This article includes a reply by David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Jonathan Rauch, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.

In the divisive, partisan political debates in D.C., the term “grand bargain” refers to a deal in which each side gives up a dearly held position to get what they want. Democrats accept entitlement cuts, for example, while Republicans accept a tax hike.

In a recent article in these pages (“Can Gay Wedlock Break Political Gridlock?,” March/April/May 2015), David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Jonathan Rauch, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead suggested that conservatives and progressives forge such a grand bargain regarding marriage. In this scenario, conservatives would accept same-sex marriage and progressives would accept the compelling research that married families are better for child outcomes than single parents.

I found their reasoning and evidence strong, and their case well argued. But the bargain they offered was weak then and it’s even weaker now, since the Supreme Court has made same-sex marriage allowable across the country. Certainly it would be better for a pluralistic America if conservatives accepted gay marriage—but, especially since younger generations already do so, regardless of their politics, I’m not sure it matters that much. That train has left the station, with Justice Kennedy at the controls. While it’s possible that future courts could reverse the decision, it’s unlikely.

So I’m here to offer a stronger version of a grand bargain. Progressives should accept that there’s a link between family structure and childhood outcomes. (I’ll go through the research below, as the findings are more nuanced and open to interpretation than this language makes it sound.) But since it’s no sacrifice for conservatives to accept something that’s already solidly in place, here’s their part of the new grand bargain: in the interest of promoting more lasting marriages and stable families, they must accept the policy interventions that will provide more economic opportunity to families, including children, their parents, and their potential parents. These interventions could involve employment and wage programs, universal health care coverage, quality pre-K, college tuition assistance, and incarceration reform.

The role of family structure in poverty, inequality, and child outcomes has been debated for decades, with progressives arguing that the increase in single parenthood is driven by economic forces, and conservatives arguing that prevailing cultural norms are to blame. While all this has been going on—and versions of this debate date back to the English Poor Laws of the early 1600s—researchers have been examining the impact that growing up outside of stable marriages has on children’s outcomes.

This now large body of research finds considerable evidence that children who grow up with two parents rather than one achieve better adult outcomes, at least on an “all-else-equal” basis (bad marriages, for example, are bad for kids). Some of this is also common sense: two incomes are greater than one, and two caregivers by definition have more time, arms, ears, and so on than one. While the research typically finds that family stability (that is, consistency in family structure) is particularly important for kids’ outcomes, it’s clear that married families are more likely to be stable than unmarried ones.

Never-married mothers are now just as likely to work as single women without children.

These observations—married families are less likely to be poor and unstable; there are advantages inherent in having multiple caretakers in a home—suggest to some that public policy should, in the interest of helping some of our least advantaged kids, try to reverse the “retreat from marriage.”

Fair enough, but it’s not that easy, and here, the very different progressive and conservative diagnoses matter a lot. First, the literature is not as unequivocal as many writers on this subject claim. For one, all else is in fact far from equal, and the choices facing single women who want to be parents are complicated in a number of ways. Second, to the extent that the changes in family structure are cultural, I think they are and will remain largely immune to public policy (and I won’t even get into the irony of conservatives and especially libertarians trying to employ policy to change culture and family structure).

Third—and here’s where the bargain comes in—policy really could make a difference if it invested in the well-being and upward mobility of kids in disadvantaged families, regardless of their family type. Moreover, if we also invest in their parents and potential parents, we may incentivize more marriages as well.

While this may make you yearn for the mythical one-handed economist, here’s how the sociologists Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks, highly reliable voices in this debate, summarize the research:

On the one hand, growing up without both biological parents is clearly associated with worse average outcomes for children than growing up with them. Specifically, children growing up with a single mother are exposed to more family instability and complexity, they have more behavior problems, and they are less likely to finish high school or attend college than children raised by both of their parents. On the other hand, these differences in children’s behavior and success might well be traceable to differences that would exist even if the biological father were present. 1

The problem in nailing down the impact of one versus two parents on children’s outcomes is that there are so many confounding factors that get in the way. Relative to two-parent families, single parents are more likely to be low income, reside in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and through that channel be exposed to deeply damaging environmental stimuli, including violence, poor and unsafe housing, and deficient public goods, from air quality to infrastructure to education. Such disadvantages obviously pose huge challenges to kids, regardless of their family structure.

The economist Raj Chetty’s highly touted work on neighborhood effects is instructive in this regard. When families with young children, including single-parent families, move from high- to low-poverty areas, the children’s adult outcomes are much improved along key dimensions including education and earnings, suggesting the dominance of environmental factors. Also, kids from neighborhoods with large shares of single parents have lower levels of intergenerational mobility, even for the children of married parents.

This latter finding could again suggest that neighborhood factors dampen children’s mobility, regardless of family type, as neighborhoods with a lot of single moms are just really tough places to raise kids. Or it could suggest a way in which single-parent families generate negative spillovers to married families, perhaps through behavioral channels.

One finding that shows up across numerous studies has to do with the negative behaviors of children raised by single parents. Growing up without a father significantly lowers a child’s chance of finishing high school, which is a huge disadvantage. However, these problems seem to have more to do with behavioral problems than weaker cognitive skills. Such behavioral problems tend to show up more in sons of single moms than daughters, and this may be a factor behind the increased gender gap in college completion, which McLanahan points out “is much more pronounced among children raised by single mothers than among children raised in two-parent families.”

These educational outcomes matter not just in the realm of later employment and earnings but also in the evolution of family structure itself, as the group of women who are least likely to be single moms are college graduates. That is, while the likelihood of being a single parent has increased for all education groups, the increases have been much larger for non-college-educated women.

Researchers have deployed statistical methods to try to determine causality, such as comparing siblings with different amounts of exposure to “father absence,” or using longitudinal data to measure changes in child well-being after a separation. While these methods all have limits and the causality debate is therefore far from resolved, the results from these more revealing methods tend to be similar (though often diminished in magnitude) to the findings described above, which suggests that there’s more than just correlation underlying these outcomes.

Still, at the end of the day, McLanahan and Jencks honestly conclude that “[t]hese findings do not mean that children would necessarily be better off if their biological parents were married.” All else simply isn’t equal, especially in this arena, where kids of unmarried moms are more likely than other children to have a father who is incarcerated and disconnected from the workforce. “Furthermore,” they write,

even when a child’s absent father is a model citizen, the mother often has problems that marriage cannot solve. Unmarried mothers have seldom done well in school, many lack even a high school diploma.… [I]f these mothers find work, their earnings are usually lower than those of married mothers who work, and their hours are often long, erratic, or both.… [T]rying to raise children alone on a tiny budget is likely to exacerbate whatever problems a mother had initially.… [M]arrying the man who fathered her child may magnify a mother’s problems rather than solve them.

These critical observations underscore the bargain I’m touting here. But first, what’s the role of culture in all of this, and isn’t there something we can do about that?

Before I can argue the dominance of the strong version of the grand bargain, I must try to deal with the claim, one which is surely partially correct, that culture and changing norms, not just economic opportunity, are a significant determinant of changes in family structure.

But just how significant? As the sociologist Kathryn Edin’s work has shown, many economically disadvantaged poor women are not willingly choosing single parenthood; many would prefer to form stable, two-parent families. One recent survey found, for example, that, “relative to higher income respondents, low-income respondents held more traditional values toward marriage, had similar romantic standards for marriage, and experienced similar skills-based relationship problems.”

We’d expect the opposite to be true if culture and norms were the major drivers behind these trends. I suspect that what’s really happening here is that, due to diminished economic opportunity and incarceration policy, low-income, non-college-educated women face both more constrained choices regarding marriage partners (the economic part), and less constrained choices regarding whether that means they can’t have families (the norms part).

Social conservatives argue that the expanded choices facing women are born less of devaluing marriage and more of the absence of stigma associated with out-of-wedlock childbearing and divorce. As recently as the 1960s, they argue, men and women wanting a regular sex life, a long-term romantic relationship, and, indeed, children, had to marry or face ostracism (or at least judgment) by the predominant culture. Another contributing factor, according to conservative culturistas, is the normalization of contraception and abortion to the point that childbearing is seen not as a joint decision by the child’s parents but as the woman’s choice, in turn relieving societal pressure on their male partners to marry.

They may be onto something, but I’m not so sure. The distinction between devaluing marriage and destigmatizing single parenthood seems to me to be one without much of a difference; the Edin research seems to contradict the notion that greater reproductive choice has led men to feel less responsible for children they father.

Moreover, there are ways in which alleged cultural changes interact with economic outcomes that cannot be meaningfully untangled. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, references another shift that he argues is pushing against marriage: “the erosion of a kind of working-class prosocial masculinity connected to providership.” He suggests that the routine of providing for a family historically played a disciplining and self-affirming role in men’s lives. But as gainful work has become more scarce for working-class (i.e., non-college-educated) men, the discipline and affirmation has eroded, with negative effects on marriage rates.

I have no idea whether that’s true in a cultural sense (that is, whether working-class men lack some dimension of masculinity that they used to possess), though it sounds squishy, if not fishy. But I agree that diminished access to steady jobs that pay living wages has been a larger problem for men than women, due in no small part to industry shifts from manufacturing to services. (Decades of large trade deficits have exacerbated this problem.) What’s interesting about this formulation is that if it’s true, it illustrates how culture and economic trends are inextricably wound up together. It also implies, in sync with McLanahan and the sociologist William J. Wilson, that better job opportunities might help ameliorate the allegedly eroded norm.

Similarly, increased gender equality is both a cultural and an economic phenomenon, as feminism strives to increase both choices and opportunities for women, in part through fights for pay equity and occupational desegregation. While this is surely a positive development, conservatives worry that the rising cultural norm of female economic independence reduces social pressure on men to support them. Again, even if that were true, it’s hard for me—as I suspect it would be for most conservatives—to imagine an ethical, cogent argument that suggests women give back their (incomplete) gains in this economic space so that men will feel more responsible for the children they father.

Our attitudes and policies toward crime and incarceration are also having devastating effects on the economic prospects of generations of mostly male and disproportionately minority Americans. This aspect of our culture is clearly reducing marriage rates as well, as many women recognize the instability and economic volatility that our criminal justice system wreaks on many of their potential partners.

Many of us may well bemoan the decoupling of marriage and parenthood, but the fact is that it has occurred largely as the result of a broad spate of choices and economic realities facing women. The ability of government to change alleged attitudes about masculinity, to push back on gender independence, or to reconnect the fraying norm that children should be born to married couples is almost surely severely constrained by the limits of public policy. (To be fair, Wilcox and many others who advocate this side of the “grand bargain” believe that it is the work of “civic, religious, and cultural” leaders and institutions, not government.) And even if policy could “put that toothpaste back in the tube,” at least one dimension of this norm—our progress on gender equality—is a clear positive.

The punchline of all this is, to the extent that children in single-parent families suffer from diminished educational and economic opportunities available to both their mothers and their mothers’ potential partners, there is a rich policy agenda that should be brought to bear, and it is here that the new grand bargain exists.

When it comes to families, the best way forward is to celebrate the diversity of American family structure, including gay families, single-parent families, multigenerational families, stepfamilies, and so on. We must strive for family stability and opportunity for kids in each of these family types, which depends on policies that help their parents as well. That implies far-reaching policy changes, including in the realms of criminal justice and incarceration, health care, full employment, work supports, housing, and educational access.

In fact, when gainful job opportunities are robust, and work supports, notably child care, wage subsidies, health coverage, and an ample minimum wage, are in place, single parents’ earnings rise and their poverty rate falls. As the figure on page 18 reveals, the last time the U.S. economy was at truly full employment, the employment rates of less-educated single mothers shot up, surpassing those of married moms. Of course, these were the years of work-based welfare reform, targeted precisely at moving this population into work, but as best we can tell, that’s only part of the story, explaining maybe a third of the increase. We also had a minimum wage increase, a significant increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit (a wage subsidy for low-wage workers), expanded child care subsidies, and the tightest labor market in decades, before or since. In fact, the figure shows that as the economy tailed off, employment rates for married and single women, including those without kids, all followed the same downward trend (and, of course, welfare reform was still in place in those years, so it can’t be the whole story).

We can argue culture all we want, but if we really want to help mother-only families, especially in our current era, when antipoverty policy is increasingly oriented around work, we’ve got to help them, their children’s fathers, and their potential future mates find good jobs with ample work supports. Other countries have learned this lesson and have lower child poverty rates among single-parent families than we have among married-parent families in the United States. This suggests an agenda including full employment, earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs, robust wage subsidies, universal health coverage, housing and child care supports, quality pre-K, college affordability, and a fairer, less punitive criminal justice system.

With this agenda in place, some single parents might well consider marriage and some women who are considering an unmarried birth might reconsider. We don’t have a ton of data on this point, but it is true that the unmarried birth rate flattened somewhat in the full-employment 1990s. And virtually every family sociologist who studies this issue argues that better opportunities for potential marriage partners will make a positive difference in marriage rates, and, ultimately, in kids’ well-being in both the short and long term. Either way, with this agenda in place we can be sure that families of all types and their kids would be better off. That should be our primary policy goal, and, at least to me, it sounds like a pretty grand bargain.

David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Jonathan Rauch, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead respond:

As lead authors of the report Marriage Opportunity: The Moment for National Action, recently featured in these pages, we’re grateful to Jared Bernstein for his thoughtful response and for his proposals aimed at continuing and deepening the discussion. To most of what Bernstein says, our response is: Amen, and Amen.

Bernstein says that gay marriage is a done deal—“That train,” he writes, “has left the station.” We agree. He says that a large body of research suggests that family structure matters and that stable, married-couple homes offer significant advantages to children. We agree. Regarding the question of what’s causing the weakening of family structure in non-affluent America, he argues in some detail that “cultural changes interact with economic outcomes” in ways that “cannot meaningfully be untangled.” We agree. He also insists that family structure effects inevitably overlap with—cannot meaningfully be fully separated from—neighborhood effects, incarceration effects, and other environmental influences. We agree.

In the best traditions of progressive thought, he makes the case for policies aimed at increasing income and enhancing economic security for less-well-off Americans. He wants tight labor markets, wage subsidies, work supports such as child care, health coverage, an ample minimum wage, earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs, quality pre-K, college affordability, and a fairer, less punitive criminal justice system aimed at moving us away from a regime of mass incarceration.

On each of these proposals, of course, the devil is likely to be in the details, with conservatives and liberals bringing different perspectives to bear on them. But overall, we strongly support the thrust of what Bernstein is saying. For it seems clear that behind all of his proposals is the proposition that successfully using tools of public policy to improve economic well-being and opportunity for the bottom 70 percent or so of American workers is likely to contribute significantly to stronger families and a stronger marriage culture. We agree with this proposition. We don’t believe that policies such as these constitute the entirety of a fresh new pro-family agenda in America—and for all we know, neither does Jared Bernstein—but we recognize their importance as a part of that agenda and concur with Bernstein about the clear need for this way of thinking about helping families.

We only have a few nits to pick with Bernstein. Our main complaint is that, often in his essay, he seems to want to pick a fight with “conservative” ideas that in our view exist more in his head (or perhaps his memory) than in the actual public debates of 2015. For example, he states his disagreement with conservatives who want to “push back on gender independence” and who would “put the toothpaste back in the tube” on issues of gender equality. We’re not sure who he’s quarreling with anymore. Certainly not us—and a great many prominent conservative leaders and scholars signed on to the Marriage Opportunity report, which Bernstein uses as the starting point for his analysis. In fact, as the main organizers of the statement, we can report that not a single self-identified conservative with whom we spoke voiced any desire to “push back,” directly or indirectly, on female independence or gender equality. We ain’t your 1980s conservatives.

Bernstein also seems to be worried that, while progressives like him are open to economic policies aimed at strengthening families and expanding marriage opportunity, conservatives care only—or at least mainly— about trying to re-traditionalize cultural values. This concern of progressives used to have validity. Today, it has very little. In fact, a major shift in social-conservative thinking on the family in recent years has been its growing embrace of the proposition that, while culture clearly matters, so does economics. As a result we could say in our report, summarizing a fairly lengthy discussion of this very question, “The clear implication is that both economic and cultural opportunity need attending to. Structures and values both matter at the level of intervention, whatever their relative importance as original causes of
the predicament.”

Finally, Bernstein suggests that our report was the result of what he terms a “grand bargain,” in which “each side gives up a dearly held position to get what they want.” We can report unequivocally that this kind of bargaining is not what happened in our report. We did not ask or expect anyone to trade something in order to get something, and, to the best of our knowledge, no one did. It’s true that in our statement, as in any statement of this nature, each signatory had her or his particular concerns and particular contributions to make. Think of us as more an ensemble than a chorus. But all of us who signed the statement did so because it reflects our actual thinking about the topic. We didn’t do any deals.

Efforts to improve marriage opportunity in America are unlikely to succeed without the strong participation and support of progressives, and for this reason as well as others, we welcome and appreciate Bernstein’s contribution. We hope and believe that, insofar as Bernstein and other progressive intellectuals want to play a role in creating a new, inclusive pro-family and pro-marriage movement in America, they won’t have to kick down the door. The door is already wide open.

1. Some research challenges the inclusion of “biological” parents in this assessment, as outcomes for children of adoptive parents are often the same- an observation that will become more important as increased numbers of gay couples marry and have children.

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. From 2009 to 2011, he was the chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.