Why We Should Talk About Work and Family Stability

by Reihan Salam

Matt Yglesias of Vox points us to the new World Family Map from Child Trends. Specifically, he highlights the fact that the U.S. is not an outlier when it comes to the share of births to unmarried mothers:

There are a number of other findings that are worthy of note. Consider, for example, the share of children under the age of 18 in households in which the household head is employed:

Americans like to think of the U.S. as a work-friendly country. Yet a far smaller share of American children (71 percent) are raised in households in which the household head is employed than in Sweden (90 percent) or Canada (90 percent) or Germany (81 percent) or France (88 percent). I should note that the data I’m drawing, from the Luxembourg Income Study by way of Child Trends, is not perfect, as it uses 2010 data for the U.S., Ireland, and Germany while using 2005 data for Sweden and France. One assumes that Ireland’s shockingly low level of parental employment reflects the severity of its economic downturn. As we’ve discussed, work hours in Sweden have surpassed work hours in the United States, and so it is easy to imagine that parental employment in Sweden would continue to surpass that of the U.S.

If you believe that having a working parent is good for children, as it makes it easier to socialize them into the world of work, the fact that parental employment levels in the U.S. are so low should be a matter of concern.

Moreover, there are other dimensions of family structure that merit close attention. One of them is union stability. Yglesias cites that share of children born to unmarried mothers, but nonmarital relationships vary across societies, with non-marital unions in some societies — particularly northern Europe — being more stable than non-marital unions in others, like the United States. “Although children born to cohabiting parents are more likely to experience separation than children born to married parents,” write Sheela Kennedy and Elizabeth Thomson in a 2010 survey of family disruption in Sweden, “the difference is smaller in Sweden than in any other country for which we have data.” (Interestingly, the gap in union stability between cohabiting parents and married parents is much larger among less-educated Swedes than it is among their educated counterparts. This class difference in union stability has increased since the 1970s.)

In “Childbearing across Partnerships in the U.S., Australia and Scandinavia,” Elizabeth Thomson, Trude Lappegård, Marcia Carlson, Ann Evans, and Edith Gray observe that the United States is in a class of its own when it comes to the share of women whose second birth is with a different father from the first. They estimate that the U.S. proportion is 27 percent of all second births while the Swedish proportion is 12 percent of all second births, with Norway and Australia between the two, but closer to Sweden than the U.S. This partly reflects the fact that first births in the U.S. occur disproportionately to young mothers, with one-third of births attributable to teenagers in the U.S. as opposed to less than 15 percent in Norway, Sweden, and Australia. The U.S. teen birth rate is falling, as the Pew Research Center reports, but there are pronounced differences across ethnocultural groups, with Hispanic and non-Hispanic black teenagers having notably high birth rates:

As a general rule, children raised in households that experience union stability fare worse than those raised in households that do not. Childbearing across partnerships can also introduce complications, including conflict over the distribution of resources across children, which suggests that American children are burdened in ways that Scandinavian children are not. When we also factor in the fact that parental employment levels in the U.S. are much lower than in other market democracies, we start to get a troubling of what it’s like to grow up in many American communities. When we try to understand how American children fare when compared to their counterparts in other market democracies, it is important to keep all of these factors in mind. Rich Lowry and I have argued that American conservatives should be “the party of work.” Though nonmarital childbearing is a problem, it is but one of several problems facing American children, and it is arguably a smaller problem than the low level of parental employment and union instability. The American family is changing in ways that make talk of “illegitimacy” less convincing that it might have been in earlier eras — there is a danger that conservatives who focus on the dangers of non-marital childbearing are preaching to the choir, and alienating Americans for whom union instability and unemployment are serious and pervasive problems. Marriage is vitally important. But conservatives would do well to focus on the virtues of work and family stability just as much, if not more, as they do on the virtues of marriage.  

The Agenda

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