Modern Family Progressivism, Part Two: Reply to Kevin Drum

December 12, 2019

Shawn Fremstad

This is the second part in a series of posts. You can read the first post here.

Writing in the New York Times, family sociologist Christina Cross notes that “America has a long and troubled history of viewing racial inequality primarily through the lens of family structure.” She cites her own and others’ research in concluding that “what deserves policy attention is not black families’ deviation from the two-parent family model but rather structural barriers such as housing segregation and employment discrimination that produce and maintain racialized inequalities in family life.”

In a Mother Jones commentary posted shortly after Cross’ piece was published, Kevin Drum goes on the attack by 1) asserting that single-parent families are a “big deal” (by which he means a big problem); 2) accusing Cross of “special pleading” and “desperately try[ing] to make a case that really can’t be made;” and, 3) implying that “we liberals” are hypocrites who are afraid to “say anything that even remotely sounds like a criticism of black family lives.” 

This is quite the tirade for a senior blogger at a liberal publication to so quickly throw down in response to an op-ed by an up-and-coming scholar. (Cross is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University and starting as an Assistant Professor there next year.) So one might assume Drum is well-informed about the state of research on family structure, takes care to cite evidence, and is not just echoing social-conservative talking points and Twitter posts

Alas, no. Cross is right and Drum’s attack is half-cocked. I’ve already covered most of this ground in my recent post on Thomas Edsall and neo-Moynihanism, so will merely highlight a few things here. 

If there is an average negative impact of family structure on child well-being, it appears to be small rather than big. As I noted in my earlier post, according to a comprehensive literature review and meta-analysis published by the OECD, “the maximum size of the effect on child outcomes of growing up in a single-parent family is small” and “whether a causal effect of single parenthood on child well-being exists remains unproven.” The evidence is weakest when it comes to the impact of family structure on adult outcomes, like employment, earnings, and educational attainment.

Don’t trust the OECD, an intergovernmental organization that the United States has been a part of since the Eisenhower administration? Sociologist Paul Amato is an emeritus professor of family sociology at Penn State, and longstanding fan of the happily married two-parent family. Yet, according to Amato’s estimates, a return to Leave-it-to-Beaver-era family structure would at most have a “relatively small effect on the share of children experiencing…problems,” including delinquency, violence, smoking, repeating a grade, school suspension, and mental health problems. As he explains, the estimated effects from what would be an enormous change in family structure “are relatively small because problems such as being suspended from school, engaging in delinquent behavior, and attempting suicide have many causes, with family structure being but one.”

Drum closes his post by calling on “we liberals” to extol the benefits of marriage. Here he echoes social conservative Charles Murray’s call for upper middle-class people to “preach what they practice” to the lower classes. I doubt that having well-off liberals lecture working-class people on family values will increase marriage rates or be well-received. Moreover, liberal values and practice in this area are much less unitary than Drum and Murray imply. Just to name one recent piece of evidence, women over age 65 in Canada and the United States increasingly seem to prefer “living apart together” to cohabitation and marriage, which is not the case for men. 

Liberals don’t have anything useful to learn from Charles Murray, who has also proposed “end[ing] all economic support for single mothers” and “augment[ing] the economic penalties of single parenthood with severe social stigma.” Instead, they should look to experts like Cross and public intellectuals like Rebecca Traister. In a recent podcast interview, Traister argues that “not wrest[ing] the language of family, home and health from the right” has “been a failure of Left communicative will.” She goes on to note that “[the] reproductive justice [movement and framework] has been much better about this,” which makes clear that she envisions something very different than neo-Moynihanism. 

Modern family progressivism means embracing family diversity and egalitarian, solidaristic relationships of all sorts. It doesn’t mean that progressives shouldn’t be concerned about the quality of family relationships and increasing men’s involvement in caregiving of children and adults. If anything, progressives are much more concerned about these things than social conservatives who focus obsessively on family structure. Instead of echoing conservative talking points and helping legitimize family-structure determinism, today’s progressives should talk about family in a way that is consistent with the evidence and their own values.

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