David Leonhardt Strikes Again

By June Carbone
Robina Chair of Law, Science and Technology
University of Minnesota Law School

David Leonhardt strikes again. As he now seems to do with some regularity, he takes a complex body of work and reduces it to a soundbite, eliminating the complexity and uncertainty that underlies the research.   His soundbite this time links two parent families to upward mobility, and notes that two different dynamics produce two parent families: high income and religion. He then replicates maps that purport to show these linkages.

There are two problems with these single minded linkages. First, the geographic analysis of two parent families and the connection to social mobility is meaningless without taking race into account. The striking thing about Utah, Idaho, the upper Midwest and New England – all areas with relatively low rates of single parent families – is that they have much smaller African-American and Latino populations, and white families tend to have strikingly different demographic patterns than non-white families, in part because of differences in socio-economic status.   The second chart Mr. Leonhardt’s column includes captures this point even more effectively. It shows the least social mobility – and some of the highest rates of single parenthood – in a belt that runs through heavily African-American communities, primarily in the South. These communities are as notable for their high rates of poverty, segregation, and isolation. There is sophisticated demographic analysis underlying these figures, but Mr. Leonhardt’s column doesn’t capture it.  Instead, he largely dismisses the influence of racial factors, particularly their role in compounding the effects of poverty and isolation, as minor.

Second, the link between single parent families and social mobility raises the question of which comes first – whether the link is a unidimensional one of single parent families causing low social mobility or poor, isolated communities causing low high rates of single parent families. The research on this is somewhat complex. Virtually all studies show that, all other things being equal, two parents are better than one. Yet, the modern examination of upward mobility also indicates that children in single parent families do better in wealthier communities, eliminating much of the disadvantage that comes from single parenthood itself. In a similar fashion, African-Americans, irrespective of family form, do better in integrated communities. Poor, isolated, and segregated communities on the other hand tend to suffer disproportionately from factors that increase rates of single parenthood, including high rates of unemployment, underemployment, and employment instability, racially targeted police practices that increase the portion of the male population in prison or on probation or parole, and higher rates of domestic violence and substance abuse.

In our work on ideological division (Red Families v. Blue Families) and class influences on family formation (Marriage Markets), we tried to capture the dynamic forces underlying these trends. We argued that what “blue” family patterns reflect is an adaptation to the economic forces that reward investment in women. In this system, couples defer childbearing until their educations are complete and they establish sufficient employment and financial stability to manage children. This system, as the Leonhardt column indicates, works and has taken hold in the wealthier parts of the country. What we described as “red” is a religiously based system that still celebrates marriage at younger ages. It, too, “works” for couples embedded in religious communities and for men who still have stable employment.

The problem with both systems is what they offer for communities where good jobs have largely disappeared. In these communities, church attendance has declined with employment, and both divorce and non-marital births have risen. Some research indicates that the persistence of young average ages of marriage increases the divorce rates of the people in the same communities who also marry young but are less likely to attend church. And the major factor affecting a recent decline in non-marital birth rates nationally is a decline in fertility – i.e., a blue strategy that involves greater use of contraception and more delay in childbearing – rather than more marriage, though the married couples who deferred childbearing during the Great Recession are now having children at later ages increasing the overall percentage born within marriage.

Leonhardt’s column, however, misses these demographic subtleties along with the issue of what the red/blue divide is really about. We argued that what underlies “blue” is a modernist effort to adjust to changing economic realities. Elites, whether in red or blue states, have done so effectively; the battle is over how to translate their systems into something that works for those at the losing end of economic changes. “Blue” prescriptions emphasize giving women more autonomy; that is, more control of their sexuality and greater ability to avoid unplanned pregnancies and unwanted births. For those who want to have children, however, blue policies would also provide greater support for the children who result, producing overall a smaller, better educated population. “Red” prescriptions, which celebrate religion and marriage, also tend to work by limiting women’s autonomy. They make it harder to access contraception, much less abortion, and favor limiting women’s ability to go it alone with respect to childrearing. What no emphasis on the family alone can do, however, is bring back the jobs that once supported two parent, working class families. Leonhardt’s column, by reinforcing the myth that family form somehow causes low social mobility, is a disservice to the real debate about what underlies family change.


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