The Two-Parent Privilege and Public Assistance

Melissa S. Kearney’s The Two-Parent Privilege is really stirring up an important dialogue about family values, literal family values, as in not breaking families apart. This is a book that surveys the social scientific literature on the beneficial impact on children whose parents remain married compared to children whose parents choose to divorce.

Kearney is no conservative. She’s an academic and an analyst at the Brookings Institution. Yet the extant research simply leads to pro-family policy conclusions.

I have not read her book yet. It languishes in my book queue. When I get to it, I’m sure I’ll find something more to write about. I’m sharing this advanced plug, because this is clearly such an important book. Don’t wait for me to review it before reading it yourself.

One thing I’ll be looking for is what she writes about how public policy incents the breaking of homes. Public assistance is more generous for single parents than intact families. This provides, in effect, a subsidy for divorce. If divorce is a social harm, then welfare spending comes with this negative externality beyond its mere budgetary costs. Since Kearney is an economist, I’ll be looking for a quantification of this impact. Since she is a left-of-center policy advocate, I will be interested in any policy recommendations she may have on welfare reform.

This is a serious policy problem that was recently confirmed in my social circle by an anecdote. I know someone whose wife wants a divorce. Does he beat her? No. Was he unfaithful? No. Does he drink or gamble their money away? No. Why does she want a divorce? She just feels she has fallen out of love with him. He’s boring. He’s not a bad guy she says. She just feels she would be happier no longer being in a romantic relationship with her husband. She thinks people change, and when they do, divorce should be an option. They have two kids, and she sees the value of continuing to live with her husband as platonic roommates. She’s not even readily interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with another person. So, why get divorced? Why not sleep in two different rooms for an indefinite period of time while raising their kids? Her primary motivation for filing for divorce is to qualify for food stamps. Having been a homemaker that earns less money than her husband, on paper, she looks poor. What about losing coverage from her husband’s employer-based health care? She points to the Oregon Health Plan. If this sounds unbelievable, know that I’m not just getting this from the husband’s perspective. I know the wife too, and this is what she’s saying.

Yet, my anecdote likely sounds plausible to you, because divorce is so prevalent in our society. The primary cause of our high divorce rate is the way in which a sense of duty about our commitment to marriage has declined culturally. Yet, on top of that primary cause, understanding how public assistance subsidizes this cultural decline is worth knowing and mitigating.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.