My rejection of the National Marriage Project’s “Before ‘I Do'”

All day today, “The Decisive Marriage” has topped the New York Times most-emailed list. The piece is a Well Blog post, written by Tara Parker-Pope, which reports on a report published by the National Marriage Project and written by Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley, “Before ‘I Do': What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?”

I have frequently criticized the National Marriage Project, run by Bradford Wilcox (posts listed under this tag), and I ignore their work when I can. But this report is getting a lot of attention now and several people have asked my opinion. Since the research in the report has not been subject to peer review, and the Pope piece does not include any expert commentary from non-authors, I figured I’d structure this post like the peer review report I would dash off if I had been asked to review the piece (it’s a little different because I have access to the author and funding information, and I wouldn’t include links or graphics, but this is more or less how it would go if I were asked to review it).

Before “I Do”

This paper reports results from an original data collection which sampled 1,294 people in 2007/08, and then followed an unknown number of them for five years. The present paper reports on the marriage quality of 418 of the individuals who reported marrying over the period (ages 18-40). The authors provide no information on sample attrition or how this was handled in the analysis, or the determinants of marriage within the sample. Although they claim (without evidence) that the sample was “reasonably representative of unmarried adults,” they note it is 65% female, so it’s obviously not representative. More importantly, the analysis sample is only those who married, which is highly select. Neither sexual orientation of the respondents, nor gender composition of the couples described is reported.

The outcome variable in the study is a reasonable measure of “marital quality” based on a four-item reduced-form version of the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (originally developed by Graham Spanier), which includes these items:

  • How often do you discuss or have you considered divorce, separation, or terminating your relationship?
  • In general, how often do you think that things between you and your partner are going well?
  • Do you confide in your mate?
  • Please circle the dot which best describes the degree of happiness, all things considered, of your relationship.

The authors provide no details on the coding of these items, but say the scale ranges from 0 to 21, and their sample included people who scored from 0 to 21. However, the mean was 16.5 and the standard deviation was 3.7, indicating a strong skew toward high scores. Inexplicably, for the presentation of results the authors dichotomize the dependent variable into those they classify as “higher quality,” the 40% of respondents who scored (19-21), versus everyone else (0-18). To defend this decision, the authors offer this non-explanation, which means exactly nothing:

This cut point was selected by inspection of the distribution. While it is somewhat arbitrary, we reasoned that these people are not just doing “above average” in their marriages, but are doing quite well.

The average marriage duration is not reported, but the maximum possible is 5 years, so we are talking about marriage quality very early in these marriages.

The main presentation of findings consists of bar graphs misleadingly labeled “Percent in Higher-Quality Marriages, by…” various independent variables. These are misleading because, according to the notes to these figures, “These percentages are adjusted for race/ethnicity, years of education, personal income, religiousness, and frequency of attendance at religious services.” Here is one:

stanleygraph

The method for arriving at these “adjusted” percentages is not given. This apparently confused Parker-Pope, who reported them as unadjusted percentages, like this:

People who lived with another person before marrying also reported a lower-quality relationship. In that group, 35 percent had higher-quality marriages. Among those who had not lived with another romantic partner before marriage, 42 percent had higher-quality marriages.

The statistical significance of this difference is not reported. However, if this were a simple difference of proportions, the difference would not be statistically significant at conventional levels (with a sample of 418, 39% of whom lived with someone else before, the test for difference of proportions for .42 and .35 yields a z-score of 1.43, p=.15). The full report includes an appendix which says they used multilevel modeling, but the form of the regression is not specified. The regression table provided includes no fit statistics or variance components so the efficacy of the model cannot be evaluated.

Regression says: Adding 100 people to the wedding party 5 times would not equal the effect on marital quality of not being Black.

Regression says: Adding 100 people to the wedding party 5 times would not equal the effect on marital quality of not being Black.

Much is made here (and in the Pope article about these findings) about the wedding-size effect. That is, among married couples, those who reported bigger weddings had higher average marriage quality. The mean wedding size was 117. In the regression model, each additional wedding guest was associated with an increase in marriage quality (on the 0-21 scale) of .005. That is, if this were a real effect, adding 100 wedding guests would increase marital quality by half a point, or less than 1/7 of a standard deviation. For comparison, in the model, the negative effect of being Black (-2.69) is more than 5-times greater than the effect of a 100-guest swing in wedding attendance. (The issue of effect size did not enter into Pope’s description of the results.)

The possibility of nonlinear effects of wedding size or other variables is not discussed.

Are the results plausible?

It is definitely possible that, for example, less complicated relationship histories, or larger weddings, do contribute to marital happiness early in the marriage. The authors speculate, based on psychological research from the 1970s, that the “desire for consistency” means “having more witnesses at a wedding may actually strengthen marital quality.”

Sure. The much bigger issue, however, is two kinds of selection. The first, which they address — very poorly — concerns spurious effects. Thus, the simplest explanation is that (holding income constant) people with larger weddings simply had better relationships to begin with. Or, because personal income (not couple income — and note only one person from each couple was interviewed) is at best a very noisy indicator of resources available to couples, big weddings may simply proxy for wealthier families.

Or, about the finding that living with someone else prior to the current relationship is associated with poorer marriage quality, it may simply be that people who have trouble in relationships are more likely to have both lived with someone else and have poor quality marriages later. Cherlin et al. have reported, for example, that women with a history of sexual abuse are more likely to be in transitory relationships, including serial cohabiting relationships, so a history of abuse could account for some of these results. And so on.

The authors address this philosophically, which is all they can do given their data:

One obvious objection to this study is that it may be capturing what social scientists call “selection effects” rather than a causal relationship between our independent variables and the outcome at hand. That is, this report’s results may reflect the fact that certain types of people are more likely to engage in certain behaviors—such as having a child prior to marriage—that are correlated with experiencing lower odds of marital quality. It could be that these underlying traits or experiences, rather than the behaviors we analyzed, explain the associations reported here. This objection applies to most research that is not based on randomized experiments. We cannot prove causal associations between the personal and couple factors we explore and marital quality.

However, because they have rudimentary demographic controls, and the independent variables chronologically precede the outcome variable, they think they’re on pretty firm ground:

With the help of our research, we hope current and future couples will better understand the factors that appear to contribute to building a healthy, loving marriage in contemporary America.

This is Wilcox’s standard way of nodding to selection before plowing ahead with unjustified conclusions. This is not a reasonable approach, for reasons apparent in today’s New York Times. Tara Parker-Pope does not mention this issue, and her piece will obviously reach many more people than the original report or this post.

They hope people will take their results as relationship advice. In Pope’s piece, Stanley offers exactly the same advice he always gives. If that is to be the case, the best advice by far — based on their models — is to avoid being Black, and to finish high school. Living with both one’s biological parents at age 14 helps, too. In relationship terms, unfortunately, most of the results could just as easily reflect wealth or initial relationship quality rather than relationship decisions, and thus tell us that people who have healthy (and less complicated) relationships before marriage have healthy relationships in the first few years after marriage.

Perhaps more serious, however, for this study design, is the second kind of selection: selection into the sample (by marriage). Anything that affects both the odds of marrying and the quality of marriage is potentially corrupting these results. This is a big, complicated issue, with a whole school of statistical methods attached to it. Unless they attend to that issue this analysis should not be published.

On the funding

The authors state the project was “initially funded” by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, but the report also acknowledges support from the William E. Simon Foundation, a very conservative foundation that in 2012 gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Witherspoon Institute (which funded the notorious Wilcox/Regnerus research on children of same-sex couples), the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and other conservative and Christian activist organizations. Details on funding are not provided.

The National Marriage Project is well-known for publishing only work that supports their agenda of marriage promotion. Some of what they publish may be true, but based on their track record they cannot be trusted as honest brokers of new research.

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ASA meeting Twitter network graph

The American Sociological Association meetings, which ended earlier this week, had a rollicking good Twitter stream. Now Marc Smith has analyzed the tweeters who used the hashtag #asa14 (and related), and their interactions, to produce network graphs of the meeting’s tweeted undercurrent. I looked through one of the graphs, which I’ll describe briefly.

Smith used NodeXL, and generated a whole gallery of graphs. Just looking in your browser is difficult because the resolution is too low to identify people, but you can download the giant Excel files he made, or use the interactive graphs which allow you to hover over points and see their handles. That’s how I figured out the following graph, which represents 18,000 tweets from Sunday and Monday, the middle of the conference (click to enlarge, but it won’t help that much). Details here, my description below.

Graph-25487The top left, G1, is the heaviest traffic. This was a lot of leftists in active discussions of Ferguson, Missouri, Mike Brown, and Alice Goffman (and her book On The Run). At the center of that mass seems to be Jessie Daniels from CUNY (who describes herself, fittingly, as an instigator), UT-Austin sociology, Conditionally Accepted, Dr. Compton, and C.J. Pascoe, among others. I can’t find the dot for Tressie McMillan Cottom (Tressiemcphd) — who has the highest betweenness centrality of any individual on the graph, and was the most frequently replied-to tweeter — but it’s probably in G1 somewhere.

Moving clockwise, the next cluster (G3) is centered around the official feed of the ASA, @ASAnews, with a lot of tweets about the conference theme, publishers and their booths, and journals.

Clockwise to G5, you get another cluster with a lot of Mike Brown and Ferguson, but this one more focused on education and academia, including Lean In. At the center of G5 is Sara Goldrick-Rab.

The top right, G6, is where I ended up. It has several lose center points, including me (familyunequal), Tina Fetner, and two people who tweeted ASA content that got picked up by a lot of non-sociologists: Mark Abraham (urbandata) and Str8Grandmother. Also up there is Karl Bakeman (my editor at Norton), the Norton sociology feed, and Contexts magazine.

Next on the far right is G10, which has a lot of critical race discussion (#troublewithwhitewomen), as well as information technology. I can’t tell the theme of G9, which includes Lisa Wade and Nathan Palmer (sociologysource).

The orange oval in G7 is centered around the Émile Durkheim feed (“Invented Sociology, and don’t let any Germans tell you otherwise”). This was probably his most popular tweet this time out, with going on 100 retweets:

durkheimcup

In fact, the graph data shows that the G7 sector basically comprises the community formed around this tweet.

The bottom center sector, G4, clusters around Think Progress. Note the strong ties to the top left, where the Ferguson traffic was heaviest. G4 is a key group for transmitting leftist politics into and out of ASA. The feminist Leta Hong Fincher is the node that connects this group to that fan of people off the bottom right of the cluster.

Finally, the bottom left group, G2, is centered on education and technology, with clusters around Liz Meyer, Marc Smith, Gina Neff, and others I’m not familiar with.

So

There are lots of social layers and clusters across the ASA, which could be grouped by specialty, department, age, race/ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, and so on. The Twitter network just happens to leave an easy data trail. I mention all these individuals not to play into a star system, but because it’s easier to name someone than to attempt to categorize them. I’m open to other interpretations of this graph.

I’m getting very sappy in my old age about my love for sociology and sociologists. But as I look over these figures, I think that if I had to pick 5,000 people to spend a weekend with, who all had only one thing in common, I think ASA members was a good choice.

 

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Justice for Sterilization Victims update (survivor edition)

I’ve written several times about the effort to provide compensation to the victims of North Carolina’s eugenics program, which is estimated to have forcibly sterilized 7,600 people over the years 1929-1974. Here’s an update and some of the previous posts, with links updated.

Eventually, the state did set up a $10 million fund for compensation, and provided a way for survivors to file claims. The deadline for filing claims with the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims was June 30, and the agency reports they got 780 claims, of which so far about 180 have qualified for compensation, with 200 more still under review. People who died while the state dragged its feet setting up the process — or their surviving families members — will get nothing. Probably more than half of the victims have died.

No family for you (posted 2011)

North Carolina’s eugenics program was the subject of hearings this week, dragging on with no compensation for the living victims. A collection of literature at the state’s North Carolina Digital Collections includes this 1950 propaganda pamphlet:

What for sterilization victims? (posted 2010)

North Carolina has named an executive director of the N. C. Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation, Charmaine Fuller Cooper. Upon her nomination, she said [link lost]:

“I’m excited about this opportunity and see it as a turning point to bringing justice to so many families and individuals affected by this tragic moment in North Carolina history.”

Moment? From 1929 to 1977, as part of the state’s contribution to the Eugenics movement, they sterilized 7,600 people, nearly four-fifths of them after WWII, according to this state report.

About half the victims of the sterilization campaign have already died. Then-Gov. Mike Easley apologized in 2002, and now-Gov. Perdue campaigned on the pledge to compensate the victims. And yet no one has been compensated, although the state’s new foundation got $250,000 to get started. A bill to give victims $20,000 each stalled last year.

Many of the the victims, more than half of whom were Black, were institutionalized, supposedly for mental retardation, illness, or whatever — although many were simply poor, uneducated or orphaned. (Here’s a historical study of those sterilized in institutions.) Although compensation has yet to reach the victims, the state has at least owned up to the travesty, which is documented in this good digital repository at the State Library, including a pamphlet from the Human Betterment League of North Carolina:

North Carolina has an interesting profile with regard to historical travesties and crimes against humanity. The casual immigrant to the American South might be surprised that compared with, say, Germany’s official attitude toward the Holocaust, there is little in the way of official recognition that the Confederacy was wrong in the Civil War. For example, the monuments to those who fought for “their country,” the Confederacy, remain on display – like this one at UNC, which honors students and alumni who contributed to that cause:

In Germany, the old Nazi Party and some of its descendants were banned, but U.S. organizations dedicated to preserving the honor of war criminals are allowed to flourish. (I’m for state-protected free speech, just not state-sponsored monuments to the Confederacy.)

On the other hand, we’ve seen some notable symbolic efforts beyond the sterilization issue. The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission at least produced a comprehensive report on the White establishment’s coup against the local government at the end of Reconstruction. And the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission has produced a report on the attack by Klansmen on communist anti-racism activists. And legally, North Carolina is virtually alone in its official willingness to consider actual innocence claims when new evidence emerges after criminal convictions [for now, anyway].

For historical crimes, compensating the victims matters. Symbolism matters, too.

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Doing math one-handed? Inequality and the marriage problem (#asa14)

I’m at the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco, on my way over to present the following slides at a session on “Closing the Economic Marriage Gap: The Policy Debate.” Looks like a great session, organized by Melanie Heath, Orit Avishai, and Jennifer Randles, and including Andrew Cherlin, Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Mignon Moore, and Ronald Mincy – with a discussion by Barbara Risman.

I’ve uploaded the slides for my talk, here.

The background is in this post, which I wrote in 2011, called, “Is it a ‘marriage problem’?” Here it is again:

Is it a “marriage problem”?

A self-described liberal (Andrew Cherlin) and conservative (W. Bradford Wilcox) pair of academics have produced a “policy brief”* for the Brookings Institution entitled, The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America.

There’s no new information or analysis in the report, so I won’t dwell on it. But I’d like to use it to point out a logical problem with pro-marriage social science in general. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, with my comment following:

This policy brief reviews the deepening marginalization of marriage and the growing instability of family life among moderately-educated Americans: those who hold high school degrees but not four-year college degrees and who constitute 51 percent of the young adult population (aged twenty-five to thirty-four). … [b]oth of us agree that children are more likely to thrive when they reside in stable, two-parent homes. … Thus, we conclude by offering six policy ideas, some economic, some cultural, and some legal, designed to strengthen marriage and family life among moderately-educated Americans. … To be sure, not every married family is a healthy one that benefits children. Yet, on average, the institution of marriage conveys important benefits to adults and children. … The fact is that children born and raised in intact, married homes typically enjoy higher quality relationships with their parents, are more likely to steer clear of trouble with the law, to graduate from high school and college, to be gainfully employed as adults, and to enjoy stable marriages of their own in adulthood. Women and men who get and stay married are more likely to accrue substantial financial assets and to enjoy good physical and mental health. In fact, married men enjoy a wage premium compared to their single peers that may exceed 10 percent. At the collective level, the retreat from marriage has played a noteworthy role in fueling the growth in family income inequality and child poverty that has beset the nation since the 1970s. For all these reasons, then, the institution of marriage has been an important pillar of the American Dream, and the erosion of marriage in Middle America is one reason the dream is increasingly out of reach for men, women, and children from moderately-educated homes.

It’s obvious empirically that adults and children in married-couple families, on average, are doing better on many measures than those not in such families. The logical problem is when people conclude from this pattern that the obvious response is to “strengthen marriage and family life.” But, why not try to reduce that disparity instead?

This is the logical equivalent of the Republican mantra that “We don’t have a revenue problem in Washington; we have a spending problem.” That’s only true if you’re doing one-handed math. And the same holds for marriage.

Yes, there is less marriage, and many people are less well off without it. Does that mean we have a “marriage” problem, or a family inequality problem? Is there any other way to help people develop high quality relationships with their parents, complete more education, get better jobs, accrue financial assets and maintain good physical and mental health?

In the categorical math of inequality, you can try (with little chance of success in this case) to reduce the number of people in the disadvantaged category (non-married families), or you can try to reduce the size of the disparity between the two categories.

*I’m not sure, but I think a “policy brief” is a blog post about policy matters, produced on the PDF letterhead of a foundation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As far as I can tell, this one is a non-peer-reviewed essay which handles sourcing like this: “the findings detailed in this policy brief come from a new report by Wilcox, When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America.” As I’ve pointed out (here andhere), Wilcox’s reports at the National Marriage Project are also non-peer-reviewed essays with a lot of substantially misleading and erroneous content.

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Post-summer reading list: The Family, gender, race, economics, gayborhoods, insecurity and overwhelmed

I was extremely fortunate to have a real vacation this summer — two whole weeks. I feel like half a European. In that time I read, almost read, or thought about reading, a number of things I might have blogged about if I’d been working instead of at the beach:

beach-reading-2

The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change

Yes, my own book came out. I never worked on one thing so much. I really hope you like it. Look for it at the Norton booth at the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco this week. Info on ordering exam copies here.

About that gender stall

The Council on Contemporary Families, on whose board I serve, published an online symposium titled, After a Puzzling Pause, the Gender Revolution Continues. It features work by the team of David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman on a rebound in gender attitudes; new research on sex (by Sharon Sassler) and divorce (by Christine Schwartz) in egalitarian marriages; and how overwork contributes to the gender gap (by Youngjoo Cha). For additional commentary, see this piece by Virginia Rutter at Girl w/ Pen!, and an important caution from Joanna Pepin (who finds no rebound in attitudes in the trends for high school students). If I had written a whole post about this I would have found a way to link to my essay on the gender stall in the NYTimes, too.

Gender and Piketty

How Gender Changes Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’.” A discussion hosted by The Nation blog between Kathleen Geier, Kate Bahn, Joelle Gamble, Zillah Eisenstein and Heather Boushey

Scientists strike back at Nicholas Wade

Geneticists decry book on race and evolution.” More than 100 scientists signed a letter to the New York Times disavowing Wade’s use of population genetics. This story quotes Sarah Tishkoff, whose work Wade specifically misrepresented (as I described in my review in Boston Review). The article in Science also includes Wade’s weak response, in which he repeats the claim, which I do not find credible, that their objections are “driven by politics, not science.” He repeats this no matter how scientific the objections to his work.

Here comes There Goes the Gayborhood?

Amin Ghaziani’s new book has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention in the last few weeks. Here’s one good article in the New Yorker.

Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times

Marianne Cooper’s book is out now. From the publisher: “Through poignant case studies, she reveals what families are concerned about, how they manage their anxiety, whose job it is to worry, and how social class shapes all of these dynamics, including what is even worth worrying about in the first place.” Cooper led the research for Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, and the book is from her sociology dissertation.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time

Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post journalist, has written a really good book about gender, work, and family. (I was happy to listen to it during the drive to our vacation, because it helped me let go and ignore work more.) I’ll write a longer review, but let me just say here it is very well written and researched on the issues of time use, the household division of labor, and work-family policy and politics, featuring many of your favorite social scientists in this area. Well worth considering for an undergrad family course. (Also, helps explain why there are so many Europeans on American beaches.)

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Marriage, divorce, remarriage, age, education (Coontz tabs edition)

Stephanie Coontz has an excellent Op-Ed on the front of today’s New York Times Sunday Review, which draws out the implications for family instability of the connection between increasing gender equality on the one hand, and increasing economic inequality and insecurity on the other. The new instability is disproportionately concentrated among the population with less than a college degree. To help with her research, I gave Stephanie the figure below, but it didn’t make the final cut. This shows the marriage history of men and women by education and age. She wrote:

According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.

I highlighted those numbers in the figure. Also striking is the higher percentage of divorced people among those with less than a BA degree (and higher widowhood rates). Click to enlarge: age marriage history Cross-posted on the Families As They Really Are blog.

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Arthur Brooks’s worldliness is showing

Because the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which spends $9 million per year getting its message out, needs help getting its message out, its president, Arthur Brooks is on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Review again this week. When he’s not spending rich people’s money to, for example, advocate for more military funding, Brooks takes time to promote a feel-good, post-materialist message for the rich-who-just-happen-to-be-rich.

But there’s a funny thing in the middle of today’s message to “love people, use things.”

Easier said than done, I realize. It requires the courage to repudiate pride and the strength to love others — family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, God and even strangers and enemies. Only deny love to things that actually are objects.

Wait, God? Why is God in the middle of this list of people we should love? You could say (as he has) that religious people are happier, and that loving God is part of an uplifting selflessness. But I suspect this is more a political nod. Brooks is making a name as a compassionate conservative, dedicated above all to free markets but making American conservatives nervous by dropping in the importance of “safety-net policies for the indigent” (definition of indigent obviously the question being begged).

His brand of right-wing politics is not practically separable from conservative religious groups and ideologies, so regardless of his beliefs (which I don’t know), he can’t exclude God. For example, the Donors Capital Fund (DCF), which at $19 million aince 1990 is one of the top contributors to AEI, and on whose board Brooks sits, gives millions to a mix of education causes (e.g., charter schools), religious organizations (e.g., the Israeli right wing and God’s World Publications), conservative think tanks (Hudson, Ayn Rand, Heritage), and Republican activists (FreedomWorks). It’s hard to get the God out of that mix, even if you wanted to.

It’s too easy to accuse people like Brooks of hypocrisy, so I won’t belabor this, but I also note that DCF in 2012 gave $125,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, which that year pursued a project the “strategic goal” of which was “to drive a wedge between gays and blacks” in their campaign to deny marriage to gays and lesbians. Isn’t love grand?

Other posts on American Enterprise Institute:

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