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Why Half of American Babies are Born to Unmarried Mothers

One of the words that’s become utterly void of meaning in the last few years because of its overuse and misuse is privilege. White privilege, male privilege, able-bodied privilege, gender…

One of the words that’s become utterly void of meaning in the last few years because of its overuse and misuse is privilege. White privilege, male privilege, able-bodied privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, even hot privilege. In these contexts, privilege is a stain, a kind of original sin meant to guilt the offending party into repenting for it at every twist and turn in their life. “Check your privilege” became a common refrain of the past decade. What all of this has done is confuse and undermine the idea of real privilege—real advantage that some situations produce over others—which, of course, really exists in this country. 

But the ultimate privilege in America is not being born white or straight or male. The ultimate privilege, as Melissa Kearny argues, is being born into a household with two parents.

Melissa Kearney is an economist at the University of Maryland and her new book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, argues that declining marriage rates in America—and the corresponding rise in children being raised in single parent households—are driving many of the country’s biggest economic problems. In the 1950s, fewer than 5 percent of babies in this country were born to unmarried mothers. Today, nearly half of all babies in America are born to unmarried mothers. Most surprising—and worrisome—is how this trend is divided along class lines, with children whose mothers don’t have a college degree being more than twice as likely—as compared to children of college-educated mothers—to live in a single parent home. Kearny asserts this is widening the economic gap in opportunities and outcomes and rendering already vulnerable populations even more vulnerable. 

Many of the arguments that Kearney makes in her book are what you might call commonsensical. And yet the book has received criticism, including from those in our culture who don’t dare make judgments on issues of home and family life, perhaps because that’s long been considered to be the domain of social conservatives. But as celebrated economist and our friend Tyler Cowen said of Melissa’s book, “this could be the most important economics and policy book of the year… it’s remarkable that such a book is so needed, but it is.”

The word privilege, as Melissa Kearney uses it, is not a dirty word. It is not a judgment that some people are intrinsically better or worse than others. It’s not a word meant to guilt or shame a group of people. Quite the opposite. It’s an aspirational word. It’s meant to inspire policies, programs, and changes in our social norms to even the playing field so that we can do better for all of our children. So that every child in America has the best possible chance for flourishing. That is what every child in this country deserves.

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