Get smart fast, vol. 12

A new book by economist Melissa Kearney details the advantages of growing up in a two-parent household. She explains this marriage advantage in the education press.

[I]n theory, the government can address income differences between single parents and couples. But as a practical matter, we’re just not in a position where the government will start sending checks to households that equal the earnings of another working adult.

A second parent also brings their time, which frees up the time of the first parent. Married mothers are able to spend more time with their kids because somebody else is helping to do all the other stuff that needs to happen in order to make a household run. And this relates to another resource that parents invest in their kids, which is emotional bandwidth.

Raising kids takes a lot of energy and patience, and when there’s a second person in the house that you can tap into for all kinds of things — paying your bills, reading to your kids, driving them around — there’s more emotional bandwidth to engage in what developmental psychologists say is the most beneficial kind of parenting: nurturing parenting, less authoritative parenting. It feels commonsensical, but something we see in studies is that single mothers are more likely to resort to, let’s say, harsher parenting strategies.

When I say something like that, it might make you think, “Gee, that sounds awful and judgmental.” But I’m not blaming single mothers. If I didn’t have a partner that I could lean on when I was stressed, I can assure you that I would also be much harsher, more often, with my kids. There’s no moral failing here. When resources are strained, it’s harder to parent the way you want.

These points are both seemingly obvious and under-appreciated among education policy wonks. The question is what to do about them. Many on the right offer ready prescriptions to encourage couples to marry and stay married through culture and policy. Many on the left argue the focus on marriage is misguided, and solutions should focus on other material issues affecting families. Kearney has reignited a debate about factors in children’s home lives that affect their opportunities to learn, the ways public policy might help, and the unintended consequences of some potential solutions. Her argument is worth taking seriously.

Numbers to know

Source: RAND Corporation

$17,000: Gap between the average teacher’s salary and the amount they want to make.

34: Percent of teachers who feel their salaries are adequate.

61: Percent of all working adults who do.

9: Factor by which the number of school districts offering classes four days a week, rather than five, has increased since 1999.

45: Percent of U.S. teens who say they would favor some sort of hybrid school model in which they attended school between one and four days per week.

8: Percent increase in community college enrollment among students younger than 18, at a time of flat or declining enrollment among other age groups.

Avatar photo

BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)