Is the value of two-parent households overrated?

Harvard researcher hits a culture-war nerve

IN 1965, the US Labor Department released a report on the state of the black family in America. The document, widely known as the Moynihan Report, for its main author, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, became a flashpoint for controversy and debate because of its dual focus on structural economic barriers holding back black Americans as well on the impact of family structure and the high rate of single-parent households on the trajectory of African-American children.

More than 50 years later, the controversy rages on, with a Harvard researcher the latest one to reignite the debate. Christina Cross, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s sociology department, penned a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home,” arguing that the focus on household structure and the conventional wisdom on its importance is misplaced.

“[W]hat if common knowledge is wrong, especially about a group whose family structures have long been used to explain their social and economic disadvantages — black Americans?” she writes.

“Let me be clear,” Cross says. “I’m not suggesting that the two-parent family is bad for children of any race or ethnicity.”

But Cross’s main message is that research she’s conducted shows that living apart from a biological parent and not growing up in a two-parent household does not have as strong a negative association with the educational success of black adolescents as it does with their white peers. She says the potential reasons for this include the already substantial “existing disadvantages” of “structural racism” faced by all blacks as well the compensating social supports from the greater tendency of black children to grow up in proximity to extended family members.

She said both factors help explain the differential effect of single-parent households on black and white children, “though the former to a much greater extent.”

While Cross’s findings could represent a valuable addition to our understanding of social mobility, she uses them instead to unnecessarily cloud the issue. That’s because she seems determined to use her research to choose sides in a huge debate that isn’t actually a binary question of whether black children are being harmed by structural racist forces or family structure.

While her op-ed raised eyebrows in conservative circles, it was left-leaning Mother Jones that seemed to best capture the puzzling bent of Cross’s message.

“OK, so living in a single-parent home is bad for kids, after all. But it’s not as bad for black kids as it is for white kids,” Kevin Drum writes in the magazine.

While progressives usually think we should do everything possible to help those who are already suffering the most, Drum says Cross “is suggesting the opposite: black kids are already suffering enough that we shouldn’t worry too much about tossing another log on the fire in the form of a one-parent home.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

By emphasizing the weaker effect of household composition on black children, she seems to be waving off attention to the issue. But there’s an extensive literature pointing to the benefits of two-parent households, starting with the greater economic security that comes with two potential wage-earners versus one.

As Drum shows in a graph, there is a growing marriage gap between black and white women with and without college degrees, as those with the advantages that come with education are gaining further advantage in their choices about household formation.

Structural forces in the economy, including some of its racist underpinnings, and the impact of being raised in a single-parent household are both harming black children. It doesn’t seem necessary to make the challenge of tackling the problem an either-or proposition.