Family Stability Matters, Not Clear That Marriage Does

I got some pushback on yesterday’s post about Nordic family structure, well summed-up by RS who wrote “unmarried biological parents in northern Europe are more likely to stay together to raise the kid than married parents in the US. Jencks, Ellwood, and more recently Cherlin have written about this.”

Swedish dad in Södermalm (my photo available under cc license)

Swedish dad in Södermalm (my photo available under cc license)

I don’t disagree with this. I just think it’s important to remember who’s who, what’s what, and where’s where in this argument. In the United States context you often hear it said that what we need to do to help kids is encourage their parents to be married. I think the experience of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway pretty clearly debunks that. On the other hand, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway don’t at all debunk the idea that having both of your biological parents heavily involved in your life is extremely helpful. But the issue isn’t marriage or non-marriage, it’s family dissolution. Non-married couples can stay together, and married couples can break up.

What’s more, it is worth looking at the cases of the UK and Iceland. Both of these countries really do have more one-parent households than the United States and still achieve substantially lower child poverty rates and more social mobility. I’m happy to dismiss Iceland as a bit of an odd case—and tiny anyway—but that doesn’t apply to the United Kingdom. The key thing there, frankly, is that the Blair and Brown governments decided that child poverty is a scandal and they were going to do something about it. And whatever other failings they had, they succeeded in reducing child poverty by a large margin. CAP’s Half in Ten project aimed at reducing child poverty by 50 percent in ten years is, in part, inspired by these Blair/Brown successes and shows you can do a great deal of good without reengineering people’s relationships. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing right now in the United States is a recession whose impact outpaces the anti-poverty efforts of the Obama administration.