Why Are Two-Parent Households on the Decline?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

The number of households headed by single parents has risen over the last few decades, and the reason why is up for debate. Is it, as right-wing pundits say, a decline in values brought about by the wide availability of birth control and the women’s movement? Or is it, as left-wingers argue, due to a faltering economy and the collapse of working-class communities?

Maybe a little of both, according to the new book Our Kids by Robert Putnam. As Jordan Weissmann writes today in Slate, Putnam has revived the debate on who or what’s to blame for the rise of single-parent households. Liberals, like Elizabeth Bruenig at The New Republic, say that poor people want to get married as much as wealthy people, but the stressors of poverty can destabilize a marriage. Conservatives like David Brooks “[think] our social norms have been ‘destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism.'” (Um, if David Brooks thinks our culture is nonjudgmental towards women and mothers, I’ve got a bridge to sell him.)

Putnam, in Our Kids, notes that the answer probably lies somewhere in between. He uses the Great Depression as a comparison: Obviously there were huge financial stressors during the ’30s, and the marriage rate did fall—but so did the birth rate. Nowadays women don’t face the same level of stigma for pre-marital sex and out-of-wedlock births, so more single women are raising children alone. And sure, some want partners, but an unemployed or sporadically employed partner doesn’t make a super attractive candidate for a husband.

I can definitely attest that the stressors of children can destabilize a marriage—it’s like being on a years-long hike on the Appalachian Trail with your partner, only instead of backpacks you’re carrying writhing, screaming children. The pressures of shaky finances only make things worse. As Weissmann writes:

“Instead of pining for the past, we could be doing far, far more as a country to reduce material need for low-income families. Rather than try in vain to revive the idea of early marriage, we could also do more to educate working-class women about how to safely and effectively use contraception to avoid accidental pregnancies, and encourage them to put off children until a bit later in life (which, yes, to some degree would just mean preaching what college-educated families already practice). Just because conservatives are right that culture has played a role in changing family life doesn’t mean they’ve won the policy argument over what to do about it.”

It doesn’t really matter why there are more single-parent households now—that ship has sailed. The bottom line is that more supports for women, whether that means information and access to family-planning services or more plentiful jobs, are critical for raising happy, healthy children.

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