty. I try to phrase it as a secondary-earner penalty. But that’s an obvious thing to get rid of. The tax code shouldn’t disincentivize marriage.
DUBNER: So if two-earner households are not being rewarded by the tax code, how about flipping the script and say, hm, maybe we should impose a large tax on single-parent households. I mean, that sounds bonkers plainly, but, you know, economists can be bonkers. Do you like that idea?
KEARNEY: No, I hate that idea. The other idea I hate, which is less ridiculous, but often purported by economists, many of whom I respect, and I see where they’re coming from, is let’s just keep transfers to single-parent households sort of low, so that they —
DUBNER: Transfers — you mean aid?
KEARNEY: Yes, exactly, I mean, income transfers. Let’s keep them meager, and hope that that incentivizes more of them to get married. So there’s dozens, if not hundreds, of studies looking at the relationship between welfare benefits and the incidence of single-mother households. And the direction goes in the way you’d expect. The more generous welfare is, the more likely someone is to set up in a single parent household. But the magnitudes are very, very small. And I want to be very clear: generous welfare is not what’s driving this trend. It’s really happened in the middle class. And most of those households don’t rely on cash transfers anyway.
DUBNER: Having read your book, I would say that you don’t sound very optimistic about not only solving this problem, but really addressing it substantially any time soon. Am I wrong? Are you more optimistic than I’m reading you?
KEARNEY: That’s probably a fair read and probably because even though I have ideas about what it would take to address the situation, they’re all hard to accomplish. They’re all a bit nebulous. And I have no silver-bullet policy lever to suggest. Like, I would like to be able to say, “Hey, if we removed the marriage disincentive from tax and transfer programs, I’m going to predict a 20 percentage point change.” I’ve got nothing like that to pull out of my hat. And so I think that’s why I’m pessimistic. But again, why do I think it’s worth putting out this book? Well, because if collectively people put their minds together and recognize this is a problem, then we’re going to be more likely to come up with ways to address it.
DUBNER: What about more communal parenting? Do you think that might hold any promise?
KEARNEY: I am 100 percent on board with the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. And I can name many people in my village who have helped me over the years raise my kids. But that’s not something that’s going to make up for a second parent in the household.
DUBNER: Because why? Like, marriage as an institution has been around a long time. And it kind of shocks me sometimes that this is a model that has stuck around so long because many other models have changed a lot more or dissolved. Do you think there is something magical or maybe theologically driven that means that two people married, living in a house, raising their children is the formula?
KEARNEY: We could brainstorm alternative institutions that would do the same thing. But on a practical level, we don’t have one yet. Maybe there’s some institution out there we just haven’t thought of yet, but there’s not one that we can point to.
Or is there some institution we can point to? Coming up: Dylan Thuras from the Atlas Obscura podcast goes looking.
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One of my favorite podcasts is called Atlas Obscura. If you’ve never listened to it, I suggest you do. Its mission is to “inspire wonder and curiosity” about the world, and it usually succeeds. We got together with the Atlas Obscura folks when we started working on this episode about the two-parent privilege, to see if they had any ideas that might complement the interview you just heard with Melissa Kearney. They did — and they offered to go report out that piece. So let me pass the mic, right now, to Atlas Obscura host Dylan Thuras.
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In Southern Turkey, There’s an archeological site called Çatalhöyük. Çatalhöyük is over 9,000 years old, and it has one massive structure where a bunch of people lived. The structure’s roof was a shared, collective space, essentially one big, community-wide living room, that had holes with ladders leading down into individual dwellings. Those individual units were presumably for individual families. Except that when archeologists actually looked at the bones …
Kristen GHODSEE: The thing that shocked them was that the people that were buried in the hearth were not biologically related to each other. They were not blood-related kin.
That’s Kristen Ghodsee. She’s an ethnographer and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and an author of a new book called Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life.
GHODSEE: And so suddenly, we began to understand that our definition of family, of what constitutes family, doesn’t apply in this era.
The book’s main premise is that the nuclear family — like the one I have: me, my wife, Michelle, our two kids — is pretty new in the grand scheme of things.
GHODSEE: When we look back historically, what we see is that many other models of the family exist. To the extent that we can say that anything is quote unquote “natural,” the nuclear family is totally an aberration.
My family and I — we certainly have the two-parent privilege that Melissa Kearney was talking about earlier in this episode. And honestly, it is hard to imagine life without it. Because even though in many ways our home life is wonderful, at times it is just still really, really hard. Like, even with two adults around all the time, how are we supposed to handle all of it?
GHODSEE: People say it takes a village, because it does.
What Kristen and I both wondered: Since the nuclear family is relatively new anthropologically speaking, is it really just about adding parents in general? If there is a two-parent privilege — is there a three-parent privilege? Or a four-parent privilege? How far can you take it? As it turns out, there’s an intentional community in rural central Virginia called Twin Oaks that has been testing this premise for decades — that maybe three, or four, or more parental figures are even better than two.
As you make your way down the main road to Twin Oaks, there’s a storage barn, a grape arbor, a large vegetable garden. There’s a swimming pond and an old dairy barn that has been converted into a recycling center. The whole place kind of feels like a big summer camp for adults.
Adder OAKS: My whole adult life, I’ve known that I wanted to have kids. And early on in my stay at Twin Oaks, I was like, this is the place to do it.
This is Adder Oaks. And yes, his last name is a tribute to this place that he loves.
OAKS: It’s a name I took after living here a while. So, Adder Oaks is like my hippie name.
Twin Oaks was started in 1967, by a group of people studying psychologist B.F. Skinner’s book, Walden Two. The book describes a fictional behaviorist community that became the model for Twin Oaks. Adder has lived at Twin Oaks for 13 years. He is a teacher and a parent to two children, ages 7 and 12. And a big reason he loves it here has to do with how the community goes about childcare, which is shared among community members. At any given time, Twin Oaks has about 100 residents — usually about 85 adults to around 15 kids.
OAKS: We don’t want to have the ratio of children go higher than that. And that is written into our policy.
There are seven large housing buildings at Twin Oaks, each with somewhere between 12 and 20 bedrooms, housing multiple families. People live collectively in these houses. In addition to parents, children also have what are known as “primaries.” Basically, they’re just other adults in the community with whom they have a primary relationship.
Kim BROOKS: Primaries will say, I’m interested in doing childcare work and being a part of your child’s life.
Kim Brooks is a writer and a mother. And during the pandemic, she got really curious about Twin Oaks. She ended up spending some time there to write an article for New York magazine, which included this idea of primaries: a larger set of adults helping raise your kids.
BROOKS: When it starts out, it might just look like some babysitting. But then as the child grows, it could be education, like tutoring, it could be just like mentorship, friendship.
Residents of Twin Oaks say it is not unusual for a kid and one of their primaries to have a really strong bond — to the point where the primary is essentially like a third or fourth parent. And Kim says, even when it’s not that extreme, it’s just still really helpful to the parents.
BROOKS: Things as mundane as like, going to eat dinner and there always being someone else who will hold the baby or play with the toddler while you eat your meal. I mean, that resonated for me. Like, why go and sit down at the dinner table or go out to dinner because I’m not gonna be able to eat? That kind of thing just isn’t an issue.
All this sounds really, really familiar to me, probably familiar to a lot of people. Just that sense of not having enough hands. Of course, there are plenty of families who live near other relatives, there are step-parents, there are godparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, family friends. But the thing that makes Twin Oaks so different is that people aren’t being asked to be parents or aunts in their spare time. Taking care of kids together is actually built into the economic DNA of the community. Here is how Twin Oaks actually works.
BROOKS: It really is a commune in that everything is shared. Income is shared, work is shared, decision-making is shared.
Everyone at Twin Oaks works about 42 hours a week at one of a handful of different businesses run collectively by the community members.
BROOKS: They make hammocks, they make tofu, they make and sell organic seeds.
OAKS: Everyone does their 42 hours of work.
That, again, is Adder Oaks.
OAKS: And in return, the community is providing all of your material needs. We get food, housing, health care, plus a hundred bucks a month free spending money. So it’s not like people are working and getting a paycheck and then handing it over to the community. In general, it’s people working in the businesses that the community owns, and that just counts as your labor quota, and then goes into the common pot.
And for people with kids, there’s one other key difference here.
BROOKS: When you have a child, the time you’re spending with your kids counts towards your work quota. So it’s not like you go and you work on the farm for 42 hours and then you also have to figure out how to care for your kids.
That’s right. At Twin Oaks, the time you spend raising your kids — teaching them, cleaning up after them, cooking for them — that all counts towards your work hours.
OAKS: Eighteen of my 42 hours each week, I claim for taking care of my own children.
And here’s the other thing about Twin Oaks: it’s not just the parents who get to allocate some of those weekly hours towards raising their kids. The other adults — the “primaries” in these kids’ lives — the time they spend helping parent other people’s children also counts towards their weekly work commitment.
OAKS: We do lose economic efficiency. But the advantage that we get I think is a much better work-life balance.
Still, money does matter. The community’s businesses have to survive for the commune to thrive. And when a child is born in Twin Oaks, that means multiple adults are going to put in fewer weekly hours at the tofu factory, or the seed exchange. And that brings us to something that makes people uneasy about Twin Oaks. You cannot just have kids whenever you want.
OAKS: We have a whole process for applying to have a kid at Twin Oaks, which a lot of people find very surprising. But the justification for it is an economic one. You know, it’s like we are all dedicated to the child-rearing.
The application process requires prospective parents to complete a certain number of childcare hours so that they can just get a sense of what it’s like to have a kid, and to talk with recent parents about what they wish they had known before having kids. Residents say that outsiders make much too big a deal of this — permission has almost never been denied. Even so, the process can feel a little unsettling.
While this all might sound like a pretty radical way to go about having and raising kids, the community actually started off with a more extreme childcare model. In the earlier days of Twin Oaks, kids did not go home to their parents at night. Instead, they slept all together in this shared, supervised building. It was communal child-rearing. Kristen Ghodsee again.
GHODSEE: Communal sleeping was a disaster. Especially when they’re very little, they need to have those secure attachments.
Parents at Twin Oaks wanted support in raising their kids — but they also wanted their kids to be their kids, to come home at night. And so, in the late 1980s, Twin Oaks got rid of the totally communal approach. This shift at Twin Oaks was very similar to what happened at kibbutzim in Israel — these shared, agricultural communities also took a totally communal approach to childrearing before shifting in the ’80s to giving parents a greater role. At kibbutzim, and at Twin Oaks, community members landed on something a little more familiar to people who grew up in the mainstream. Kim Brooks, the writer who visited Twin Oaks, calls it Nuclear-ish family.
Devon SPROULE: There was never any like, “These children are the children of the community!” There was no, like, indoctrination of, “You are only the children—” You know, it’s not that weird.
This is Devon Sproule. She grew up at Twin Oaks until she was 15 years old.
SPROULE: When my mom and her girlfriend left, I remember my mom saying, “I need to be able to go into my kitchen, clean it up, and know that it’s going to be clean when I walk back in!” Fair, fair. Totally fair.
Devon is now 41. She’s a musician in Charlottesville, Virginia — not too far from where she grew up. And she’s a mom herself. She did not go back to Twin Oaks to raise her daughter — but mostly because, like her own mom, she and her family just wanted a little more private space. But she’s grateful to have grown up there
SPROULE: I got to do a lot of stuff with people who weren’t parents, but wanted to be with kids. That might be one of the core benefits and pleasures of being a kid at Twin Oaks: you get fresh adult energy all the time. There’s always someone who has time for you.
Dylan THURAS: Do you ever wish, like, man, I wish we had that communal parental help because this is just hard with the two of us or whatever.
SPROULE: Dude! Don’t you, hearing about it? I mean, I don’t know, I shouldn’t assume, but yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, it’s really hard out here to parent! I’m sure there are challenges to parenting at Twin Oaks. But I think the main thing is being around adults who are not super-stressed out all the time. And even if they are stressed out, they’re getting support from the people around them. The kids seem really happy and the adults for the most part seem — I don’t know, it seems like they’re relatively able to be themselves, and that’s kind of what you want in a parent, I think. Somebody who feels like they have purpose and space and time.
Devon’s dad still lives at Twin Oaks, and Devon goes back to visit every now and again. In fact, a lot of people from Twin Oaks have close friends and family who do not live there. Residents are sort of buffered from the outside world at Twin Oaks — but they are not isolated from it. People come and go freely. They have guests who stay with them. There’s internet. There is Netflix.
ZADEK: I think people, when they hear that we live on a commune, they think hippies and drugs and stuff. And like, sure. But it’s also just a normal place. Most people here are really normal people. We’re not really normal people, but…
This is Zadek Ghoshal. He is 17. His parents live at Twin Oaks. And Adder, who we heard from earlier, is one of his primaries. Zadek’s brother is 14-year-old Sam.
SAM: Some of the people who live in our house, they’re almost just like more parents around. Like Adder. And then like one of my friends’ dad, Scott. Just like, they’ve been around the entire time.
In some ways, being a kid at Twin Oaks is another world. But in most others, it really is pretty normal. Kids have friends, they do odd jobs. Sam just started going to a nearby public school after being home-schooled at Twin Oaks. Mainly, he just wanted to hang out with more kids his own age. And they do typical “kid” things, like making movies.
SAM: We were like, “This scene is gonna be inside an alien spaceship. So where can we shoot an alien spaceship?” We have a tofu factory on our property with like tubes and stuff. So we can go over there.
ZADEK: And we have like a disco light, so it was, like, all rainbow. It actually looked really sick.
As stoked as Zadek is on tofu aliens, like any 17-year-old, he’s also ready to get outta there. In his words, he’s “kind of done” with living at Twin Oaks. He’s going to take a gap year before heading off to college. But he said he’s not necessarily writing off the commune forever.
THURAS: Do you think when you are adults or parents you would want to raise kids or return to an environment like Twin Oaks, kind of a more communal-living style?
ZADEK: I think if I was raising kids, definitely, at least for the first, like, 10 years of the kid’s life.
SAM: Definitely. ‘Cause there’s just a lot of people around to take care of us — and I think Twin Oaks does better at, like, compensating for taking care of young children than a lot of mainstream jobs do. That’s pretty much all you have to do here when you have young kids is take care of ‘em.
Here is what we don’t know — at least not yet. We have tons of economic data about single and two-family households, and some good evidence that multi-generational families do really well. But we know much less about these kinds of communal family arrangements. These nuclear-ish families. Kristen Ghodsee, author of Everyday Utopia, says that studies from the Israeli kibbutzim can give us some clues.
GHODSEE: We have very good evidence in the field of child psychology. There was one I believe done in 1994, which looked at 70 years of collective child rearing in Israel and showed that, look, kids that are raised collectively, they do better in school, they’re more socially adaptable, they have higher levels of self-esteem.
Kristen’s whole thing is that we’re missing the forest for the trees. That this idea of sharing childcare responsibilities across multiple adults, whether it is extended multi-generational families, religious communities, or in a commune — that that has been the de facto arrangement for most of history.
GHODSEE: If you look at the empirical data, cross-culturally and trans-historically, this is a model that has always been around and it has always worked.
My kids have the two-parent privilege, and I love being a parent, my wife loves being a parent. It is the center and greatest joy of our lives. But when I hear about Twin Oaks, and this large, extended community that supports and shares in the work of raising great kids together — that really does sound like a privilege.
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That, again, was Dylan Thuras, from Atlas Obscura. Thanks to Dylan and the whole Atlas Obscura team for making this segment about Twin Oaks for us; if you want to hear more stories like this, check out Atlas Obscura on your favorite podcast app. Thanks also to Melissa Kearney, an economist at the University of Maryland and author of the new book The Two-Parent Privilege.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Daria Klenert, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Jasmin Klinger, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, Sarah Lilley, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. The Atlas Obscura podcast is a co-production of Atlas Obscura and Stitcher Studios. Their segment today was produced by Katie Thornton and Johanna Mayer, with sound design by Chris Naka. The Atlas Obscura production team includes Dylan Thuras, Doug Baldinger, Kameel Stanley, Baudelaire, Manolo Morales, and Gabby Gladney; the technical director is Casey Holford.
- Kim Brooks, writer.
- Kristen Ghodsee, professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Sam Ghoshal, Twin Oaks resident.
- Zadek Ghoshal, Twin Oaks resident.
- Melissa Kearney, professor of economics at the University of Maryland.
- Adder Oaks, teacher and Twin Oaks resident.
- Devon Sproule, musician and former Twin Oaks resident.
- The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, by Melissa Kearney (2023).
- “Births: Final Data for 2021,” by Michelle J.K. Osterman, Brady E. Hamilton, Joyce A. Martin, Anne K. Driscoll, and Claudia P. Valenzuela (National Vital Statistics Reports, 2023).
- Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life, by Kristen Ghodsee (2023).
- “Parenting in Utopia: Raising Kids in America Can Be, by Design, Crushing. But What if It Weren’t?” by Kim Brooks (The Cut, 2022).
- “U.S. Has World’s Highest Rate of Children Living in Single-Parent Households,” by Stephanie Kramer (Pew Research Center, 2019).
- “When Work Disappears: Manufacturing Decline and the Falling Marriage Market Value of Young Men,” by David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson (A.E.R. Insights, 2019).
- “Cross-National Comparisons of Union Stability in Cohabiting and Married Families With Children,” by Kelly Musick and Katherine Michelmore (Demography, 2018).
- Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone, by Ralph Richard Banks (2011).
- “Why Did You Marry That Person? (Replay),” by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “Why Does the Richest Country in the World Have So Many Poor Kids? (Update),” by Freakonomics Radio (2022).
- “The Fracking Boom, a Baby Boom, and the Retreat From Marriage,” by Freakonomics Radio (2017).
- The Atlas Obscura Podcast.