Tag Archives: marriage

The blogger will be heard, Michigan trial edition

I’ve written a few posts about the Federal trial over Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban (a post-trial interview, a rant about economist Douglas Allen, and an early report on Mark Regnerus’s testimony). Now we have the first release of transcripts, available here. There may be more to say about them after I’ve read more, but just for the record, here’s the part where they discussed this blog.

regnerus pencil sketch

This is from the cross examination of sociologist Mark Regenerus by Leslie Cooper, an ACLU attorney. After confirming from Regnerus that it is impossible to do the kind of study he says would be necessary to give the evidence he claims to want before deciding whether same-sex parenting is bad for children, she turns to a general discrediting of Regnerus. One piece of that involved reading Paul Amato’s statement, published on this blog here, provoked by my post expressing disapproval over his apparent decision to serve as a peer reviewer for Regnerus’s Social Science Research paper. In this passage, Regnerus squirms and stalls, and his lawyer objects, hoping never to get to the part where Amato criticizes Regnerus’s politicization of his research.

I have corrected a few typos. The Q’s are Cooper and the A’s are Regnerus; The Court is played by U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman (a 1988 Reagan appointee); Kristin Heyse interjects for the defense (Michigan); I play the part of “the blogger”:

Q Now, are you familiar with a sociologist named Paul Amato?

A Yes.

Q He’s a professor of sociology at Penn State?

A Yes.

Q And you consider Paul Amato to be a well-regarded scholar in family structure studies?

A I do.

Q You consider him to be a level and level-headed scholar?

A Generally speaking.

Q And you consider him to be a scholar who’s right down the middle politically neither liberal, nor conservative?

A He had struck me at one point. I have no idea if that is entirely accurate, but he strikes me as a moderate.

Q And, in fact, you asked Paul Amato to be one of the consultants on your study.

A I did.

Q And he agreed?

A He did.

Q So he served as a consultant?

A Yes.

MS. COOPER: I like to mark a document as an exhibit for identification. It’s Exhibit 54.

MS. HEYSE: Your Honor, I would just ask that we be provided a copy. We have not seen it.

THE COURT: I think counsel has a bunch of copies.

MS. HEYSE: If we could have a few minutes to review?

THE COURT: Sure. Show it to the witness so he can review it also.

MS. HEYSE: Your Honor, I would just note for the record that we did agree to exchange exhibits in advance of the trial and this was not provided to us.

THE COURT: Why was it not provided?

MS. COOPER: This is being used for identification to ask questions, and it was an exhibit that was used at the deposition, they have it.

THE COURT: Do you intend to introduce it?



MS. HEYSE: Oh, I’m sorry.

THE COURT: It’s only for purposes of use, but not for –

MS. COOPER: Not to admit.



Q So, Dr. Regnerus, this is a statement Paul Amato wrote about your NFSS Study; is that right?

A The source is a blog. I’m not sure what all of it is verbatim, Paul Amato’s words, and what is –

Q Well, I’ll direct your attention. Thank you for clarifying.

A This is not Paul Amato’s blog.

Q Understood. If you’ll read with me. It says here –

THE COURT: Tell him where you’re reading.

MS. COOPER: I just want to find the right passage.


Q If you look at the second paragraph from the top.

A First page?

Q Yes. Second sentence, “I regret that before writing that post” –

A Who wrote that?

Q I’ll clarify. The first three paragraphs in Italics are statements from somebody who wrote the blog, not attributable to Paul Amato.

MS. HEYSE: I’m going to object, your Honor, to the extent this is hearsay.

THE COURT: I’m not sure where she’s going at. The first three were not written by –

MS. COOPER: I’m trying to direct Professor Regnerus to the statement that this blogger says, “There is a statement sent to me by Paul Amato which I agreed to post” and then he posts the statement below.

A And who is he?

THE COURT: Who is the blogger, is that your question?


MS. COOPER: The blogger’s name is Phil Cohen, I believe. This is something we looked at [in] your deposition.


Q Do you not recall identifying it?

A I do, yeah. I just don’t know — I can’t identify on this who wrote this top part.

Q Okay. But the part I want to flag your attention to is in the second paragraph it says — this is not Paul Amato, this is the blogger, “I regret that before” –

MS. HEYSE: Your Honor, I’m going to object to the extent of reading something into the record –

THE COURT: Sustained. The blogger said something and now what’s your question?

MS. COOPER: I don’t really care what the blogger said, I just wanted to direct Professor Regnerus to the statement from Paul Amato that is posted here.



Q That begins, “Thoughts on the Mark Regnerus 2012 Study by Paul Amato.” Do you see that heading in bold?

A Yes.

Q So that’s the beginning of the statement. So I’d like you to turn to page 3 of this statement.

A Are there’s 12 pages to this? I’m only seeing four.

Q This is the first four. I didn’t print the comments to the blog because — I think, in fact, that may have been something that counsel for defendants did not want to include in the exhibit. But either way I did not consider that.

THE COURT: The exhibit is just to ask him questions.

MS. COOPER: It’s just to feature the statement.


Q So if you can go to page 3 with me.

A Okay. If you would look at the second paragraph from the bottom, okay, beginning with the second sentence, and read along with me, “Many” –

MS. HEYSE: Your Honor, it’s hearsay and she can’t read it into the record.

MS. COOPER: It’s not for the truth. I want to ask him if he agrees with statements made by one of his own consultants about his study.

THE COURT: For that purpose, you may.


Q “Many conservative observers have cited the Regnerus study as if it provided evidence that being raised by gay or lesbian parents is harmful to children. This claim is disingenuous because the study found no such thing. A noteworthy example came from Regnerus himself who signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court citing his study as evidence against same sex marriage. This is curious because on page 766 in his 2012 article, Regnerus stated that his study was not intended to either affirm or undermine the legal right to same sex marriage. And on page 768 of his response to the commentaries in the same issue, he stated that his data should not be used to press any political program. Given these cautious early statements it is exasperating to see Regnerus later cite his own study as evidence against same sex marriage.”

So, first question about this: Is Professor Amato who is a consultant on your study correct to say that it is disingenuous to claim that the NFSS Study provides evidence that being raised by gay or lesbian parents is harmful to children?

A The question hinges around sort of what does it mean to be raised by, right? And I think we mentioned this a little bit yesterday and it says gay or lesbian parents. My mistake and acronyms notwithstanding I talk about parents who have same sex relationship with no assumptions about their orientation. So when he talks about “being raised by” which implies some degree of time I assume and household presence I assume. But then he goes and uses gay or lesbian as an adjective which I don’t think — I mean, I don’t have data on the orientation, it’s harmful to children. I think the jury is out on this, figuratively speaking. What we need is — the absence raises significant questions about children who grow up in families where a parent has a same sex relationship. What it doesn’t answer his question about orientation, and it didn’t come designed to answer political questions. It came designed to address an intellectual question.

Q Okay. So he is correct in your view that — sorry. He is correct that you said the study was not intended to either affirm or undermine the legal rights of same sex marriage?

A That’s what I wrote in the original study, yes.

Thanks to Straight Grandmother for making this available. The full document is here.


Filed under Uncategorized

Millennial, save thyself

When you see a tweet like this, you have to think, “What could go wrong?”


Ironically, the National Review blog post in question, by Brad Wilcox, was called, “What Could Go Wrong? Millennials are underemployed, unhitched, and unchurched at record rates.” In it he riffs off of the new Pew Research Center report, “Millennials in Adulthood.” His thesis is this:

Millennial ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak.

Just a couple of completely wrong things about this. Apart from the marriage issue, about which we’ve long since learned Wilcox does not know what he’s talking, look at what he says about work:

 In fact, full-time employment for young men remains at or near record lows. This matters because full-time work remains the best way to avoid poverty and to chart a path into the middle class for ordinary Americans. Work also affords most Americans an important sense of dignity and meaning — the psychological boost provided by what American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks calls a sense of “earned success.”

After that big setup to a link to his boss at AEI, Wilcox shows this figure, the source for which is not revealed, but it’s presumably drawn from the Current Population Survey (though I didn’t realized CPS already goes three clicks beyond 2013):


Anyway, the scary line downward there is for 20-24 year-olds. How awful that they are so disconnected from the labor force these days, not developing their sense of “earned success.” I attempted to recreate that trend here, using the IPUMS extractor:

20-24-lfThat’s some drop in labor force participation since the peak at 77% in 2001, all the way down to 69% in 2013. So, what are they doing instead? Oh, right:

20-24-lf-educThe percentage of 20-24 year-olds attending school increased from 29% in 1990 to 41% in 2013. Altogether, the percentage in either school or the labor force (and some are doing both) has increased slightly. How bad is that? (I suspect this pattern would hold for the other age groups in Wilcox’s figure as well, but the CPS question on school enrollment was only asked of people under age 25. Note also the CPS excludes incarcerated people, which includes a lot of young people.)

So, unless you think education is bad for ties to “core human institutions,” that’s just wrong.

Happy yet?

After marriage, Wilcox moves to civil society, “measured here by religion” (don’t get me started). Obviously, religion is down. And then his conclusion about work, marriage and religion together:

Why does this matter? Historically, these core institutions have furnished meaning, money, and social support to generation after generation of Americans. Even today, data from the 2006–2012 General Social Survey suggest that, taken together, these institutions remain strongly linked to a sense of happiness among today’s Millennials. For instance, 58 percent of Millennial men who were married, employed full-time, and regular religious attendees reported that they are very happy in life; by contrast, only 25 percent of Millennial men who were unmarried, not working full-time, and religiously disengaged reported that they are very happy in life.

What is this, “taken together”? What if I told you that people who millionaires, love hot dogs, and have blue eyes are much richer than people who are not millionaires, hate hot dogs, and have brown eyes? Would that mean that, “taken together,” these factors “remain strongly linked”?

This is easily tested with the publicly available GSS data. I used Pew’s definition of Mellennial (age 18-33 in 2014, so born in the years 1981-1995) and found 676 men in the pooled sample for 2006-2012. There is a strong relationship with “happiness” here, but it is not with all three of these American-dream elements, it’s just with marriage.

I used ordinary least squares regression to predict being “very happy” according to whether the men report attending religious services twice per month or more, being employed full-time, and being married (logistic regression gives the same pattern but is harder to interpret). Then, for the “strongly linked” concept, I created a dummy variable indicating those men who had the Wilcox trifecta — all three good things (there were all of 34 such men in the sample). Wilcox’s claim is that these elements are “strongly linked,” implying all three is greater than the sum of the three separately.

Here are the results:

Predicting “Very Happy” among Mellennial men: General Social Survey

2006-2012 (OLS; N=676)

Coef P>|t| Coef P>|t| Coef P>|t|
Religious service at 2x+/month .07 .08 .02 .61 .03 .46
Employed full-time .06 .08 .01 .69 .02 .62
Married .29 <.001 .28 <.001 .30 <.001
Wilcox trifecta (all three)  –  – -.07 .48

However you slice it, married men born between 1981 and 1995 are more likely to say they are “very happy” than those who aren’t married. Cheerful bastards. On the other hand, going to church and having a full-time job aren’t significantly associated with very happiness. And the greater-than-the-sum hypothesis fails.

It’s also the case that having a full-time job, being married, and going to church aren’t highly correlated — especially work and church, which aren’t correlated at all (.001). I don’t think you can say these three elements are “strongly linked” to very happiness, or to each other.

Kids these days

But the details don’t matter when the kids-these-days, moral-sky-is-falling story is so firmly dug in. This is his final point:

Perhaps more worrisome, however, is the erosion of trust documented among the Millennial generation in the new Pew report. Only 19 percent of Millennials say that “most people can be trusted” — a response rate that marks them as much less trusting of their fellow citizens than were earlier generations of Americans, as the figure below shows.

But that’s actually not what the figure shows:


The Gen X folks in the Pew survey are ages 34-49, the Millennials are 18-33, or 16 years younger. So in fact the figure shows that Millennials are almost exactly where Gen X was when they were 18-33, in the mid-1990s — about 20% trusting. No (recent) generational change.

So, back to the Charles Murray tweet. Isn’t it shocking that when someone agrees with him in the conclusions, he thinks they’re brilliant in the analysis?


Filed under In the news

Since time immemorial, Regnerus on marriage edition

Objection: Speaking outside his expertise.

Since time immemorial, those in the throes of uncritical thought (and often facing last-minute term-paper deadlines) have illustrated their lack of appreciation for social and historical context by using the phrase “since time immemorial” to describe things that have actually changed a lot.

This phrase usually proves itself wrong, as “immemorial” literally means “not remembered” (the OED says, “ancient beyond memory or record”), which raises the question: How do you know? Of course, some things really have existed since time immemorial, but this is not a useful concept for describing elements of human society. If it’s part of society, it has a history: it has changed, and that change is probably important or you wouldn’t be talking about it in the first paragraph of your term paper.

For example, human sexual reproduction has existed since time immemorial, but who cares? On the other hand, things like “parenting” and “sibling rivalry” may have existed since time immemorial, but what matters now is the how they are conceived and acted upon socially.

Photo by Letta Page, from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Letta Page, from Flickr Creative Commons

Term papers immemorial

If you shop for term papers — which you should never do — you will find “since time immemorial” used a lot, because it’s the kind of weak shortcut to profundity that some students use to puff up their papers at the last minute. Here are some examples from term paper websites (no links provided, sorry!):

  • Music is ubiquitous and has existed since time immemorial.
  • Since time immemorial, the question, “What is a leader, or what makes a leader?” has been asked.
  • Since time immemorial, the people have been able to believe what they wanted especially when it came to religious beliefs
  • Pluralism is a crucial characteristic of the Chinese religion since time immemorial.
  • Since time immemorial, Saudi Arabia has been an essential stake of the Arab world
  • Since time immemorial land belonged to the wealthy magnates who used it in the agricultural purposes and hired peasants to cultivate and work there.

You get the idea: Obviously, none of these things has existed since time immemorial. So if you use one of these papers, save yourself the instructor’s eye roll and delete that phrase.

How much does Regnerus charge for a term paper?

And so it is with “marriage.” Testifying at trial in the Michigan case over the Constitutionality of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Mark Regnerus joined the dying argument that such marriage (let’s call it homogamy) is bad for kids. Because the evidence does not exist, he and others have fallen back on the idea that change might be bad, so the state should not allow new kinds of marriage.

In his testimony as an expert witness (well reported by Steve Friess at Al Jazeera America), Regnerus faced ACLU attorney Leslie Cooper, who extracted the concession that he doesn’t know whether gay marriage is really bad because there isn’t enough science on the question yet.

“So,” Cooper asked, according to Friess, “if a nationally representative, large-scale longitudinal study is never done because it’s too expensive, is it your opinion that same-sex people should never be allowed to marry?” Regnerus had no answer to that, but he went on to argue (whine, really), both that we need more research, and that marriage equality should wait for it.

It is intellectually frustrating to see social science close off the debate on this by claiming it’s settled when we haven’t even collected the ideal kind of data yet. … Let’s get out there and get some more before we make wide-scale changes in an institution that has served us since time immemorial.

I don’t know if you’re allowed to object to an expert making things up, but it seems to me that, by the definition above, a sociologist can’t testify about what has existed since before we knew what existed. Anyway, in addition to this just being a ridiculous statement (who is “us,” anyway?) — which by itself would cost you half a grade in a lot of sociology courses – it’s especially embarrassing coming after the eloquent testimony of an actual expert on marriage history, Nancy Cott (author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation).

Anyway, it’s hard to believe this argument will get past any reasonable judge. And it seems even less likely to impress Supreme Court swing-voter Anthony Kennedy, who wrote in his decision in DOMA last year that marriage denial “humiliates tens of thousands of children” for no compelling reason.

Slipped memory update, March 22: When I wrote this post I forgot that the House Republicans, in their failed defense of DOMA, had also used used “time immemorial” about marriage, which I discussed here:

The link between procreation and marriage itself reflects a unique social difficulty with opposite-sex couples that is not present with same-sex couples — namely, the undeniable and distinct tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended pregnancies. Government from time immemorial has had an interest in having such unintended and unplanned offspring raised in a stable structure that improves their chances of success in life and avoids having them become a burden on society.

I still can’t get over what a ridiculous case for banning same-sex marriage that is.


Filed under In the news, Politics

‘Gay marriage hurts kids,’ zombie edition

Last summer I wrote, “The Supreme Court Kills the ‘Gay Marriage Is Bad for Kids’ Argument.” But now comes this in the New York Times: “Opponents of Same-Sex Marriage Take Bad-for-Children Argument to Court.” So I guess it’s undead, at least long enough to pay a few more expert witness fees.

The NYTimes story covers their approach, which I can’t imagine will get past Anthony Kennedy at the Supreme Court, who has made it clear which direction the harm runs. He wrote in the decision last summer that, under the Defense of Marriage Act,  “same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” which “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”

Maze update

Anyway, today’s story leads us back to the Regnerus affairIn a 2010 email (described here) — one that presumably taught the young Mark Regnerus not to put everything in his university emails, the one that would definitively expose that Brad Wilcox lied about his role in the study — Regnerus wrote to Wilcox:

I would like, at some point, to get more feedback from Luis and Maggie about the ‘boundaries’ around this project, not just costs but also their optimal timelines (for the coalition meeting, the data collection, etc.), and their hopes for what emerges from this project, including the early report we discussed in DC.

I knew that referred to Luis Tellez from the Witherspoon Institute, but I couldn’t be sure that “Maggie” was Maggie Gallagher. But it now appears from expert deposition in the upcoming Michigan trial (from David Allen here, and Joe Price here) that the DC meeting was organized by Heritage Foundation staff, who paid for the participants’ travel expenses. And it included Gallagher, David Blankenhorn, Wilcox and Regnerus. This is not surprising, but it’s important, because it puts those experts, who went on to produce research for the cause, in a meeting organized for the purpose of developing the legal case against gay marriage. This could be relevant to their status as expert witnesses, but it’s also relevant to the politics-of-science aspect of this whole thing.

So we can update the Regnerus affair maze, adding Gallagher and Heritage (now I’m out of spots):


My opinion

In case it’s not obvious, I would like to express this opinion: honest social scientists do not combine these activities: (1) secret meetings with partisan activist groups to raise money and set political agendas for their research; and, (2) omitting mention of those associations later. If Regnerus, Wilcox, Allen, and Price, had included acknowledgements in their publications that described these associations, then they would be just like anyone else who does research on subjects on which they have expressed opinions publicly: potentially legitimate but subject to closer scrutiny (which should include editors not including people from the same group as reviewers). Failure to disclose this in the publication process is dishonesty.

Funny aside: just the other day I used the NYTimes‘ habit of quoting Andrew Cherlin on family trends as an example of the paper’s narrow reach into the deep bench of publicly engaged sociologists. And here he is again, quoted making the well-known observation that, “The overwhelming evidence so far is that there’s not much difference between children raised by heterosexual or same-sex parents.” What’s disappointing is that he serves as the story’s voice above the fray — the expert who is “not involved in the case” — when they have the American Sociological Association’s report making the same argument with what should be more heft toward the end of the story.

Tell it like it’s not addendum

This issue of the political agenda behind the research has been raised as a possible reason to disqualify the anti-equality expert witnesses. To that end, apparently, the Brigham Young economist Joseph Price took a grant from the Witherspoon Institute off his CV — but not before the plaintiff’s counsel saw it, leading to this funny exchange during his deposition (at tiny-page 15 here; pointed out to me by Neal Caren):

price-lieThis justification, that the grant “doesn’t really fit the category of a grant in the same way others do,” as a reason to completely take it off your CV, is somewhere between highly unusual and just plain ludicrous.



Filed under Uncategorized

What’s in a ratio? Teen birth and marriage edition

Even in our post-apocalypse world, births and marriages are still related, somehow.

Some teenage women get married, and some have babies. Are they the same women? First the relationship between the two across states, then a puzzle.

In the years 2008-2012 combined, 2.5 percent of women ages 15-19 per year had a baby, and 1 percent got married. That is, they were reported in the American Community Survey (IPUMS) to have given birth, or gotten married, in the 12 months before they were surveyed. Here’s the relationship between those two rates across states:

teenbirthmarriage1The teen birth rate  ranges from a low of 1.2 percent in New Hampshire to 4.4 percent in New Mexico. The teen marriage rate ranges from .13 percent in Vermont to 2.3 percent in Idaho.

But how much of these weddings are “shotgun weddings” — those where the marriage takes place after the pregnancy begins? And how many of these births are “gungo-ho marriages” — those where the pregnancy follows immediately after the marriage? (OK, I made that term up.) The ACS, which is wonderful for having these questions, is somewhat maddening in not nailing down the timing more precisely. “In the past 12 months” is all you get.

Here is the relationship between two ratios. The x-axis is percentage of teens who got married who also had a birth (birth/marriage). On the y-axis is the percent of teens who had a birth who also got married (marriage/birth).

teenbirthmarriageIf you can figure out how to interpret these numbers, and the difference between them within states, please post your answer in the comments.





Filed under Me @ work

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:


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.


Filed under In the news

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”?


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.


Filed under Uncategorized

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.


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:


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


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.


Filed under Research reports

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.


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?


Filed under In the news, Research reports

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 or 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.


Filed under In the news, Politics