A new book makes the supposedly brave claim that two-parent families are good, and that unmarried poor people are miring themselves in poverty. But what upper-class people practice is not just “marriage” — it’s “marriage to upper-class people.”

What should we make of people who write whole books second-guessing people’s relationships? (Paul Tamas / 500px / Getty Images)

Ross Douthat had a response to my response to the various promotional pieces about Melissa Kearney’s new book. Douthat’s response is generally OK, but, in addition to clarifying my point, I do want to respond to one part of Douthat’s piece here, as he says something that has been annoying me for a while but that I’ve avoided responding to just because most people are probably going to think my response is really offensive and overly personal. Oh well.

If you haven’t followed along so far, Kearney has a new book where she bravely argues that it is good for kids to have two parents in their household.

I responded to this argument by rehashing what I take to be the common view on this topic, which is that parent cohabitation is sometimes good and sometimes bad, depending on the characteristics of each parent and how those parents get along. Based on this view, the relevant inquiry is how many of the 22 percent of kids who live in single-parent households would actually be better off if their specific parents lived together.

This is a different inquiry than the one Kearney and her ilk engage in, preferring instead to produce meaningless statistics that do not control for underlying relationship quality and that assume that missing parents have average characteristics, both in the labor market and in the household.


My point here is sometimes oversimplified as being about whether men are unmarriageable, and Douthat engages in some of that simplification. But there are actually four reasons why parental cohabitation may be a net negative or even impossible for the 22 percent of kids who currently do not have it:

One of the parents may be dead, in prison, or living remotely for job reasons. This is not a huge slice of people, but it probably does shave a couple of percentage points off the total.
Dad might be a bad guy.
Mom might be a bad lady.
Dad and mom might be alright but don’t mix well.

There is a tendency in some of this writing to focus on dad, presumably because mom typically has the kid, and so it seems like the question is just one about whether to add dad to the household. But this is a mistake. The behavior of mom can be just as much a problem for cohabitation as the behavior of dad.

Another worthwhile point of clarification here is that non-cohabitation is not the same thing as abandonment. In some of these cases, mom and dad are both active participants in their kids’ lives, even if they don’t live together, something typically called “co-parenting.” Indeed, if anyone actually cared to study this, they’d find that some non-cohabitating parents spend more time with their kids than many cohabitating parents do. I say this not to endorse the idea of non-cohabitation but just to underscore, once again, that the relevant inquiry requires looking at the specific circumstances of these 22 percent of kids, something Kearney doesn’t do.

What Upper-Class People Do

In his piece, Douthat also writes this:

From a left-wing perspective, the difficulty in dismissing the importance of marriage and married childbearing is precisely the fact that the upper and upper middle classes still marry at high rates, defer childbearing until marriage and divorce less frequently than other social strata. Because when the well-off follow a particular practice so consistently, the normal left-wing assumption is that the choices must serve their class interests in some way.

Why do upper-class people so often send their kids to private schools, for instance, or hire private tutors, or pressure their offspring to attend elite colleges and universities, or seek to protect their family wealth from the taxman? For the sake of the reproduction of privilege, naturally.

Before getting to my point, I must indulge in a slight nitpick here and point out that the vast majority of upper-class people do not send their kids to private K-12 schools. That’s a northeast weirdo thing driven primarily by ruinous intraclass status-seeking and paranoia.

Regarding Douthat’s marriage point here, he makes a mistake that nearly everyone in this discourse makes, and it’s kind of driving me crazy over time. The mistake is saying that, contrary to lower-class people, upper-class people are getting married. The reason this is a mistake is that upper class people are not getting married to lower class people.

If we follow Douthat’s recommendation to look at the behavior of upper-class people to determine what kinds of behavior are privilege-enhancing, then we are forced to conclude that marrying an upper-class spouse is privilege-enhancing while marrying a lower-class spouse is not and should be avoided. That’s how upper-class people actually behave. Right?

Another common and pithy way of expressing Douthat’s point here is that upper-class people should “preach what they practice,” with proponents of that phrase seemingly thinking that it means that upper-class people should tell lower-class people to marry. But what upper-class people practice is not “marriage.” It’s “marriage to upper-class people.” Right?

Indeed, if you want an example of how a certain marriage proponent approached marriage in her own life, she conveniently had the New York Times announce the details of her marriage in 2001:

Melissa Jean Schettini, a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Louis A. Schettini of Montville, N.J., was married yesterday to Daniel Patrick Kearney Jr.

The bride and bridegroom, both 27, met at Princeton University, where they graduated, she summa cum laude.

Mrs. Kearney is a candidate for a Ph.D. in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. . . . Her father owns Per Forms, a Montville company, which manufactures and markets business forms . . .

Next month, Mr. Kearney is to become a law student at Yale. He received a master’s degree in classical studies from Boston College.

The bridegroom’s father retired as the chief investment officer of Aetna, the insurance company in Hartford. He was also the president of its investments and financial services division.

Is the upshot from this kind of behavior really “people should get married”? Or is it “when the upper-class boyfriend gets the letter from Yale law school, go ahead and lock that down”?

Is it offensive to write this? I gather from my surveying of the society that is. But why is it offensive? Is it because second-guessing people’s relationships is offensive? And if so, what should we make of people who write whole books doing that?


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