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How Hollywood Can Save Our Families

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Robert Putnam's "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis" has touched off a wave of print and digital commentary. The book chronicles a growing divide between the way affluent kids are raised, in two-parent homes whose parents invest heavily in educating their kids, and the very different, very unstable homes in which poorer kids generally grow up.  

Naturally, social conservatives are delighted with this lengthy examination of the problems created by unstable families, even if they are not equally delighted with Putnam's recommendations (more government programs). Equally naturally, there is pushback from those who see the problem as primarily one of economics and insufficient government spending, as well as from those who argue that there are lots of good ways to raise kids outside the straitjacket of mid-century, middle-class mores.

I have been trying to find a more delicate way to phrase this, but I can't: This is nonsense. The advantages that two people raising their own biological or jointly adopted children have over "nontraditional" family arrangements are too obvious to need enumeration, but apparently mere obviousness is not enough to forestall contrary arguments, so let me enumerate them anyway.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are -- in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents -- is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent. Children will spend less time with their noncustodial parent, especially if that parent has other offspring. Add in conflict between the parents over money and time, and it can infect relationships with the children. As one researcher told me when I wrote an article on the state of modern marriage, you frequently see fathers investing time and money with the kids whose mother they get along with the best, while the other children struggle along on crumbs.

People often argue that extended families can substitute, but of course, two-parent families also have extended families -- two of them -- so single-parent families remain at a disadvantage, especially because other members of the extended family are often themselves struggling with the challenges of single parenthood. Extended families just can't substitute for the benefits of a two-parent family. Government can't, either; universal preschool is not going to make up for an uninvolved parent, or one stretched too thin to give their kids enough time. Government can sand the rough edges off the economic hardship, of course, but even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home.

Are there situations in which a single-parent home is better than the alternative? Sure, many. I'm not arguing that we should outlaw divorce or force 15-year-olds to marry. But that doesn't mean pretending there is no difference. There is a big difference -- and a systematic difference between the way the affluent and the poor form families is going to mean systematic differences in the outcomes for affluent and poor kids.

Trying to explain this all with a bad labor market or insufficient government benefits won't wash, either. It doesn't explain why people in 1930, who were much poorer in every sense than people today and had virtually nothing in the way of a government safety net, managed to get and stay married. As David Brooks notes, to explain the problem -- and to fix it -- you also need to talk about community norms.

At the New Republic, Elizabeth Bruenig writes a rather sharp rejoinder to Brooks. Like Tyler Cowen, I don't think she really grapples effectively with Brooks' argument. "Morality should teach us how to live a good life. But to impose the easy virtue of the well-to-do on the poor is to request the most stressed and vulnerable members of society to display impossible moral heroism," she writes. "To abstain from relationships, sex, and childbirth until financially secure enough to raise a child without assistance would mean, for many, a life of celibacy; to pour limited resources into education in order to score a respectable job would mean failing to make rent."

I certainly agree that celibacy is an unlikely goal for most of the population to adopt. However, I'm not clear on why she thinks this is necessary. Somehow, Americans used to manage to get and stay married despite much more limited financial resources; how did they perform this seemingly impossible feat?  Virtually any answer you give is going to come back to some version of "norms." As a wise social scientist once told me, before you speak, always be sure that you are not conclusively proving the impossibility of something that already exists.

There is, however, a better criticism of the Brooks column, one that I haven't seen made: Notably, how do you change norms across a society as heterogenous as ours?

When I was writing that article on marriage, I put this question to Kathryn Edin, an ethnographer who has done a lot of research on these sorts of family patterns. Her response was profound: With the distance between rich and poor so great, it's hard even to think of a way that you could communicate different values to people who live such wholly separated lives.

The distance that matters in this case is not the much-discussed distance between the 1 percent and everyone else. Instead, it is the distance between the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent -- between the people who still mostly live by the old injunctions to get married and stay married if you want to have kids, often while politely declaring that this doesn't actually matter, and the people who are actually having their children in much more fragile and temporary relationships.  As Americans have become more sorted by income, education and class, we have lost much of our power to make the sorts of broad cultural changes that Brooks advocates.

There is one place this change might come from: Hollywood. Entertainment is a surprisingly powerful venue for articulating social norms, and if Hollywood decided that it had a social responsibility to promote stable families and changed its story lines accordingly, that might actually do some good.

I'm not talking about sticking a few propaganda story lines into Very Special Episodes of some sitcom, which wouldn't do a darn thing. Rather, I'm saying that if Hollywood actually believed that married two-parent families were overwhelmingly optimal, that would naturally shape what they wrote, in a way that would in turn probably shape what Americans believe, and do. But this is an inherently socially conservative message, and Hollywood is about the furthest thing you can name from socially conservative  -- our entertainment industry tends to send socially conservative messages only accidentally, as it did with "16 and Pregnant." And there is nearly as much social distance between David Brooks and your average Hollywood show runner as there is between David Brooks and the kids whose lives he wants to change.

(Corrects description of median age at first marriage for college-educated women in fourth footnote in article published March 16.)

  1. Could this be genetic? you ask. People who have impulse-control problems might be more likely to divorce and pass those traits on to their kids. Partially, sure. But two evidence points argue against genetic determinism. First, similar, although less severe, patterns show up in the case of kids who lose one parent, which is mostly not going to be due to homicide. And second, if this is genetic, how come it has changed over time? Have we all gotten genetically less able to stay out of jail or sustain a long-term marriage?

  2. To be sure, poor families have always been less stable than wealthier families; as Michael Barone discusses in his excellent book "Shaping our Nation," 19th-century Irish-American immigrants had a distressingly high incidence of fathers who abandoned their families, and sociologist Orlando Patterson argues in "Rituals of Blood" that post-slavery, many black women falsely told census takers they were married, inflating our perceptions of the prevalence and stability of marriage in the community. But it's hard to argue that the difference between the way that the upper middle class and the lower middle class formed families was as great as it is today.

  3. I expect that Bruenig is referencing mass incarceration, and the increasingly common argument that poorer women can't get married because the men simply aren't up to it, with their inability to keep a job or help around the house. But, of course, most poor men are not incarcerated, so that doesn't explain the wholesale collapse of marital norms. And I'm a bit dubious of the wholesale ascription of gross irresponsibility to an entire class of people based on a few vivid newspaper articles. But leave that quarrel aside; the argument from inadequate men ignores the role that women's expectations play in their behavior. If women wouldn't go out with, or move in with, irresponsible men, then some of those men would presumably decide to shape up.

  4. Yes, it really is true: For women with a college education, the median age at first marriage is still lower than the median age at first birth, but for women with less than a college education, those lines have now crossed, as they did for high school dropouts decades ago. While only 12 percent of college graduates have their first birth outside of marriage, that number is 58 percent for those who have graduated from high school, and an astonishing 83 percent for those without a high school diploma. Forty percent of cohabiting couples who have a child in their 20s will break up within five years.

  5. This is not to say that Hollywood is not sexist; it is, though I tend to think that this is mostly structural sexism that reflects the interests of young male audiences, rather than a deliberate decision to employ actresses mostly as ornamental accessories to the male stars.

    But Hollywood is not socially conservative; it does not prize monogamy and intact families the way it used to. Of course movies still happily end in weddings, but norms are also enforced negatively -- by stigmatizing those who break them. And Hollywood has shown little interest in stigmatizing the characters in movies who break up families. Given the prevalence of divorce among the stars of those movies, it's somewhat hard to see how they could.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net