Time to ask “But what about the children?”

Not talking about the facts is counterproductive


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Since the sexual revolution, the West has engaged in a project of limit-destruction in the name of the sanctity of desire. Boundaries are there to be transgressed in the name of self-expression. The Id has been unleashed; fantasy is no longer a matter for private dabbling, but public display.

We have replaced older virtues — fidelity, forbearance, duty — with new modes of living: desire is unbounded, love is love, and the freedom of the individual is the highest good. The problem with our unshackled, “liberated” universe is the unwillingness of reality and Nature herself to bend to our will. We increasingly find ourselves at odds with what we want to be true and what is true — and we don’t like it.

Melissa Kearney’s The Two-Parent Privilege is an account of what are, on the surface, rather obvious points. Kearney is an economist and a numbers-and-graphs person, so all of her arguments are swimming, if not drowning, in data and generalisations. She notes, first, that over the past 40 years or so, America “has engaged in a vast experiment of reshaping the most fundamental of social institutions — the family — and the resulting generations of data tell us in no uncertain terms how that has played out for children”.

The Two-Parent Privilege, Melissa S. Kearney (Swift, £22)

Only 63 per cent of US children, Kearney notes, are now raised in a home with married parents. This is not because parents are cohabiting without getting married — it is because vast quantities of women, particularly black women, are single parents. This is not because there is a financial incentive for women to do so, a point Kearney carefully unpicks. It is because the kinds of jobs for non-college educated men, which would engender the economic stability required to be a good father and husband, no longer exist.

It is marriage rates amongst the non-college educated that have fallen most precipitously. It might be fashionable for the liberal middle class to celebrate family abolition, polyamory and queer families, but their revealed preferences indicate that they are still marrying and having children as people always did, no matter how embarrassed they might pretend to feel about it. Stability for me, but not for thee.

Kearney points out the following, quite straight-forward things, that have become clear as a consequence of America’s great social experiment: two-parent families are beneficial for children; the class divide in marriage and family structure has exacerbated inequality; places which have more two-parent families have higher rates of upward mobility; and, finally, not talking about these facts is counterproductive.

Kearney describes these findings as “uncomfortable realities”. At a very basic level, though, it is obvious from a resource point of view — money and time — that more of those things will be better for children, who are resource-intensive and exhausting as well as lovable.

This is a huge shift. Whilst Kearney is scrupulous in avoiding moral judgements or cultural diagnostics, there is a tone of urgency in her account: “We are now talking about roughly half of children born to non-college-educated parents being born to unmarried parents, most of whom will not stay together.” The outcomes for boys and men in particular are bad, and in this sense Kearney’s book is an excellent companion to Richard V. Reeves’ Of Boys and Men (2002), which sounds similar alarm.

The absence of a father, Kearney notes, is especially disadvantageous for boys. The focus on single mothers instead of seeing families holistically means that issues overwhelmingly affecting poorer men — joblessness, mass incarceration, untreated mental illness, the opioid epidemic — have not been tackled.

Children are becoming fetishised as something akin to pets or commodities

Kearney’s findings are uncomfortable for anyone who would like to imagine that single parenthood will have no negative effects on children. The capacity to imagine what might be in the long-term interests of children appears to have taken a back seat in recent years, even, or especially, as they become more fetishised as something akin to pets or commodities. The untold psychic and existential horrors of children born to surrogate mothers (“Yes, dear, you have a mother, but she’s not really your mother; she’s just a random woman in the world who you shouldn’t have any emotional attachment to”) are coming to fruition.

Anyone suggesting, however reasonably and analytically, that children are better off with two parents is immediately treated with suspicion. Are you attacking gay parents? Are you blaming single mothers? Do you want people to stay in unhappy or even violent marriages for the sake of the children?

Kearney is careful to say none of these things. She avoids suggesting that heterosexual parenting trumps homosexual: “to the extent that the beneficial effects of marriage for children are derived solely from the resource advantage of that arrangement, the genders of the parents are irrelevant”.

The reader can draw his or her conclusions. Women who care for children alone are making a rational decision in many cases: the father, for reasons beyond both of their control, may not be in a position to contribute usefully. It goes without saying that it is not better for a child to be in the presence of a violent and unstable father, even if economic resources are lower without him.

Despite her manifest extensive research and reasonable tone, Kearney notes that she is subject to attack when she speaks at conferences. In talks about income inequality and decline in employment, where people are happy to discuss education, unions and technology, Kearney’s mention of families is greeted with “a muted reaction — uncomfortable shifting in seats and facial expressions that conveyed reservations with this line of inquiry”.

She is cornered afterwards, by men who no longer live with their children, and questioned about whether she really thinks that children do less well with one parent. Questioning the desire of adults to do what they want, at the potential expense of children, is verboten in the liberal regime, whatever the stats say.

Kearney concludes the US needs to restore and foster a two-parent norm. It can do so by improving the economic position of poorer, less-educated men. It can promote families and community programmes that improve outcomes for parents and children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Of necessity, this book leaves out what it would take to achieve it, but that is not Kearney’s job. A new New Deal for an America that would bring manufacturing back to the country, along with a new sense of pride in the nation and (dare I say it) a religious culture that saw transcendence in natality and family, rather than in individual desire, seem like the best pathway to hope. Leftists love to mock the phrase “But what about the children?” But, frankly, what about the children? A culture that reneges on its duty to the future is over.

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