The privilege that dare not speak its name

NY Times opinion columnist Nikolas Kristof wrote an interesting piece yesterday highlighting something that is undeniably true but which we doesn’t get talked about anymore. Children who grow up with two-parents do significantly better in life. Kristof also takes on the reason why liberals don’t want to talk about this:


  • Families headed by single mothers are five times as likely to live in poverty as married-couple families.

  • Children in single-mother homes are less likely to graduate from high school or earn a college degree. They are more likely to become single parents themselves, perpetuating the cycle.

  • Almost 30 percent of American children now live with a single parent or with no parent at all. One reason for the sensitivities is large racial disparities: Single parenting is less common in white and Asian households, but only 38 percent of Black children live with married parents.

His column was prompted by a forthcoming book titled “The Two-Parent Privilege” by economist Melissa Kearney:

“The data present some uncomfortable realities,” writes Melissa S. Kearney, an economist at the University of Maryland, in an important book on this topic to be published next week. “Two-parent families are beneficial for children,” she adds. “Places that have more two-parent families have higher rates of upward mobility. Not talking about these facts is counterproductive.”

But progressives are actively counterproductive about this issue both because of the racial element inherent in discussing it and because they actually believe the nuclear family should be dismantled. Kristof cites this 2021 webinar titled “Toward Dismantling Family Privilege and White Supremacy in Family Science.”

Like White privilege, family privilege is an unacknowledged and unearned benefit instantiated in U.S. laws, policies, and practices and bestowed upon traditional or “standard” nuclear families to the disadvantage of non-traditional configured family systems (e.g., sole-parent families, unmarried committed partners rearing children together, grandparents raising grandchildren). Family privilege is defined as the benefits, often invisible and unacknowledged, that one receives by belonging to family systems long upheld in society as superior to all others. It serves to advantage certain family forms over others and is typically bestowed upon White, traditional nuclear families.


That’s a bass-ackward way of saying single-parent families are much more likely to be black and, from the perspective of social justice crusaders, that must mean it’s racist. But as Kristof points out, the fact remains that there is lots of evidence that children do better in two-parent families. Put another way, the privilege is real and denouncing it won’t make it go away or make things any better for the kids who miss out on it.

One stunning and depressing gauge of racial inequity in the United States: The study found that 62 percent of white children live in low-poverty areas with fathers present in most homes, while only 4 percent of Black children do…

While many college graduates in theory embrace all kinds of family relationships, they remain traditional in their personal behaviors, mostly having children after marriage and raising their own kids in two-parent households. Brad Wilcox, a sociologist and family expert at the University of Virginia, calls this “talk left, walk right.”

The comments on this story are mix but in one of them Kristof did mention that part of this is cultural. Here’s the challenge:

Correlation does not equal causation. And in this case, I believe you have the direction of causation backwards.

Single-parenthood does not cause poverty. The inverse is more likely true. Families living in poverty are more likely to have unstable marriages/relationships/early mortality, which lead to single parenthood.


And here’s Kristof’s response:

Actually, causation seems to flow both ways, and there’s pretty good evidence for that. There’s also some evidence that cultural norms play a role in keeping families together or having babies in the context of a two-parent household, and one of the challenges in this conversation is how we uphold norms that are helpful for child outcomes without stigmatizing single moms. I think it can be done, but it requires sensitivity all around.

I wish he’d said more about that in the column but I suspect he knows that is the third rail of this already hot-button issue. In any case here’s the most upvoted comment:

I vote for Democrats though not myself liberal as generally understood. Progressives sometimes get so concerned about being fair to all that they reject the obvious. Thus – similar to the refusal to acknowledge that it is better to have a 2 parent family, I have listened to social justice warriors identify behaviors like being on time as racist.

Sometimes the civil rights/social justice community needs to look at itself from a distance and consider how folks who are not insiders would see them.

Another reader who was recently called a racist for bringing this up:

Mr. Kristof, I am so happy that I happened to read this article. I just was discussing this issue with a friend who is far more liberal than I, who summarily accused me of racism when I mentioned the need for two parents in a household, without even mentioning race. The real racism lies in his tacit acceptance of one parent, usually single mother, households while he grew up in a very upper middle class, stable, two parent environment. That is the definition of white privilege.

While two parent households are not a panacea for all societal ills, they help immensely with family stability, finances, discipline and guidance. Boys need fathers in their lives for modeling, questions, structure, education. Without fathers, it is very easy to seek males in environments that may not be beneficial to them, like the streets and gangs.

I am an Independent voter and thinker and cannot believe that this issue (among other often race specific issues), never is discussed. Again, I commend you, as a liberal, for daring to mention the unmentionable.


Lots more interesting takes but I’ll finish with this one:

A two parent family is not an example of privilege – a two parent family should be and is the standard. Having two parents is not the result of wealth or privilege it is the result of both parents doing what is right for their children. If you cannot commit to your partner and the kids that will come from your union, then don’t procreate.

That resonates with my own experience to some extent. My wife’s parents divorced and she grew up fairly poor in a single-parent family. My parents divorced and I was probably headed for the same outcome until my mother remarried a couple years later. Because she and my stepfather both worked full time jobs we gradually moved into the upper middle class. So, I don’t think a perfect marriage is a requirement but I do think it greatly helps in how kids are brought up, what they’re exposed to and what types of opportunities they have.

Anyway, the book sounds interesting and I may read it.



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