The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind
Melissa Kearney
University of Chicago Press, $25 (cloth)

Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care
M. E. O’Brien
Pluto Press, $22.95 (paper)

In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a political scientist then serving as an assistant secretary of labor for Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote a report titled “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action.” Over seventy pages, the document argued that a rising number of Black families headed by single mothers was an obstacle to Black equality, blaming disproportionate rates of marital dissolution and out-of-wedlock births on a cultural “tangle of pathology” inflicted by slavery and racism. The “weakness” of Black family structure, Moynihan wrote, was “the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.”

A narrow concern for the two-parent family has become a centerpiece of the liberal political imagination.

Moynihan thought this analysis was essential to effective antiracist and antipoverty policy because it showed why civil and voting rights legislation were not enough. Many critics saw it differently, accusing the report of emboldening right-wing racism by “blaming the victim.” Moynihan would later describe this backlash as a “massive failure of nerve among whites.” As he put it, the “bloody nose” he earned by writing the report scared other liberals away from critically examining family structure.

That reluctance did not last. By the mid-1980s, “broken families” were once again being blamed for intergenerational “dependency,” and Moynihan, now a U.S. senator, felt it was time to speak on the subject again. The result was a series of lectures at Harvard, later published as Family and Nation (1986), in which Moynihan cast himself as an unfairly maligned prophet of family decline whose ideas were now being twisted into fodder for Reagan’s assault on the welfare state. The sheer prevalence and acceleration of family breakdown made it no longer primarily a matter of racial inequality but a national crisis, Moynihan argued. The incidence of families with one parent had doubled from 13 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 1986, he noted, and women-headed families made up the majority of poor families with children. He exhorted liberals to acknowledge that “poverty is now inextricably associated with family structure” and to unite behind a suite of policies: “family preservation” and youth job programs, a national family allowance, toughened child support enforcement. The aim, as Moynihan envisioned it, was both to reclaim the nuclear family as a source of economic opportunity and to contest the conservative lie that welfare programs themselves were responsible for family breakdown.

This liberal politics of the family has proven enormously influential. Moynihan’s blend of demographic alarmism and technocratic optimism regarding the two-parent family was quickly amplified by a cohort of social scientists shuffling between academia, government working groups, and centrist think tanks in the 1980s and ’90s. The work of public intellectuals such as Mary Jo Bane, David Ellwood, Sara McLanahan, and Isabel Sawhill interpreted lower rates of family formation among poor Americans as a vicious cycle—both the consequence and cause of economic inequality—that government policy needed to proactively disrupt.

These liberal poverty experts sought to reclaim family structure as a neutral category of analysis that could capture social trends associated with poverty without treating them as “caused” by race. Their staunch arguments that welfare policy could encourage family formation, the historian Alice O’Connor has shown, played a key role in shaping and rallying bipartisan support for the welfare reform laws that swept the United States in the 1980s and ’90s—laws that still structure U.S. family governance. Many of these figures came to oppose the punitive aspects of such legislation, especially as punishment proved to have little impact on child poverty rates and actually worsen the incidence of extreme poverty. But, like Moynihan, these policy experts took all this as evidence that the United States had yet to implement a truly pro-family national policy. By 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was campaigning on the claim that “more than half of all black children live in single-parent households . . . and the foundations of our community are weaker for it.”

The entrenchment of these views at the highest levels of Democratic policymaking has made a certain narrow concern for the two-parent family a centerpiece of the liberal political imagination. To explain this fixation, critics have looked to entrenched cultural conservatism as variously reflected in suspicion of welfare benefits (for eroding reliance on male breadwinners) or obliviousness to receding prospects for a “family wage.” Many liberals did fall into what historian Stephanie Coontz has called the “nostalgia trap” of romanticizing the post–World War II nuclear family, but it was a revisionist nostalgia, severing the idealized past from its political economic foundation. As sociologist Melinda Cooper and others have shown, this politics of the family came to focus more on policing kinship responsibilities among poor Americans than on rebuilding a family-centric economy. Along the way, liberal policymakers and scholars began to talk about the two-parent family structure principally as a model of private economic duty to be imposed on undisciplined parents, downplaying its status as a historically contingent social structure for organizing care labor and child-rearing.

By situating the family within the tectonic processes of political economy, both these authors offer a necessary corrective to neoliberal thought.

On the other side of decades of liberal family policy, we can clearly see two fundamental problems with this outlook. First, it simply—we might say maliciously—ignores demographic realities. Downward trends in marriage and dual parenthood have endured, especially for the poorest Americans, despite the punitive welfare and child support systems built in the name of combating them. (The United States is not alone: nearly every OECD country has seen declining marriage rates over the past few decades.) Among other things, this disjuncture of policy and reality reinforces racial inequalities through disparate exposure to the punitive family law system. Second, this outlook stifles scrutiny of the family as a lived social structure. If the state has done its duty in promoting familial responsibility, why worry about race- and class-based disparities? Why ask whether children are thriving inside and outside of family life? Why wonder whether there are better ways to organize how we raise children, live together, and care for each other?

Two recent books—The Two-Parent Privilege by economist Melissa Kearney and Family Abolition by social theorist M. E. O’Brien—take up these deeper inquiries but wind up in opposite places, one lauding the family as a sociolegal structure and the other calling to abolish it. While these authors employ very different methods and have clearly incommensurate politics, they converge in recognizing the structural economic forces that cause families to form and collapse. By situating the family within the tectonic processes of political economy, each offers a necessary corrective to the neoliberal conceit that treats families as little more than bundles of personal obligations and preferences. Where they disagree is on whether the family form—however unrepresentative or inaccessible it has become—ought to remain the horizon of social policy.

At first blush, Melissa Kearney’s The Two-Parent Privilege might seem like a rehash of the work of her late twentieth-century forebears; indeed, the book features laudatory blurbs from some of them. A professor at the University of Maryland, Kearney also holds posts at some of the premier institutions of technocratic centrism, including the Aspen Economic Strategy Group, MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, and the Brookings Institution (the last of which was a key booster of research on family structure in the 1980s and ’90s). Kearney even traces her own interest in the subject back to an undergraduate course at Princeton taught by McLanahan, a sociologist who spent much of her influential career decrying the difficulties and consequences of single motherhood.

There are certainly resemblances between Kearney’s work and her predecessors’. The central claim of The Two-Parent Privilege—that, all else equal, children raised in the United States by single parents fare significantly worse economically than those raised by married parents—has been conventional wisdom in establishment social thought for so long that few have bothered to try to prove it. (There is a difference between “two-parent” and “married” households, of course, but for Kearney they collapse in practice: “In addition to the fairly low rate of unmarried parental cohabitation in the United States, it is also the case that cohabitation in the United States is a rather fragile arrangement relative to cohabitation elsewhere. . . . the practical truth is that, to date, there has been no alternative institution to marriage that is characterized by the same long-term partnership and commitment in the United States.”) Like earlier work in this vein, the book repeatedly appeals to “upward mobility”—what it clearly sees as the essence of social equality—while ignoring its relationship to downward mobility. And like other post-Moynihan scholars wary of detailing racial disparities in family formation, Kearney intends to steer clear of culturalist explanations or judgments. “I am not blaming single mothers,” she insists. “I am not diminishing the pernicious effects of racism in the United States.”

The downward trend in marriage has endured despite the punitive welfare and child support systems built in the name of combating it.

What sets Kearney’s vision apart from her forebears’ is that she lacks their faith that social policy can reverse the trend to single parenthood. Although Kearney thinks it would be a good thing if more children experienced the “two-parent privilege,” she argues that government has proven unable to guarantee it—especially since the economic restructurings of the 1970s, and especially for poor children. As the book points out, the rate of children living with married parents in the United States has fallen from 77 percent in 1980 to 63 percent in 2019; most of the drop is among working-class Americans. While it should not entirely give up on promoting dual parenthood, Kearney concludes, the state should focus more on mitigating the economic effects of the parenting gap through a sort of Pigouvian subsidy: expanding welfare benefits and child tax credits for both one- and two-parent poor families, as well as investing in early-childhood public education. (Universal child care is notably absent from Kearney’s vision, perhaps reflecting a belief in the irreplaceable value of parental care.) If these provisions end up allowing more families to form or stay together, Kearney thinks, so much the better.

Kearney defines the “two-parent privilege” in terms of economic outcomes. On the basis of longitudinal studies (conducted by her and others), she argues that children in two-parent homes receive more care, attention, and intellectual stimulation than those raised by single parents—and that this difference affects their later educational performance, job prospects, earnings, and so on. The reason is not that single parents are bad parents, Kearney argues, but simply that they tend to have less time, emotional bandwidth, and flexibility in organizing caregiving duties than two-parent families. (She thus concedes, “to the extent that the beneficial effects of marriage for children are derived from the resource advantage of that arrangement, the actual marriage is irrelevant.”) Furthermore, she maintains, given that the vast majority of single parents are single mothers, the absence of men in families has a negative impact on the emotional development of boys in particular. A crucial data point for Kearney is the fact that unequal economic and educational outcomes are not reducible to income disparities between single-parent and two-parent homes. The physical, rather than simply financial, presence of an extra parent makes a key difference.

Kearney’s skepticism about the state’s ability to promote dual parenthood arises from her diagnosis of declining marriage rates, which she attributes to the declining economic position of non-college-educated men over the past several decades. Deindustrialization, the pay-productivity gap, union decline, and mass incarceration have all contributed to a general decrease in what Kearney, following sociologist William Julius Wilson, calls the “marriageability” of working-class men. Since 1980, she writes, “among workers without a four-year college degree, the gap between men’s earnings and women’s earnings shrank considerably (on account of both increasing earnings among women and stagnant earnings among men), which lessened the economic incentive (and imperative) for some women to marry.”

Other authors, it should be noted, have long pursued this line of reasoning into deeply antifeminist territory, arguing variously that women’s efforts to gain an equal wage with men and expand their vocational options have upset a natural hierarchy of gender relations and helped normalize low-waged and precarious jobs. Kearney tries to assure readers that her causal models of marriage and child-rearing simply reflect rather than endorse a heteronormative division of labor. But these gestures are somewhat too perfunctory to carry much force.

Indeed, The Two-Parent Privilege views the prospect of restoring marriage rates by reinstalling the male breadwinner less as an ideological or ethical nonstarter than as a practical impossibility. In one of the book’s most revealing sections, Kearney discusses a recent study of hers which finds that “improvements in the economic prospects of less educated men have not been shown . . . to usher in an increase in marriage and married-parent families.” In a Moynihanian move, Kearney concludes that growing rates of single parenthood over the past few decades have gradually produced a “new social paradigm” that is mysteriously resistant to economic incentives to marry. Socially conservative scholars have interpreted this study as support for their broader claims that “hookup culture,” accessible contraception, and online pornography have encouraged the cultural decline of marriage. Kearney does not follow them into blaming sexual liberalization, but she admits that “reversing recent trends in family structure will likely require both economic and social changes.” However shrewdly, she does not speculate about what social changes would do the trick.

It is to the book’s credit that it has very little patience for the “new paternalist” contrivances embraced by late twentieth-century welfare reformers. There just isn’t any evidence, Kearney notes, to support the idea that cutting single parents’ benefits and hunting down absent ones has meaningfully encouraged the formation and maintenance of two-parent homes—here she is very much right. Nor does the book call for or lend any direct support to recent conservative calls to rescind no-fault divorce laws and promote covenant marriages. Kearney sees some room for growth in local programs encouraging involved fatherhood, but she treats them as more likely to improve outcomes for children than to promote marriage stability. What scholar Gilbert Steiner bemoaned over forty years ago as the “futility of family policy” in solving the problems of American families re-emerges here as a central takeaway of Kearney’s book.

Kearney tries to assure readers that her models simply reflect rather than endorse a heteronormative division of labor. But these gestures do not carry much force.

Critics of The Two-Parent Privilege might take one of two broad tacks. One is methodological: asking whether Kearney’s model is really an accurate depiction of socioeconomic reality when it comes to marriage and child-rearing. There are plenty of analytical moves and omissions one might object to. For example, Kearney admits that “it is possible that mothers who raise children on their own are able to compensate for the lack of another adult in the home, perhaps with their own resources or the help of a network of family and friends,” but she doesn’t discuss the possibility further, nor does she devote much attention to the actual lives and decisions of single parents, which might have enriched her causal models.

Others might doubt that the number crunching means what Kearney says it does. Matt Bruenig, for example, notes that comparing married and unmarried couples—even when controlling for race and class—cannot be used to estimate the causal effect of marriage on children’s outcomes for any particular set of parents, because nonmarital status is closely correlated with relationship dysfunction (which isn’t measured in Kearney’s dataset). For this reason, it does not follow that every pair of working-class parents could boost their children’s economic fortunes simply by getting married. Though Kearney acknowledges that there are situations in which marriage would not be beneficial or would even be harmful for parents and their children, she does not address the broader implications of this methodological critique for her findings.

But regardless of these concerns, there is a more fundamental objection: it is possible to agree that “two-parent privilege” exists and drives intergenerational inequality under our current economic system without sharing Kearney’s presumption that its institutions and organization must more or less be taken for granted. Looking at her statistical picture, one could easily conclude not that too few adults are getting married, or that too few kids are being raised in two-parent homes, but that people who adopt other models of care and commitment are systematically disadvantaged by our socioeconomic system. In this sense, the book’s pessimism about putting the family back together again reveals the limits of Kearney’s political imagination. Where she holds the system constant and asks how to make the best of it, others would reverse the moral: if our economic system cannot be made to sustain the very structures of social reproduction it makes essential to human flourishing, then we need new structures, or a new system.

Or both, M. E. O’Brien argues in Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care. A sharp and timely synthesis of past and present anticapitalist critiques of the family, the book builds on O’Brien’s earlier speculative fiction by imagining the future of care in a communist society. We need to envision such alternatives, she argues, because the private household is the stalking-horse of class society, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

One of the many admirable qualities of O’Brien’s book is its reconstruction of the long history of family abolitionist thought. Although anti-family theory and practice certainly extend beyond the self-identified political left—within religious communes, for example—O’Brien focuses on those who have seen it as a key element in the overthrow of capitalism. Tracing family abolitionism from early nineteenth-century calls to dismantle the bourgeois family (which Marx and Engels sportively dubbed the “infamous proposal of the Communists”), through the revolutionary moments of the Paris Commune and the early Soviet Union, and then into the “Red Decade” of radical feminism and gay liberation between the mid-1960s and ’70s, the book’s middle section carefully charts how condemnations of the family form and socialist thought evolved alongside each other—even if not always harmoniously, as evident in conflicts between leftist family abolitionists and the industrial workers’ movement over the breadwinner family form.

We need to envision alternatives to the family, O’Brien argues, because the private household is the stalking-horse of class society, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

O’Brien’s overriding focus on dismantling the private household—the legal-economic form of the family as a “unit of privatized care”—sets her book slightly apart from the work of other contemporary family abolitionists. Family violence is totally missing from Kearney’s book, but it is a central concern of O’Brien’s. Much of it, she argues, is enabled and obscured by the fact that its victims feel—often correctly—that leaving families would sacrifice their primary source of care and economic security, or even expose them to further violence. “The family as a social form joins together care and coercion, dependency and love, abuse and affection,” she writes, and our society’s laws and lack of a meaningful welfare state encourage people not only to accept but to idealize this compromise. Queer youth whose parents don’t accept them know all too well what they stand to lose if they are cut off from the “privilege” Kearney identifies—as do the many people who remain in abusive or unhappy marriages for the sake of their children.

Unlike Kearney, O’Brien views the decline in marriage and rise in single parenthood as a “huge improvement in human freedom,” but she cautions against being too sanguine about these shifts. For many working-class women, she notes, financial domination by a husband has simply been exchanged for the “impersonal domination” of wage labor, liberation from certain forms of violence coming at the cost of new forms of exploitation and risk. Meanwhile, she notes, this decline has not undermined the ideological force and seductiveness of the family for both conservatives and social democrats: it still serves as the basis for assaults on reproductive rights and public education, as well as the spread of the “family policing system” of child protective services and state bans on gender-affirming care for minors.

What should be done? In recent years, legal scholars such as Nancy Polikoff and John Culhane have argued that declining marriage rates, along with the expanding state recognition of non-heterosexual relationships, show it is long past time to decouple state-provided rights, benefits, and obligations from marital status. O’Brien takes such ideas seriously, devoting an entire chapter to “progressive anti-family reforms” such as universal welfare benefits and aligning law with the social reality of familial relationships. To the extent that state policy can reduce the advantages gained by forming a private household and the burdens incurred by leaving one, she argues, it is worth pursuing. But O’Brien also sees real dangers in pursuing family abolition through the state, pointing to welfare’s “dehumanizing” and invasive past, as well as the risk that an overweening government wields its power to delegitimize nontraditional kinship and “chosen family” relationships among historically marginalized groups.

It is here that O’Brien departs most clearly from prior left-feminist critiques of the family. Earlier thinkers such as Soviet feminist Alexandra Kollontai and radical feminist Shulamith Firestone thought that women’s oppression would never end without disrupting the mother-child bond. For Kollontai, this meant the socialist state’s near-total assumption of child-rearing duties; for Firestone, the erosion of gendered labor through mass cybernation and reliance on artificial reproduction. O’Brien’s vision is instead voluntaristic, unfolding through individual choices and collective experiments freed from the primarily economic compulsions of the family. As she puts it, family abolition means “the destruction of private households as systems of accumulating power and property at the cost of others’ well-being” but “not the destruction of kinship ties that currently serve as protection against white supremacy, poverty, and state violence.”

On this point, O’Brien is clearly echoing critiques of family abolitionist thought by feminists of color. As Hazel Carby and others have argued, attacks on the family have tended to ignore—or even pathologize—family and kinship ties among marginalized groups as a source of resistance, solidarity, and pleasure. Toward the outset of her book, O’Brien tries to square this circle by arguing that the social relations called “families” in oppressed groups often “do not quite constitute a private household as a unit of privatized care.” They are therefore not recognized as families by “dominant social institutions,” and for that reason they are not the target of her critique.

But this distinction misses some of the radical edge of other anti-family arguments. Despite her background as a psychoanalyst, O’Brien has relatively little to say about what familial child-rearing does to children’s identities and attitudes (or to parents’ for that matter), beyond a few passages highlighting the family as the primary enforcer of “alienated gender expectations” and heteronormativity. (This family-cultivated alienation might not be limited to gender identity, some midcentury Freudo-Marxists argued, but it could extend to complexes of deference and docility that “operate to maintain the stability of class society,” as Erich Fromm put it.) Nor does she reflect more than passingly on earlier left-feminists’ charge that the family is inherently “anti-social” because it unjustly privileges kinship over other forms of social connection. This marks a divergence between Family Abolition and another recent communist manifesto, Sophie Lewis’s Abolish the Family (2022), which takes aim at not just the economic coercion of the capitalist family but the “uncomradely hierarchy” baked into even the most radical manifestations of kinship such as the “chosen family.”

Other feminists charge that the family is inherently anti-social—even its most radical manifestations—because it unjustly privileges kinship over other forms of social connection.

O’Brien’s vision takes firmer shape in her book’s closing chapters, which speculate on communal life in the aftermath of anti-capitalist revolution. Blending the utopian socialism of Charles Fourier with the left-communist—some would say anarcho-communist—ideas associated with Endnotes and The Invisible Committee, O’Brien envisions a stateless landscape populated by self-governing communes of a few hundred people. Within these communes, she suggests that forms of care and parenting would be intentionally heterogeneous, fluid, and voluntary: people could choose to raise their biological children in “family-like arrangements,” or turn them over to the care of crèches, or something in between, with no expectation of permanence. Children would be empowered to leave or join living situations according to their desires.

It is worth dwelling on O’Brien’s reasons for making these associations voluntary:

It does not require a romantic idealization of the mother-child bond to recognize that the experience of conception and gestation can often lead to an emotional tie, and that universally severing this tie could be a form of injustice. . . . a scenario of the socialist state literally and directly replacing the family is rightfully terrifying to many. . . . Within the commune, kinship ties could persist in many forms but would be integrated with a broader, interdependent community. . . . Research into psychological development suggests that children do benefit from the consistent attention of a small number of adults early in life.

The question lurking behind all of this is whether there is something like a “natural” basis for the nuclear family as an arrangement of care—as its defenders have so often claimed—and, if so, whether it justifies sharp limits on coercing people out of families in the name of the social good (or even individual well-being).

Consider a child whose biological parents are members of a religious sect that emphasizes the divine quality of patriarchal domination and practices self-imposed exclusion from society writ large. Should a society with feminist commitments respect this family arrangement, even if being raised by these parents makes it overwhelmingly likely that the child will not “choose” to leave and will opt to become a member of the sect—thereby reproducing patriarchy? In the interests of not “reproducing the imperialist violence of a white liberalism that seeks to ‘save’ anyone against their will,” O’Brien says yes, “conditioned on . . . allowing outside contact for all residents, giving women, queers, or others experiencing oppression a chance to encounter and choose the outside world.”

One challenge for this view—as O’Brien acknowledges—is that oppression is often not subjectively experienced or recognized as such, particularly in the context of the family. As Lauren Berlant put it in Cruel Optimism (2011), for many people “the promise of familial love is the conveyance for the incitement to misrecognize the bad life as a good one.” O’Brien is compelled by the idea that eliminating the family’s economic function will tend to demystify these relations and allow people to choose the kind of care—the kind of life—that is in some sense best for them. Readers more suspicious of the affective hold of the family will want a more direct or even aggressive strategy to dismantle the injustice they see in the present. Regardless of what side one comes down on, Family Abolition offers a compelling provocation to think about the possibilities of human freedom in a post-family world, and how we might achieve them.

Although their political lexicons, goals, and likely audiences could not be more different, both The Two-Parent Privilege and Family Abolition acknowledge that the family is not fulfilling the tasks of social reproduction that have been delegated to it, that protracted shifts in political economy are the culprit, and that nudges or tweaks to incentives can’t help. Together they offer a strong tonic for the fantasy that the two-parent family can be put back together through top-down welfare and tax policy, which is once again a cause célèbre of the more technocratic tendencies within contemporary social conservatism.

At the same time, the decline of marriage and the two-parent family does not necessarily mean that society is becoming less familial. The family form has survived and adapted in response to previous crises of capitalism, assuming different shapes while continuing to facilitate the privatized distribution of wealth and care. This does not demand a set number of biological parents in the home; it only requires that people channel their energy, resources, identities, and commitments in the service of economic units bound by kinship.

It is imperative to show why familial love comes with burdens that we need not be collectively doomed to bear.

“Families tend to hide the very existence of common interests by training people to consider that their worries are personal and private, when in fact they are social,” historian Linda Gordon wrote in 1970. A half-century of jeremiads about family breakdown from Moynihan and his successors notwithstanding, they still do. Even if more children are now growing up with fewer parents than Kearney deems ideal—or are living in arrangements that don’t constitute a private household as O’Brien understands it—they still learn to invest in kinship in a way that may deepen the more essentially it serves to protect them against precarity.

All of this goes to a point made forcefully by Kathi Weeks in an indispensable 2021 essay: “To affirm family abolitionism is to be willing to play the long game.” As a theoretical tradition, anti-family critique can and should point out how the family currently reproduces an unjust economic system and oppresses those who cannot access its idealized form. At the same time, it should not shy away from demystifying and contesting the psychic claims of kinship—that is, from sustaining and refining its own rich history of condemning the family’s more transhistorical harms and repressions. To be clear, this does not mean shaming or stigmatizing those who love their families. But it does mean showing why familial love comes with burdens that we need not be collectively doomed to bear.

This essay appears in print in Reclaiming Freedom. Boston Review is nonprofit, paywall-free, and reader-funded. To support work like this, please donate here.