Tag Archives: marriage

Especially if they’re Black: A shortage of men for poor women to marry

One thing a lot of liberals and conservatives can agree on: not talking about race.

[If you don't have time for the text, just skip to the figure.]

Liberals are happy when conservatives talk about inequality, which they’re doing a lot more these days. And when they debate marriage as a way to “cure” poverty, neither talks about race. For example, Annie Lowrey writes in the the NYT Magazine:

With Democrats and Republicans pitted against one another in a vicious election-year battle over how to alleviate poverty, marriage is the policy solution du jour.

First, Lowrie makes the now universal mistake in interpreting the famous Chetty et al. result:

In a new study, the economist Raj Chetty and his co-authors found that, in terms of income mobility, nothing matters more for a low-income child than the family structures she sees in her community — not neighborhood segregation, school quality or a host of other factors.

Traditionally in America, when you say “a host of other factors,” that includes race. But the Chetty et al. paper is nearly unique in its avoidance of race, partly because race isn’t specified in tax records. So “nothing matters more” is at best untested, and at worst completely wrong, since race isn’t in the model. (My argument on this is here).

To those of us old enough to remember, or have read stuff from, the 1980s, not including race in this conversation is bizarre. Of course, it is not crazy to talk about poverty as an issue. In that article, Kristi Williams is right when she says:

It isn’t that having a lasting and successful marriage is a cure for living in poverty. Living in poverty is a barrier to having a lasting and successful marriage.

But the article doesn’t address the hard demographic reality that the things that make marriage less available or attractive to poor women — Lowrey lists “globalization, the decline of labor unions, technological change and other tidal economic forces” — have done it much more for Black women, even among the poor. In addition to even worse job prospects, for Black men you need to add incarceration, mortality, and intermarriage rates much higher for men than for women.

Here’s a simple way to see this. Adapting the old formula from William Julius Wilson, I counted up the number of employed, non-married men per non-married woman (employed or not) in the age range 25-34, separately for Blacks and Whites, and by education, for the 50 biggest metropolitan areas (one not shown because of data shortage, one outlier excluded). With intermarriage rates so low for Black women, and the tendency not to marry men without jobs, this is a reasonable approximation of the marriage market for Black women, though it understates the number of men available to White women.

This is the result:

blog-mmpi

Dots in the green areas show relative surpluses of men. Dots under the red line show better markets for White women than for Black women. It takes a minute to figure out. If your jaw dropped, you got it. With or without college degrees Black women face a shortage of “mariageable” men in every single market except five (Portland OR, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Providence, which was the outlier not shown). For college graduates Black women are under 75 men per 100 women in all but two markets, non-graduates are under 75 in 40 out of 48.

White women’s market is better than Black women’s in all but six (those five plus Sacramento). In most cases White women graduates have a surplus of men from which to choose.

Poverty is one thing. Race is another. They overlap, but on some questions they can’t be combined. Marriage is one of those issues. So, when you talk about the shortage of men to marry, I recommend remembering race.

Note: After I made this graph, Joanna Peppin and I decided to write a paper together on this. That is still in the pipeline, and I was going to save this for when it’s ready. But there will be plenty more.

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Flip that effect: gender gap, returns to education, marriage premium

How we describe the directionality of an effect affects how we think about it. Andrew Gelman complains that the recent paper by Dalton Conley and Emily Rauscher does this. It’s called, “The Effect of Daughters on Partisanship and Social Attitudes Toward Women.” And the news headlines were things like, “Does Having Daughters Make You More Republican?” Ross Douthat called it “The Daughter Theory.”

But of course the finding could just as well be described as the effect of sons on making people more liberal.

In this case it’s a great example of boys being the norm and girls being difference. But there are plenty of examples of when we describe an effect as if its opposite doesn’t exist. Here are three:

The marriage premium. This usually refers to married men earning more than single men. But it is just as much a penalty for being single as it is a reward for being married. In my own work on this I described three possible mechanisms: positive selection into marriage (higher earners marry), productivity-enhancing effects of marriage (wives make men better workers), and discrimination (bosses prefer married men). But all of these could have been expressed in the reverse direction. Lots of “marriage is good” arguments should be turned around to ask, “How could we punish single people less”?

single_alone

The gender gap. President Obama has frequently implied that reducing the gender gap in pay will be good for “middle class families.” Under “Protecting the Middle Class News,” the White House writes that the gender gap “means less for families’ everyday needs, less for investments in our children’s futures, and, when added up over a lifetime of work, substantially less for retirement.” Of course, it also means more for families with employed men. I hate to be a buzzkill on this, but there is no reason to think that reducing gender discrimination just means paying women more. How do we know women are underpaid, instead of men being overpaid?

Returns to education. This one is tricky, because there is a return on investment from education, so it’s reasonable to talk about the effect in that direction: you spend money on education, you get a benefit. But the society that rewards education also penalizes lack of education relatively speaking (unless everyone is equally educated). Nothing against educated people, but to reduce inequality it would be good to reduce the returns to education. For example, raising the minimum wage, or providing government jobs to low-skilled workers, would reduce returns to education (if that is operationalized as the difference between college and non-college wages.

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Marriage promotion: That’s some fine print

In a (paywalled) article in the journal Family Relations, Alan Hawkins, Paul Amato, and Andrea Kinghorn, attempt to show that $600 million in marriage promotion money (taken from the welfare program!) has had beneficial effects at the population level. A couple quick comments on the article (see also previous posts on marriage promotion).

After a literature review that is a model of selective and skewed reading of previous research (worth reading just for that), they use state marriage promotion funding levels* in a year- and state-fixed effects model to predict the percentage of the population that is married, divorced, children living with two parents, one parent, nonmarital births, poverty and near-poverty, each in separate models with no control variables, for the years 2000-2010 using the American Community Survey.

To find beneficial effects — no easy task, apparently — they first arbitrarily divided the years into two periods. Here is the rationale for that:

We hypothesized that any HMI [Healthy Marriage Initiative] effects were weaker (or nonexistent) early in the decade (when funding levels were uniformly low) and stronger in the second half of the decade (when funding levels were at their peak).

This doesn’t make sense to me. If funding levels were low and there was no effect in the early period, and then funding levels rose and effects emerged in the later period, then the model for all years should show that funding had an effect. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this passes the smell test.

Then they report their beneficial effects, which are significant if you allow them p<.10 as a cutoff, which is kosher under house rules because they had directional hypotheses.

However, then they admit their effects are only significant because they included Washington, DC. That city had per capita funding levels about 9-times the mean (“about $22″ versus “about $2.50″), and had an improving family well-being profile during the period (how much of an outlier DC is on the dependent variables they didn’t discuss, and I don’t have time to show it now, but I reckon it’s pretty extreme, too). To deal with this extreme outlier, they first cut the independent variable in half for DC, bringing it down to about 4.4-times the mean and a third higher then the next most-extreme state, Oklahoma (itself pretty extreme). That change alone cut the number of significant effects down from six to three.

coupdegrace

Then, in the tragic coup de grâce of their own paper, they remove DC from the analysis, and nothing is left. They don’t quite see it that way, however:

But with the District of Columbia excluded from the data (right panel of Table 3), all of the results were reduced to nonsignificance. Once again, most of the regression coefficients in this final analysis were comparable to those in Table 2 (right panel) in direction and magnitude, but they were rendered nonsignificant by a further increase in the size of the standard errors.

Really. What is “comparable in direction and magnitude” mean, exactly? I give you (for free!) the two tables. First, the full model:

tab2

Then, the models with DC rescaled or removed (they’re talking about the comparison between the right-hand panel in both tables):

tab3

Some of the coefficients actually grew in the direction they want with DC gone. But two moved drastically away from the direction of their preferred outcome: the two-parent coefficient is 44% smaller, the poor/near-poor coefficient fell 78%.

Some outlier! As they helpfully explain, “The lack of significance can be explained by the larger standard errors.” In the first adjustment, rescaling DC, all the standard errors at least doubled. And all of the standard errors are at least three-times larger with DC gone. I’m not a medical doctor, but I think it’s fair to say that when removing one case triples your standard errors, your regression model is not feeling well.

One other comment on DC. Any outlier that extreme is a serious problem for regression analysis, obviously. But there is a substantive issue here as well. They feebly attempt to turn the DC results in their favor, by talking about is unique conditions. But what they don’t do is consider the implications of DC’s unique change over this time for their analysis. And that’s what matters in a year- and state-fixed effects model. How did DC change independently of marriage promotion funds? Most importantly, 8% of the population during 2006-2010 was new to town each year. That’s four-times the national average of in-migration in that period. This churning is of course a problem for their analysis, which is trying to measure cumulative effects of program spending in that place — hard to do when so many people moved there after the spending occurred. But it’s also not random churning: the DC population went from 57% Black to 52% Black in just five years. DC is changing, and it’s not because of marriage promotion programs.

Finally, their own attempt at a self-serving conclusion is the most damning:

Despite the limitations, the current study is the most extensive and rigorous investigation to date of the implications of government-supported HMIs for family change at the population level.

Ouch. Oh well. Anyway, please keep giving the programs money, and us money for studying them**:

In sum, the evidence from a variety of studies with different approaches targeting different populations suggests a potential for positive demographic change resulting from funding of [Marriage and Relationship Education] programs, but considerable uncertainty still remains. Given this uncertainty, more research is needed to determine whether these programs are accomplishing their goals and worthy of continued support.

*The link to their data source is broken. They say they got other data by calling around.

**The lead author, Alan Hawkins, has received about $120,000 in funding from various marriage promotion sources.

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Brad Wilcox tries to save saving marriage for the marriage movement

Bradford Wilcox and the right-wing family policy community have found a way to make millions of dollars, taking from the welfare budget, to do battle on behalf of the institution of marriage. The premise of their boondoggle is twofold: that increasing the number of marriages will reduce poverty, and that the federal government can accomplish that if it just spends enough of poor single parents’ former money. They’ve gotten the project written into the welfare law. And they have the over-assetted conservative foundations convinced that this is a useful waste of their millions. So they are understandably defensive when social scientists point out that it’s a scam.

 In this guest post, Ohio State University sociologist Kristi Williams responds to Wilcox’s latest commentary.

hands-huckster-cross

By Kristi Williams

In a recent article for the American Enterprise Institute and an op-ed in the Deseret News, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project critiques my recent briefing report for the Council on Contemporary Families. My report, “Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty” discusses the most rigorous experimental evidence available about the effectiveness of federally-funded relationship skills training programs to promote marriage among unmarried parents. The conclusion: They have failed spectacularly.

Wilcox points to one of the programs in Oklahoma as a success. He writes, “Indeed, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative has succeeded in helping poor, unmarried couples with children enjoy more stable relationships.” Really? After 36 months, participation in the Oklahoma program failed to improve: (a) couples’ relationship quality or the probability of being married (b) the quality of the co-parenting relationship, (c) father involvement and parenting behavior or, most importantly, (c) child poverty and socioemotional development. From the “Building Strong Families” program report:

mathematica null effects

More concerning is the fact that across the 8 program sites included in the study, participation was associated with modest negative effects on father involvement, father financial support of children, and the likelihood that couple would be living together or romantically involved (although they were no more likely to be married). Although children whose parents were in the control group had slightly higher average scores (1.41) on an index of behavior problems and socioemotional development than children of participating parents (1.38), these benefits were only seen in the 4 sites that included home visits and parenting training. Therefore, the report concludes that the modest effect on behavior problems “is more likely due to the home visiting services offered in these 4 BSF sites than it is to the relationship skills education services that were offered in all BSF sites.”

mathematica negative effects

Why does Wilcox call the Oklahoma program a success? There is only one thing he can possibly be talking about: At the 3-year follow up, slightly more children whose parents participated had lived with both parents since birth (49% compared to 41% in the control group).  But what did this get the children? Not lower poverty, not fewer behavior problems and not more father involvement.  This underscores the point of my briefing report: Focusing on keeping low income single parents together at all costs is unlikely to solve the biggest problems facing single mothers and their children.

The only explanation for Wilcox pointing to Oklahoma as a success is that what he really cares about is keeping couples together and promoting marriage at all costs—regardless of whether doing so reduces poverty and helps children and single mothers live better lives.  It’s one thing if you want to preach publicly about the value of marriage from an ideological or religious perspective. But when you claim that you are doing so out of a desire to reduce poverty and you distort the research evidence in order to support your argument, it’s time to omit the Ph.D. from your byline.

The other central argument in Wilcox’s piece is that pointing to the failure of marriage promotion policies is a straw man because no one believes that marriage is a panacea for the problems facing single mothers and their children. But the public dialogue, much of it framed by Wilcox himself, suggests otherwise. One needs only about 5 seconds and a search engine to find Wilcox telling unmarried parents to “put a ring on it” in the New York Times and in public lectures. More troubling, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio recently said, “The truth is that the greatest tool to lift people, to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.” We could quibble about the meaning of the word, “panacea,” but Wilcox is just wrong when he implies that no one thinks marriage is a central answer to poverty among single mothers. Incidentally, Rubio’s conclusion relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of causality, as described here. Maybe we should forgive Senator Rubio for misunderstanding the data because he is not a trained social scientist. But what is Brad Wilcox’s excuse?

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That marriage-reduces-poverty-82-percent statistic

With PolitiFact addendum at the end.

If you’ve heard about Marco Rubio saying we need more marriage to reduce poverty, you might wonder where his factoid came from.

Rubio said:

The greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.

Rubio, Rector

Rubio, Rector

That insight came from this piece by a Heritage Foundation guy, Robert Rector, who is the cartoon-villain embodiment of partisan hackery (see this previous post for some details). Rector wrote:

According to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2009 was 37.1 percent. The rate for married couples with children was 6.8 percent. Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.

That’s it! (37.1 – 6.8) / 37.1 = .82, so marriage reduces poverty 82%. You don’t get to be the “intellectual godfather of welfare reform” without knowing a thing of two about statistics.

By the same logic, he should have said, “The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year” — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.

Discussing why this is or isn’t wrong could be a nice methods class exercise.

PolitiFact addendum

PolitiFact evaluated the Rubio statement, and aside from a few insignificant quibbles determined it was true, so they gave it a rating of “Mostly True.” They wrote, in explanation:

We should note that some critics have taken issue with the implications of the statistic Rubio cited. Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, wrote on his blog, “By the same logic, (Rubio) should have said, ‘The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year’ — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.”

Meanwhile, the liberal group Think Progress pointed to a blog post from a few days earlier by the Council on Contemporary Families, a group of academics that study family policy, that said a “nationally representative study of more than 7,000 women found that approximately 64 percent of the single mothers who married were divorced by the time they reached age 35-44. More importantly, single mothers who marry and later divorce are worse off economically than single mothers who never marry.”

These may be valid points. However, in his comments, Rubio did not suggest that government pursue any specific government policies to directly promote marriage. He also said that being a two-parent family “decreases the probability of child poverty,” which sounds to us like a mathematical analysis of the existing data, rather than a suggestion that changing policies to encourage marriage will actually reduce poverty that already exists.

For this reason, we are analyzing the mathematics that underlie his comment question, not the conclusions that can, or can’t, be drawn from the statistic.

It’s not about policy or math, though: the error is about causality. If we made a law that only rich people could get married, the Census data would give you a similar result. And by this reasoning PolitiFact would say it’s OK to claim marriage “decreases the probability of child poverty,” because the math is right. That’s not right.

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This is what Anthony Kennedy was talking about

From USA Today Today:

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced Wednesday that the state will not recognize the 1,000-plus same-sex marriages performed in the state since Dec. 20, when a U.S. district judge ruled that the state’s ban on gay marriage violated gay and lesbian couples’ constitutional rights. ‘The original laws governing marriage in Utah return to effect pending final resolution by the courts,’ the governor’s office said in a memo issued to his cabinet.

herbert-kennedy

Gov. Herbert, Justice Kennedy

I’m sure Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the possible swing vote on the case-to-come concerning the constitutionality of homogamous marriage, is above an emotional reaction to this kind of inhumanity. But it does seem to fall under the area of his concern in last summer’s Defense of Marriage Act decision. This is from my post that day:

When it overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the Supreme Court didn’t say gay and lesbian couples have a right to marry. But the decision established that taking away the benefits of such marriages–if they are granted by states–does unjustified harm to those couples. Under DOMA, wrote Kennedy, “same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” which he went on to list in detail–from healthcare and bankruptcy protection to the right to be buried in veterans’ cemeteries.

One of the most important aspects of the decision is what it says about the children of same-sex couples. The defenders of DOMA tried to argue that same-sex marriage is bad for children. But the majority accepted Justice Kennedy’s argument (which he raised during oral arguments) that denying marriage hurts the children of these couples. DOMA, wrote Kennedy, “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”

As I wrote the other day, the government of Utah and its marriage prohibition-promotion allies argue that their denial will lead to more children raised in “opposite-sex” marriage. If it doesn’t, and soon, they may be looking at a net loss of marriages as a result of their pro-marriage policy.

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The War on Poverty at 50: Swimming against the tide

I have written a brief report for the Council on Contemporary Families, released today, for the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty declaration by Lyndon Johnson: Was the War on Poverty a Failure? Or Are Anti-Poverty Efforts Swimming Simply Against a Stronger Tide?

The figures include this one, showing changes in earnings by gender and education over the past two decades:

fig5-earnings

In between figures and statistics, key points:

  • The suite of social welfare programs introduced or expanded in that era moved millions of people out of poverty and improved the lives of millions more who remained income-poor.
  • In recent years, however, poverty has been rising once again.
  • Focusing on children, our most vulnerable citizens, highlights both the strengths and the limits of our current anti-poverty programs.
  • The high rates of child poverty in America highlight a basic feature about the U.S. system, and its principal vulnerability: ours remains predominantly a market-based system of care.
  • And the multiplication of low-wage jobs that has come with widening inequality is a formidable obstacle to reducing poverty today.
  • Despite frequent claims to the contrary, that government can play a key role in reducing poverty.

The report is paired with an excellent piece by Kristi Williams: Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty? Her bullet points are:

  • The rapid rise in nonmarital fertility is arguably the most significant demographic trend of the past two decades.
  • How can we improve the lives of the growing numbers of unmarried mothers and their children? So far, a dominant approach has been to encourage their mothers to marry.
  • The flaw in this argument is the assumption that all marriages are equally beneficial.
  • Our recent research adds to the growing body of evidence that promoting marriage is not the answer to the problems facing single mothers and their children.
  • A more promising approach is to focus on reducing unintended or mistimed births.
  • If the goal of marriage promotion efforts was truly to lower poverty rates and improve the well-being of unmarried parents and their children, then it is time to take a different approach toward this goal.

Kudos and thanks to the Council on Contemporary Families (of which I’m a board member) for putting this together, especially Stephanie Coontz and Virginia Rutter, who did the work of coordinating, editing, and distributing the reports.

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State of Utah falsely claims same-sex marriage ban makes married, man-woman parenting more likely

This hasn’t been peer-reviewed, but it’s pretty simple, and I will give the results, data, and code to anyone who wants it. Also, ask me about my low-low expert witness rates ($0 per hour + expenses for federal same-sex marriage cases). If you know the Utah lawyers and they’re looking for this kind of thing, pass it on!

The State of Utah’s “Application to Stay Judgment Pending Appeal,” to stop same-sex marriage from continuing while they appeal their most recent loss, has nothing new to offer, legally. And the social science claims they make are by now a familiar patter of discredited blather, featuring the writing of Regnerus, Wilcox, Blankenhorn, and Allen (follow the links for debunking).

But I either never noticed or never thought about one of their stranger claims, which I felt compelled to debunk. They wrote (excerpting):

A final reason to believe there is a strong likelihood this Court will ultimately invalidate the district court’s injunction is the large and growing body of social science research contradicting the central premise of the district court’s due process and equal protection holdings: i.e., its conclusion (Decision at 2) that there is “no rational reason”—much less any compelling reason—for restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples. That research … confirms … (b) that limiting the definition of marriage to man-woman unions, though it cannot guarantee that outcome, substantially increases the likelihood that children will be raised in such an arrangement. (p. 14)

And then again:

[B]y holding up and encouraging man-woman unions as the preferred arrangement in which to raise children, the State can increase the likelihood that any given child will in fact be raised in such an arrangement. … [T]he district court ignored this fundamental reality. … [p. 18] … By contrast, a State that allows same-gender marriage necessarily loses much of its ability to encourage gender complementarity as the preferred parenting arrangement. And it thereby substantially increases the likelihood that any given child will be raised without the everyday influence of his or her biological mother and father—indeed, without the everyday influence of a father or a mother at all. (p. 17)

Wait a minute. Are they claiming that banning same-sex marriage actually results in more children being raised by married, man-woman couples? Unless you make heterogamous marriage and childbearing compulsory, this doesn’t seem like a sure bet. In fact, now that we have so many people living under the same-sex marriage regime, we can start to investigate this.

Does banning gay marriage work to put kids under heterogamously-married roofs?

Seven states plus the District of Columbia permitted legal same-sex marriage by 2012: Washington, New York, New Hampshire, D.C., Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, which led the way in 2004. And as of very recently we have the 2012 American Community Survey, with ample sample size to assess family structure for every state in every year since 2004.

This analysis is very simple and not a causal analysis of family structure. I am simply testing the assertion by the State of Utah that banning gay marriage “can increase the likelihood that any given child will in fact be raised in such an arrangement.” I do this in a very simple way, and then a pretty simple way.

First, just the raw trends. This shows very simply that children are more likely to live with married parents in states that permit same-sex marriage (red lines) than in states that don’t (blue lines):

ssm-married-kidsI did this both for age 0, to capture marital status at birth, and for all children ages 0-14, to get closer to the concept of “raised.” Here is a table showing the numbers, with the differences calculated, showing exactly how much more likely children are to live with married parents if their states permit same-sex marriage:

ssm-married-kids-table

Whatever the reason, then, children in states that permit same-sex marriage have been 2% – 10% more likely to live with married parents over the last decade. (The same-sex couples themselves do not contribute to this pattern, because the public-use ACS files do not yet count them as married.)

Two potential problems with that as the analysis. First, maybe those states were just more pro-marriage places in the first place (the obvious inference to draw from the fact that they permit same-sex marriage). And second, the declining tendency of children to live with married parents nation-wide might be driving this, as more states join the same-sex marriage pool over time.

To fix these problems, I conducted a simple fixed-effects logistic regression, entering dummy variables for every state and every year into a model predicting whether children live with married parents or not. The only other variable indicates whether the child lives in a state that permits same-sex marriage. By holding constant each state’s average rate, and the national trend over time, the model isolates the statistical association with same-sex marriage legal status. This asks, in essence, whether states that change from not-legal same-sex marriage to legal same-sex marriage have lower or higher odds of their children living with married parents after the change.

Here are the results:

ssm-married-kids-logit

The odds ratios for the same-sex marriage variable are above 1.0, indicating the children in same-sex marriage states are more likely to live with married parents. The effect is not statistically significant from zero at conventional levels for infants, but it is for all children ages 0-14. Again, for whatever reason — it’s not important for this — children are more likely to live with married parents if they live in states where same-sex marriage is legal. All that matters is that the State of Utah’s claim is refuted.

Summarizing all the experience we have data for so far — 34 state-years of data — there is no evidence that allowing same-sex marriage reduces the likelihood that children will be born to or live with married, man-woman parents. If that’s your goal, this policy doesn’t seem to work. (I don’t share that goal, and I especially don’t think it’s relevant to determining legal access to marriage, but they brought it up.)

I’m not the first one to think of this, of course. An earlier analysis in PLoS One found no evidence that same-sex marriage affects the rate of different-sex marriage. That analysis was of marriage, and its most recent data were from 2009. I haven’t seen anyone else do this for children’s living arrangements, and the 2012 only recently became available. If Gary Gates or someone else has done this, please let me know.

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Blame the poor, “We tried generosity and it just doesn’t work” edition

With all the money we have given them, why are the poor still poor?

One of the meanest right-wing statistical memes about poverty has been popping up a lot this fall. I saw it most recently in this commentary by Christine Kim, who wrote:

Since the mid-1960s, government has spent more than $19.8 trillion (in 2011 dollars) in total on means-tested welfare programs. With 80 such federal programs, targeted government spending for low-income families – including on health, education, housing, and income supports – totaled nearly $930 billion in fiscal 2011 alone. If converted to cash, this sum would be four times what is needed to lift every poor family out of poverty. About half of this annual means-tested spending goes to families with children. If divided among the 14 million poorest families with children, each family would receive about $33,000. Why, then, have poverty rates remained so high for so long? Clearly, the solution to alleviating poverty is not more of the same.

Brookings’ Ron Haskins used the same numbers, rearranged slightly, to write this in November:

We already spend more than enough money on means-tested programs for poor and low-income people to bring them all out of poverty. There were about 46.5 million people in poverty in 2012, a year in which spending on means-tested programs was around $1 trillion. If that money were divided up among the poor, we could spend about $22,000 per person. For a single mother and two children, that would be over $65,000. The poverty level in 2013 for a mother and two children is less than $20,000. So this strategy would work, but giving so much money to young, able-bodied adults would not be tolerated by the public.

This way of manipulating welfare state spending seems to have originated from Robert Rector at Heritage, who offered it in Congressional testimony in 2012.

This meme is — and I am choosing my words carefully — stupid and evil.

It’s stupid because it ignores how poverty is calculated and how “means-tested” money is spent. If you took away Medicaid and housing support alone, the poverty line for a single mother with two children would have to be a lot higher. For example, according to Rector’s original figures (shared here), half of that means-tested money is spent on medical care, mostly Medicaid. So, Haskins, if you took away Medicaid (and Obamacare subsidies), how much would a single mother with two children need to survive? Health insurance alone would cost her more than $10,000.

So is $33,000 per family such a ridiculously generous amount to live on that it would easily lift people out of poverty? Not without the benefits poor people get. Or if they get sick. In round numbers 10 years old, 5% of the population spends half the money on medical care. Using the distribution reported in that paper, $10,000 per family on medical care is not much, if it’s distributed more or less like this:

spendingperfamily

Further, all those non-poor families living on $33,000 in employment income are getting benefits, too, like tax-subsidized employer-provided healthcare, mortgage interest deductions, unemployment insurance, and retirement savings. If you took all that away and gave these non-poor families $33,000 to live on, they wouldn’t be non-poor for long. So the argument is stupid.

It’s also evil, because it says, “We’ve thrown so much money at poor people and it just doesn’t work, so it’s time for them to step up and contribute a little themselves.” The main thing Kim wants them to do is get married. She even says, “If single mothers simply were to wed the father of their child, their likelihood of living in poverty would fall by two-thirds,” and adds that, “contrary to myth the fathers are quite ‘marriageable.’”

The calculations for this are not shown, which is probably just as well. But the idea that the “benefits” of marriage — that is, the observed association between marriage and non-poverty — would accrue to single mothers if they “simply” married their partners is bonkers. There is a marriage queue (imperfect of course) that arranges people from most to least likely to marry, and on average the richer, healthier, better-at-relationships people are at the front, more likely to marry and produce the observed “benefits” of marriage. “Marriageable” isn’t a dichotomous condition, but it’s obvious that at any one time the currently non-married are not the same as the currently married.

But back to evil. The idea that we’ve spent so much on poverty that it proves spending doesn’t solve poverty is like saying, “we’ve spent $13 trillion on the military in just the last quarter century, and we don’t have complete world domination yet, so obviously war is not the answer.”

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Oh, wait, I do agree with that.

But we don’t spend money on the military and fight wars to fix the world. We do it to fatten defense contractors, provide jobs, prop up unpopular allies, and defend the country from the occasional threat. The defense industry doesn’t have to defend the claim that the spending is a one-time thing to cure a problem.

Giving poor people money — or in-kind benefits — to help them survive is not a solution to poverty, it’s a treatment for poverty. If we had more decency we’d do more of it.

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To Prevent Poverty, Reduce the Penalty for Single-Motherhood

I wrote an essay for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. It originally appeared on their site, here, and I reproduce it below with their permission. 

The increase in unmarried parenthood in the U.S. remains a genuine concern for children’s well-being and for intergenerational mobility. Unmarried parents in the U.S. are much more likely to be poor than their married counterparts. Single parents juggling many competing priorities work more, earn less, and have less time or fewer resources to devote to advancing their own education. But does this ongoing increase in unmarried parenthood consign the country to continuously increasing inequality? Not necessarily.

The problem of poor children in single-parent families is a problem of poverty much more than it is one of family structure. A generation of research shows that the primary source of trouble in these families is low income. Too often these families lack the material resources necessary to provide a secure and stable environment for their children. Additional challenges, such as low parental involvement or supervision, largely result from time poverty—another consequence of low income for the parents in poor families.

Still, there is no denying that single-parent families have high poverty rates. Wouldn’t policies aimed at altering the long-term trend in family structure be a sure-fire way to reduce poverty?

Under this assumption, the federal government – working with some zealous states – has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over nearly a decade attempting to promote marriage among the poor. So sure were the proponents of this policy that it would solve the problem that they paid for it with money from the federal welfare program. The result was no measureable increase in marriage rates – or in, more importantly, well-being – among the targeted groups. Further, the 1996 welfare reform, which shortened welfare eligibility periods and increased other program requirements, was specifically intended to discourage single parenthood and encourage marriage. Although it increased employment among single mothers with limited education, it did nothing to change the direction of the family structure trend.

This experience in failed policies and decades of cultural exhortation and shaming intended to prevent single parenting, combined with evidence that poverty itself is harmful to the future well-being of children, should be enough to show that reducing poverty, rather than changing family structure, is the more rational approach to improving children’s lives.

The persistent poverty gap between single-parent and married-parent families illustrates just how pervasive the problem of poverty is. Of all the challenges single-parent families face, poverty need not be one of them. A recent paper in the journal Demography, by David Brady and Rebekah Burroway, analyzed the relative poverty of single mothers versus the total population, after accounting for taxes and government transfers, in 18 countries. Not only does the U.S. have the highest poverty rate for single mothers among these countries – 41 percent – but we also have a very large difference in poverty rates between single-mother families and the population overall (see figure below). In countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and even Italy, single mothers are hardly more likely to be poor than everyone else. In the U.S. the gap is 24 percentage points, a huge penalty for single motherhood.

Based on their analysis, Brady and Burroway argue that universal anti-poverty programs, rather than those targeted directly at single mothers, appear to hold the most promise. In the context of the American political climate, that provides an important insight. As economic inequality has risen on our political and policy radar, the social stigma for single mothers remains strong. Policy directed toward supporting (seen by opponents as “rewarding”) single-mother families seems unlikely to gain favor among today’s political leaders. On the other hand, universalist policies such as living-wage laws, publicly supported universal preschool education, and universal health care, may fare better.

Regardless, an approach that favors reducing poverty broadly – with the side-effect of trimming the single-mother penalty – likely would be far more effective in improving child well-being than efforts to counsel or coerce low-income people into marriage.

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