The Agenda

Dana Golstein on Education and the Welfare State

Dana Goldstein writes:

In the new education documentary “Waiting for Superman,” we hear a lot about how the Finnish education system is the best in the world, but nothing about how much easier it is to be a parent in Finland, because the government provides universal low-cost daycare, nursery school, and health care.

Why don’t we talk about parenting more? Because we American optimists want to believe that kids can overcome the deficits they bring from home without having to wait for the United States to become a social democracy (as if). There’s also a long and disturbing history of affluent white people judging the parenting skills of everyone else. But I do think there is a limit to how much transformational education reform we can do in the United States without looking seriously at why raising kids is do damn difficult in our winners-take-all society. [Emphasis added.]

I’d suggest that the real American optimists are those who believe that transforming the United States into a social democracy will solve deep-seated problems rather than create new ones. As for why it is so difficult to raise children in the United States, I’d submit that it has at least something to do with family disruption.

In 2002, Demographic Research published a paper on “Children’s experience of family disruption and family formation: Evidence from 16 FFS countries.” The following is from the abstract:

In this paper, we present a number of descriptive measures on children’s experienceof family disruption and family formation. We use data from the Fertility and Family Surveys of 15 European countries and corresponding data from the USA in order to find out what kind of family circumstances children are born into and whatexperience they subsequently have of various family-transformation events of theirmothers. Our presentation reveals some similarities but also striking differences inthe family-demographic experience of children in different countries. The USA stands out as one extreme case with its very high proportion of children born to alone mother, with a higher probability of children who experience a union disruption of their parents than anywhere else, and with many children having the experience of living in a stepfamily. Italy stands out at the other end of the scale.Practically all children here are born to a married mother and very few of themexperience the dissolution of their parents’ union before they turn 15. [Emphasis added.]

A key issue is whether children experience a “union disruption,” i.e., whether the parents of a child, married or otherwise, stay together to raise the child or split up. As David T. Ellwood and Christopher Jencks argued in “The Spread of Single-Parent Families in the United States since 1960,” this has a significant impact on a wide range of outcomes for children.

McLanahan and Sandefur (1994) assembled data from a number of American surveysshowing that children who grew up with both of their biological parents performed better onschool achievement tests, had fewer children as teenagers, finished high school more often, attended college more often, and earned more in early adulthood. They also showed that only about half of this association was explained by parental income.2 For our purposes their mostimportant finding was that children raised by both of their biological parents did better thanchildren raised in any alternative arrangement.

As Ellwood and Jencks explain, the percentage of children living in disrupted families int he U.S. has increased far more than the percentage living in single-parent households. 

This leads us to the comparative picture. Ellwood and Jencks write:

It is true that out-of-wedlock births are as common in many European countries as in the United States. But the estimated percentage of fifteen year olds living with both of their biological parents is far lower in the United States thatin Western Europe. Even in Sweden, where nonmarital births are almost twice as common as in the United States, most unmarried parents raise their children together. As a result, two-thirds ofall Swedish fifteen year olds are expected to live with both of their biological parents – a figurecomparable to that in Germany and France.

One could argue that Swedish parents stay together because of social democracy. But it seems just as likely that this pattern reflects enduring patterns of social and cultural capital. That is, social democracy isn’t the essential difference. 

Moreover, it seems that marriage patterns have a big impact on the level of family disruption. Let’s return to “Children’s experience of family disruption and family formation”:

Our tabulation reveals that children born in a marriage typically haveonly half the probability of experiencing a family disruption during childhood, as compared to children born in a consensual union. An excess instability of such a high magnitude is experienced by children born in consensual unions in practically every country in our study. If we again focus on differences between countries infamily-disruption experiences of children, we find that the general patterns from Table 4 hold also when children born in the two types of family circumstances are presented separately (Table 5). In both cases, we find that the USA is the countrywhere children are most likely to experience a family disruption before they turn 15, closely followed by Latvia. In both cases, we also find Italy as the country where children have the lowest propensity for experiencing a family disruption. The patterns for Sweden turn out to be interesting. When children born in consensualunions and those born in marriage are treated separately, it no longer stands out as acountry with particularly high levels of child-family disruptions. The relatively common experience of Swedish children of family dissolution, as indicated by Table 4, comes rather from the fact that so many children there are born to acohabiting but not married couple.

Table 5 also gives us numbers for Finland. By age 15, 39 of children born to consensual unions in Finland have experienced family disruption. The number for the United States is 78 percent. For children born to married couples, only 17 percent of Finnish children have experienced family disruption. The number for the United States is 35 percent.

How might public provision of “universal low-cost daycare, nursery school, and health care” impact this landscape? In 2007, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers wrote a paper on “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces” in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that offers some insight:

The economic approach to the family seeks to explain how and why familiesform, and in so doing, this approach highlights the potential forces that change family formation. Couples marry and stay married when the gains from marriage exceed the gains from being single. These gains come from several sources: production complementarities (such as household specialization and the raising of one’s children); the benefits of risk pooling; and consumption complementarities(such as the joint consumption of public goods and shared leisure activities). Thus, reduced market discrimination against women and technological advances thatallow much of what was once produced by skilled-labor in the home to be purchased or produced with little skill reduce the benefits from specialization ofspouses in the home and market spheres, thereby decreasing the gains from marriage. However, increasing leisure time and wealth, along with the changinglandscape defining sexual relations, potentially raise the gains from consumption complementarities. These changes in tastes, technology, and the institutional orlegal environment have altered gains from marriage.

As the labor market position of less-skilled men has deteriorated and that of women has improved, the incentives to get married have grown weaker. And, as Stevenson and Wolfers noted in a Cato Unbound forum, the expansion of social insurance and forms of publicly-funded social provision has played an important role:

An increasingly sophisticated system of contract law has made possible enormous economic benefits, but in the process the modern corporation has come to supplant the family firm as the key unit of production. The development of social insurance has spread greater security to many but has reduced the role of the family as a provider of insurance. Most recently, technological, social, and legal changes have reduced the value of specialization within households. [Emphasis added.]

That is, social provision of this kind really does ease the economic burden of family disruption. And lowering the cost of family disruption will tend to increase the amount of family disruption, ceteris paribus. But the psychological impact, and the impact on educational attainment, remains.

If the United States had the same level of family disruption, would children perform as well as the Finns? The answer is seems to be yes. Consider the following findings from the OECD’s PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) in 2006:

On the combined science literacy scale in the United States, Black (non-Hispanic) students (409) and Hispanic students (439) scored lower, on average, than White (non-Hispanic) students (523), Asian (non-Hispanic) students (499), and students of more than one race (non-Hispanic) (501). Hispanic students, in turn, scored higher than Black (non-Hispanic) students, while White (non-Hispanic) students scored higher than Asian (non-Hispanic) students.

Non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. experience far lower rates of family disruption than their counterparts, so let’s use this as a crude proxy. At a score of 523, white U.S. students are behind the Finns at 563 on the science scale, as well as a number of other countries including laissez-faire Hong Kong and Estonia. But they are comfortably in the first-tier, well ahead of Liechtenstein, Korea, Germany, the UK, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Austria.

Given that U.S. schools are working with far more students from disrupted households than their Finnish counterparts, I’d suggest that we actually need far more experimentation and innovation in our public education system. And if Finland is outperforming white U.S. students but Hong Kong is doing so as well, it’s not obvious that more publicly-funded social provision is the solution. 

Going back to Dana’s post, I could write:

Because we American optimists want to believe that kids can overcome the deficits they bring from home without having to wait for the United States to become a laissez-faire economy modeled on Hong Kong or Singapore (as if).

But I wouldn’t go quite that far. I’d like the United States to be more like Hong Kong and Singapore for a variety of reasons that are separate from, though not unrelated to, the question of educating U.S. children. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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