Tag Archives: single mothers

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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Poverty is not just for single mothers

CORRECTION: The original version of this post had a major error – the second trend was coded wrong, showing percent married instead of percent single! I’ve correct it, and apologize for the error.

Earlier this month there was a funny segment on Fox and Friends where they took seriously a fake social media campaign, supposedly led by feminists, to end Father’s Day. “More of this nasty feminist rhetoric,” and The Princeton Mom (Susan Patton). “They’re not just interested in ending Father’s Day, they’re interested in ending men.”

Then Tucker Carlson jumped in to ask, “Why is it good for women? I mean, there’s a reason there are more women living in poverty now than at any time in my lifetime, it’s because there are fewer married women. I mean, when you crush men, you hurt women.”

His comment is doubly twisted. First, it supposes that the historical rise of single mothers is the result of feminists crushing men (thanks, Hanna Rosin). The decline in marriage is related to the falling economic fortunes of men, especially relative to women, but I don’t think you can lay much of that at the feet of feminists.

Second, are there really more women in poverty now because of single motherhood? Yes and no. Here are three trends (all based on civilian non-institutionalized women ages 18+, from the Current Population Survey):

1. Poverty is rising among all women (but still hasn’t reached 1990s levels)

Although the proportion of children born to women who aren’t married has increased – doubling in the past three decades – that doesn’t tell the whole poverty story. Because women’s employment opportunities increased during that time (and fertility rates fell), women’s poverty rates are lower now than they were in the 1980s and 1990s peaks.

Zooming in on the period from the low poverty point in 2001, you can see that the recent increase in poverty has affected single and married women, and the proportional increase is actually twice as great for married women (more than a one-third increase).

womenspoverty.xlsx

2. The percentage of poor women who are not married has risen (corrected trend)

Nevertheless, the percentage of poor women who are not married has risen. During the 2000s recession, the percentage of poor women who are married hit an all-time low of 30%. Over the last four decades, as marriage rates have fallen, women’s poverty has become more concentrated among unmarried women. Single women have much higher poverty rates than married women, and the vast majority of poor women are not married. However, in the last 15 years, as single motherhood has become more common, the percentage of poor women who are not married has been basically flat.

fatra-pov2

3. The percentage of poor people who are women is falling

Diane Pearce wrote, “The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work, and Welfare” in 1978, as single motherhood was increasing and women’s wages relative to men’s appeared flat. As the proportion of poor adults that were women approached two-thirds, this shocking term caught on. However, since then — as women’s earnings increased and wages fell for many men — that proportion has fallen to 58%.

womenspoverty.xlsx

These facts are not the whole story of poverty in the U.S. But they should be enough to stop the politically convenient simplification repeated by the Tucker Carlsons of our time. The problem of poverty is not a problem of women’s failure to marry.

Cross-posted on Families As They Really Are

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How to illustrate a .61 relationship with a .93 figure: Chetty and Wilcox edition

Yesterday I wondered about the treatment of race in the blockbuster Chetty et al. paper on economic mobility trends and variation. Today, graphics and representation.

If you read Brad Wilcox’s triumphalist Slate post, “Family Matters” (as if he needed “an important new Harvard study” to write that), you saw this figure:

chetty-in-wilcox

David Leonhardt tweeted that figure as “A reminder, via [Wilcox], of how important marriage is for social mobility.” But what does the figure show? Neither said anything more than what is printed on the figure. Of course, the figure is not the analysis. But it is what a lot of people remember about the analysis.

But the analysis on which it is based uses 741 commuting zones (metropolitan or rural areas defined by commuting patterns). So what are those 20 dots lying so perfectly along that line? In fact, that correlation printed on the graph, -.764, is much weaker than what you see plotted on the graph. The relationship you’re looking at is -.93! (thanks Bill Bielby for pointing that out).

In the paper, which presumably few of the people tweeting about it read, the authors explain that these figures are “binned scatter plots.” They broke the commuting zones into equally-sized groups and plotted the means of the x and y variables. They say they did percentiles, which would be 100 dots, but this one only has 20 dots, so let’s call them vigintiles.

In the process of analysis, this might be a reasonable way to eyeball a relationship and look for nonlinearities. But for presentation it’s wrong wrong wrong.* The dots compress the variation, and the line compresses it more. The dots give the misleading impression that you’re displaying the variance around the line. What, are you trying save ink?

Since the data are available, we can look at this for realz. Here is the relationship with all the points, showing a much messier relationship, the actual -.76 (the range of the Chetty et al. figure, which was compressed by the binning, is shown by the blue box):

chetty scattersThat’s 709 dots — one for each of the commuting zones for which they had sufficient data. With today’s powerful computers and high resolution screens, there is no excuse for reducing this down to 20 dots for display purposes.

But wait, there’s more. What about population differences? In the 2000 Census, these 709 commuting zones ranged in population in the 2000 Census from 5,000 (Southwest Jackson, Utah) to 16,000,000 (Los Angeles). Do you want to count Southwest Jackson as much as Los Angeles in your analysis of the relationship between these variables? Chetty et al. do in their figure. But if you weight them by population size, so each person in the population contributes equally to the relationship, that correlation that was -.76 — which they displayed as -.93 — is reduced to -.61. Yikes.

Here is what the plot looks like if you scale the commuting zones according to population size (more or less, not quite sure how Stata does this):

chetty scatters weighted

Now it’s messier, and the slope is much less steep. And you can see that gargantuan outlier — which turns out to be the New York commuting zone, which has 12 million people and with a lot more upward mobility than you would expect based on its family structure composition.

Finally, while we’re at it, we may as well attend to that nonlinearity that has been apparent since the opening figure. We can increase the variance explained from .38 to .42 by adding a quadratic term, to get this:

chetty scatters weighted quad

I hate to go beyond what the data can really tell. But — what the heck — it does appear that after 33% single-mother families, the effect hits its minimum and turns positive. These single mother figures are pretty old (when Chetty et al.’s sample were kids). Now that the country has surpassed 40% unmarried births, I think it’s safe to say we’re out of the woods. But that’s just speculation.**

*OK, OK: “wrong wrong wrong” is going too far. Absolute rules in data visualization are often wrong wrong wrong. Binning 709 groups down to 20 is extreme. Sometimes you have a zillion points. Sometimes the plot obscures the pattern. Sometimes binning is an inherent part of measurement (we usually measure age in years, for example, not seconds). None of that is an excuse in this case. However, Carter Butts sent along an example that makes the point well:

841101_10201299565666336_1527199648_o

On the other hand, the Chetty et al. case is more similar to the following extreme example:

If you were interested in the relationship between age and earnings for a sample of 1,400 full-time, year-round women, you might start with this, which is a little frustrating:

age-wage1

The linear relationship is hard to see, but it’s about +$500 per year of age. However, the correlation is only .13, and the variance explained by linear-age alone is only 1.7%. But if you plotted the mean wage over ages, the correlation jumps to .68:

age-wage2

That’s a different question. It’s not, “how does age affect earnings,” it’s, “how does age affect mean earnings.” And if you binned the women into 10-year age intervals (25-34, 35-44, 45-54), and plotted the mean wage for each group, the correlation is .86.

age-wage3

Chetty et al. didn’t report the final correlation, but they showed it, even adding the regression line, so that Wilcox could call it the “bivariate relationship.”

**This paragraph was a joke that several people missed, so I’m clarifying. I would never draw a conclusion like that from the scraggly tale of a loose correlation like this.

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Inequality, mobility, single mothers, and race: comment

I have no idea whether inequality increases intergenerational immobility. But I do know that lots of people would like to pin bad social trends on single motherhood, meaning — in their view — the bad decisions of people who already poor. And that has bad implications.

In a blog post by Scott Winship and Donald Schneider at the Manhattan Institute, they argue that the liberal argument that inequality blocks mobility is not well supported. To do that, they show simple bivariate correlations between single motherhood rates and immobility across U.S. labor markets. Their point is that, if you want to use that simple bivariate standard, you can just as well — but better — argue that immobility is caused by single motherhood rather than by income inequality, because the correlation is very strong. For their exercise they use data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, which is freely available here.

In a series of tweets, Winship clarified his point:

point wasn’t to highlight single parenthood—point was to show where low evidentiary standards on left can take you … look, single motherhood may very well be a big problem for mobility. Inequality might too…. but the left has to be held accountable when they make bad arguments skewing policy debates…  I clearly wrote that correlations shouldn’t constitute reason for getting worked up about single moms

I take him at his word on his intentions, but those with well-documented patterns of less scrupulous behavior are not so scrupulous, and so the post was bad. Despite a disclaimer about not reading causation from correlation, they also wrote:

In other words, a [labor market’s] prevalence of single motherhood predicts its relative mobility quite well all by itself. … the relationship between single motherhood and mobility holds up in all of these analyses. … On the basis of these charts, rather than a new Washington Center on Equitable Growth housed at CAP and devoted to discovering the damages that income inequality inflicts, the left should have started a Washington Center on Single Motherhood.

Again, my only dog in the fight is fighting against the easy right-wing causal association of single motherhood with bad outcomes. The Heritage Foundation, Scheider’s employer, is particularly egregious in this, as I’ve occasionally documented (here and here, e.g.)

So here’s a quick debunk on that. A simple glance at the map from the Equal Opportunity Project will tell you that race is involved here, but it didn’t come up in Winship and Schneider’s post:

immobilitymap

So let’s just look at the relationship between immobility, single motherhood and race. (Immobility here is measured by the effect of family income on children’s incomes. Higher scores are bad.)

So first, here is the relationship between population percent Black and immobility for the 100 largest metro areas, with the larger ones shown as bigger dots:

pb-immobThat relationship is quite strong: the higher Black population proportions are strongly associated with immobility. But so is the single motherhood relationship, as Winship and Schneider reported. So, we turn to the obvious tool, a multivariate regression. Here are two models, the first with just single motherhood — in effect, the Winship and Schneider result — and then a model with proportion Black added. Both are weighted by population size.

pb-immob-reg

This shows that the association between single motherhood rates and immobility is reduced by two-thirds, and is no longer significant at conventional levels, when percent Black is added to the model. That is: Percent Black statistically explains the relationship between single motherhood and intergenerational immobility across U.S. labor markets.

This is not a rigorous examination of the cause of intergenerational immobility. It is just debunking one bivariate story that is too easily picked up by the forces of bad.

 

 

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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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Diverging responses to family inequality

I have written up my comment from Penn State Symposium on Family Issues. It was prepared in response to a presentation by Sarah McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen titled, “Diverging Destinies Revisited.” Their paper is a followup to McLanahan’s 2003 Population Association of American presidential address. (I wrote a comment on the symposium itself here.) When they finish the volume it will go behind an expensive paywall, so I put the draft paper here in PDF.

Here is the abstract:

Single parenthood, resulting from nonmarital births and divorce, is increasingly becoming associated with lower levels of education for women. Cross-sectional comparisons show that children of married parents are less likely to suffer material deprivation. To reduce hardships for children, therefore, some analysts advocate policies that would increase marriage. I argue that alternative approaches offer more chance of success: increasing education levels and reducing the penalty for single parenthood. There is ample evidence to support both approaches. Education levels are increasing, and are associated with lower levels of child hardship net of family structure. And comparative research shows the negative economic consequences of single parenthood are ameliorable through state policy. In contrast, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent promoting marriage, and the reform of national welfare policy intended to compel poor mothers to marry, have produced no discernible effects on marriage rates or child wellbeing.

Or, even shorter than the abstract, this figure, which shows the logical alternatives for addressing the issue of family structure and poverty for children.

psufig

 

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Is the rising tide of falling crime driven by fatherlessness?

Kay Hymowitz, who sometimes works out of a PO Box rented by Brad Wilcox, writes in the LA Times (excerpting heavily):

As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that, although both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. …  Boys … “externalized” or “acted out”: They became more impulsive, aggressive and “antisocial.”… Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. … And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems. … If the trends of the last 40 years continue — and there’s little reason to think that they won’t — the percentage of boys growing up with single mothers will keep growing. No one knows how to stem that tide.

Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?

In this graph I show the scales down to zero so you can see the proportional change in each trend: father-not-present boys ages 10-14 and male juvenile violent-crime arrest rates.

fatherless-juvenile-arrests

I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.

If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.

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