David Brooks’s Mistaken “Mistake”
Strong Families Are Living the Dream
Asian American success reveals why.
From Andrew Yang’s early success in the Democratic race for president (and subsequent ascension to CNN political commentator) to Sundar Pichai’s ascension to the helm of Google, there can be no doubt that Asians are on the rise in America. In fact, the nation’s more than 18 million Asian Americans—who make up about 6% of the U.S. population—are the best-educated, highest-income, and fastest-growing racial group in the nation.
To be sure, Asian Americans are not all the same, and have not always had an easy time of it in America. They are a diverse group that track their roots to many countries in Asia, with the three largest Asian groups today being Chinese, Indian and Filipino Americans. Asian Americans have also faced their share of racial discrimination, from Japanese internments during World War II to a “bamboo ceiling” today that prevents many Asians from being admitted to the college of their choice or being promoted into the C-suite. Yet, despite these barriers, they have achieved remarkable economic success. One recent study found that 36% of Asians are affluent, defined as income five times the poverty level or greater, more than any other group.
What is their secret?
Many assume it is education and hard work that account for their extraordinary success in realizing the American Dream, Asians included. But our new report, “State of Contradiction: Progressive Family Culture, Traditional Family Structure,” indicates that a third factor, strong families, is also key to Asian Americans’ success in America.
In our report on California families, for instance, we find that 84% of Asians with children under age 18 in California are married and still in their first marriage. The share of intact families is 70% among whites, 62% for Hispanics and 43% for blacks. This pattern holds true among the U.S. as a whole. This Asian family advantage remains significant even after we control for education, family income, and other background factors.
In other words, Asian Americans are significantly more likely to forge strong and stable marriages than any other racial or ethnic group in the nation—including whites—even after accounting for their superior education and income.
This is partly because Asian Americans are more likely than other groups to share a mindset that contributes to family stability. When asked about their preference to start a family, a majority of Asians in our California survey (75%) say it is very important for them to be married before having children, compared with 66% of blacks , 59% of Hispanics, and 62% of whites in California. And Asian Americans are the group most likely to believe that couples with children should make every effort to stay married, even if they are not happy, with over half of them endorsing this view.
These values help to explain why Asian Americans have largely avoided falling into newer family forms—from cohabitation to nonmarital childbearing—that typically end in instability and single parenthood. Only 3% of Asian parents in California are cohabitating, and only 2% have never been married.
It Pays to Stay Together
So how exactly do their intact families translate into economic success? According to the new Census data, the median family income in 2018 was $100,000 for U.S. adults (ages 25-64) with children in their first marriages, and $96,400 for parents who are in their second or more marriages. In contrast, incomes are a lot lower for parents who have never been married ($32,000) or divorced parents ($43,350). And a more sophisticated analysis of ethnicity, family, and income from the sociologist John Iceland finds that family structure is one of the biggest factors, after education, accounting for the Asian advantage over whites when it comes to affluence.
It is easy to understand why intact families have higher income. Today, stable two-parent families generally have the advantage of pooling incomes instead of relying on one income. And they avoid all the costs associated with divorce and other forms of family instability—from lawyers’ fees to separate homes to child support.
Asian Americans are aware of this. To them, the importance of family trumps their own pursuit of individual fulfillment. Asians in our California survey are more likely than other groups to think of their marriage partner in terms of “us” and “we” instead of “me” and “him/her.” And for a vast majority of Asian couples (82%), marriage is not only seen as an intense emotional or romantic connection between two adults, but also as an enterprise about “the kids, money, and raising a family together.” The share of couples among other racial groups who take this more family-first view of marriage is significantly lower.
Tradeoffs and Triumphs
To be sure, the stability of Asian families could be potentially at odds with their marital happiness. Asian parents are not the happiest couples when it comes to the relationship with their spouse. Some 78% of Asian parents in California say they are satisfied with the overall relationship with their spouse, compared with 83% of white parents and 75% of Hispanic parents (the sample size for black parents was small). And the share of married parents who feel close and engaged in their relationship also seem to be lower among Asians (70%) than whites (80%) or Hispanics (79%).
Part of the reason may be selection. Unhappy marriages among whites and other groups would have already ended, but they are more likely to endure among Asian parents. When over 80% of Asian American parents are married and still in their first marriage, it is safe to say some couples may not be in their best relationships. But they have stayed for the sake of their children and their family.
Is it worth it? Obviously, this is debatable, though it’s worth noting that most marriages have spells of unhappiness that are generally resolved with a return to happiness, if they don’t end in divorce.
But one thing is not debatable: partly by forging strong and stable marriages, Asian Americans have achieved the American Dream at unparalleled rates for themselves, and given the importance of family stability for children’s success, and dramatically increased the odds their children will also realize the Dream.