The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Boys Are at the Heart of the Family Stability Problem


In “Is Marriage Promotion Possible?,” Ross Douthat discusses how policymakers might contribute to building a “non-punitive cultural consensus around the two-parent norm, one that shapes and channels behavior without treating outliers as the absolute worst of sinners.” It is important to keep in mind policymakers can’t play a central role in building a cultural consensus. Rather, they can help make the environment more favorable in various ways. For example, one of the problems facing women living in high-poverty neighborhoods is that the supply of “marriageable” men is constrained by the absence of employment opportunities for which less-skilled men are well-suited and high incarceration rates. Criminal justice reform is thus one way of improving the family stability picture, and the same goes for more generous wage subsidies that flow to childless adult men. 

It is also true that rising affluence makes it easier for unmarried adults to live independently. So efforts to increase disposable income through a combination of employment-friendly macroeconomic policies, wage subsidies aimed at raising incomes for low-wage workers, and zoning reforms that can reduce the burden of housing prices might actually make single parenting somewhat more attractive, at least in the short term. This is a theme Matt Yglesias (implicitly, and cleverly) touches on in “The Parable of the Housemate.”

So why can’t we just focus on getting rich and put aside the divisive moralizing? The problem is that child-rearing is labor-intensive in a special way. Though some aspects of child-rearing can be outsourced reasonably well (schools do a pretty job of teaching kids about fractions, and keeping them out of traffic), others cannot. David Autor and Melanie Wasserman address this thorny problem in their essay on the emerging gender gap in labor markets and education:

We noted above that the shift in household structures among less-educated and minority adults towards resource-poor, female- headed households may propagate the intergenerational transmission of inequality. For boys, there is a further consequence: the diminished involvement of the related male parent may magnify the emerging gender gap in educational attainment and labor market outcomes. Although male and female children within a given household are theoretically exposed to the same environment—including schools, neighborhoods, and adult guardians—the increasing prevalence of female-headed households implies that the majority of girls continue to cohabit with their same-sex biological parent who will likely serve as a same-sex role model. By contrast, male children raised in female-headed households are less likely to have a positive male adult household member present that serves an analogous role. A growing body of evidence, summarized below, indicates that the absence of stable fathers from children’s lives has particularly significant adverse consequences for boys’ psychosocial development and educational achievement.

While it would be inaccurate to claim that social science has reached consensus on the differential effects that parents have on the social and educational development of their same-sex children, recent data suggest that the female advantage in educational attainment is substantially more pronounced in female-headed households and in households where the father is less educated than the mother. For example, comparing the educational attainments of children born in the late 1960s according to both the educational attainment of their parents and the presence of the father in the household, Buchman and DiPrete94 document a large female advantage in college completion— on the order of 10 to 14 percentage points—in households where the mother has at least some college education and the father is either less educated than the mother or is absent. By contrast, in households where the father is both present and highly educated (some college or above), boys and girls are about equally likely to complete college.

We appear to have entered a vicious circle: men are falling further and further behind women in educational attainment and in labor market success below the uppermost echelons of U.S. society; women are thus finding it difficult to find partners who even approach them in educational attainment and labor market success; and so women are either parenting boys alone, or they are co-parenting with men who are less than ideal role models for their male children. 

If some technology emerges to address this vicious circle, I welcome it. But I think it’s far more likely that, as Ross suggests, we will have to do the patient, difficult work of building a new marriage culture. An important component of this work will be done by policymakers, e.g., recognizing the damage done by mass incarceration, and finding new ways to make our most violent neighborhoods safer, healthier environments. Most of this work, however, will be done not by policymakers, but by families and communities shaping the habits and expectations of their younger members. 


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