Against Trump’s family separation policy

fearhatredracism

The policy of separating parents from their children when they enter the country without permission has generated a spike of outrage and shock that’s actually noticeable over the background level of outrage and shock.

At the Council on Contemporary Families we don’t take formal policy positions or make partisan appeals, but the board (on which I sit) decided to organize a statement of opposition for individual family researchers and experts to sign. We passed a hundred signatories after the first few hours. You can sign it here, or view the list of signatories here. Here’s the text, and then I have a few comments.

Family Scholars and Experts Statement of Opposition to Policy of Separating Immigrant Families

We write as family scholars and experts to express our opposition to the Trump Administration policy of separating immigrant parents and children at the border as they enter the United States to seek refuge. This practice is an inhumane mistreatment of those seeking refuge from danger or persecution, and goes against international law. As scholars and experts devoted to identifying and sharing information relevant to policies to improve individual and family wellbeing, we deplore the Administration’s callous disregard of the overwhelming scientific information demonstrating the harm of separating children from their parents. This practice is known to be extremely traumatic for dependent children who stand a strong likelihood of experiencing lasting negative consequences from the sudden and inexplicable loss of their caregiver. Government should only separate children from their parents as a last resort when children are in danger of imminent harm. We urge the Administration to reconsider and reverse this policy. Although the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) as an organization does not take partisan positions or advocate for policy, the CCF Board has decided to circulate this statement so that individual like-minded scholars and experts may join together to express their views publicly.

Comment

The policy has been a vivid showcase of human cruelty, racist political manipulation, hypocrisy, and misdirection.

The human cruelty is most important. The people working for the U.S. government that carry out this policy seem to be no more or less evil than rank-and-file Nazi concentration camp guards. They rip children from the arms of their parents — parents risking life and limb to give their children a chance at safety, or a better life — sometimes under false pretenses, and rationalize their actions as somehow in the service of social order, or the law, or the will of their superiors. Human-tip: quit your job before you follow such orders.

The racist political manipulation comes from the top, where Trump and his legions of lying liars repeat lies about illegal immigrants overrunning our borders, bringing violence and mayhem and taking American jobs and welfare. These lies find fertile ground in the consciousness of people who already don’t consider Latino immigrants to deserving of basic human rights and protections because they don’t see their humanity. Things I’ve heard on Twitter from supporters of the policy include:

The hypocrisy is well represented by the invocation of the Bible to justify these atrocities, a literal chapter and verse repetition of the godless defenses of slavery, Nazism, and apartheid perpetrated by Trumpism’s (recent) ancestors. In the typical up-is-down-wrong-is-right formulation of Trumpism, Elizabeth Bruenig writes, “[Jeff] Sessions and [Sarah] Sanders radically depart from the Christian religion, inventing a faith that makes order itself the highest good and authorizes secular governments to achieve it.”

The misdirection runs beneath all Trumpism’s atrocities, in this case simply inventing a story that the current policy is the result of Democrats’ “horrible and cruel legislative agenda.” This is part of the demagoguery playbook, which predictably cycles from it’s-not-true to it’s-no-big-deal to Obama-was-worse to nothing matters. (When I tweeted a link to the statement above, a Trump supporter asked, “They do realize they’re here illegally?” and then, “So why the hard push now except to smear the President?”) “We are following the law,” said federal prosecutor Ryan Patrick, before possibly accidentally confirming, “Well, it is a policy choice by the president and by the attorney general.”

No

Patrick’s interview is a nauseating testament to how this authoritarianism is corrupting human integrity, as he describes the policy as an attempt to restore fairness to law enforcement:

“I’ve heard the attorney general say – it is not – in his estimation, it is not equitable or fair to simply, like I said, wave a wand over an entire population of crossers just because they come in in a family unit or they have a child with them and we simply ignore them on the criminal prosecution. They’re still crossing the border illegally.”

And what about the documented atrocities?

“I think some of these stories are outliers. This is not the norm. I don’t think this is a standard operating procedure on how all of the agents conduct their business. There’s going to be some situations that are going to be regrettable or that break your heart or – and it is unfortunate.”

OK, so not everyone experiences the very worst abuses. And what about the legal protections of the accused and their separated children?

“So when apprehended, if they’re a family unit, they’re given a card in English and in Spanish that has different 1-800 numbers for them to be able to contact. And there’s also a text line. There’s an email address, if they have access to those in their different holding facilities, where they can track not only their own case but also the location of their child.”

OK, so, Kafka. And about that due process for children?

“And then, when it comes to the juveniles who are in HHS custody, there are some space limitations with attorneys. At any time in the process, they can hire their own attorney.”

And finally, putting it all together: it’s not so bad, but really it’s their fault, and law and order, so.

So, obviously, there are still family units being broken up. But the average stay of those children in those facilities is less than 20 days. It would be – it would be incredibly difficult, if I was a parent, to see my child one of the situations. But at the same time, it also is difficult to wrap my mind around – and I’m not in their situation – but they’re also taking incredible risk to their own life and safety on crossing the border illegally in the way that they do, with their children, and putting them in danger.

This policy is the bad turning the blind against the innocent. It’s vile and inhumane. No one has to tolerate this system of atrocities, and that includes all of us.

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Actually unblocked by Trump, as DOJ appeals ruling

We won our lawsuit on May 23, with a federal judge ruling that Trump blocking me and seven others violates the First Amendment. Now, as of June 4, I am actually unblocked by the president’s @realdonaldtrump account, as are the other plaintiffs. At the same time, the Department of Justice filed a notice of their intent to appeal the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

winningtweet

Meanwhile, an unknown number of other people remain blocked by the president. The Knight First Amendment Institute, which is representing us, has asked other people who are blocked to contact them at: info@knightcolumbia.org. I would love this case to end up extending to others blocked by Trump, and other public officials.

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More marriage promotion failure evidence

broken lightbulb

Photo PNC / Flickr CC: https://flic.kr/p/9xNLad

I have another entry in the Cato Unbound forum on the Success Sequence. This is a response to a post by Brad Wilcox, which responded to my initial post, “The failure of the success sequence.”

With that context, I reprint it here.


In the second round of comments here, Brad Wilcox chose to focus on my argument that marriage promotion doesn’t work—that is, it doesn’t lead to more marriages. I have two brief responses to his comments.

First, Wilcox asserts that I have ignored salient evidence, and he mentions two studies. He writes:

But Cohen did not do justice to the existing literature on the HMI [Healthy Marriage Initiative] or of interventions like those used within it. For instance, he ignores evidence of modest success for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative in fostering family stability (the longest running local effort working on this issue) and research that found that spending on the HMI was “positively associated with small changes in the percentage of married adults in the population” (italics in the original).

However, in my essay I linked to my book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible. There I dealt with the subject in much greater depth.

In particular, with regard to the claim that marriage promotion was associated with more marriage, the link is to this study (paywalled) in the journal Family Relations, by Alan Hawkins, Paul Amato, and Andrea Kinghorn. In my book I devote more than two pages to debunking this single study in detail. Since Wilcox appears not inclined to read my analysis in the book, I provide some key excerpts here:

[Hawkins, Amato, and Kinghorn] attempted to show that the marriage promotion money had beneficial effects at the population level.

They statistically compared state marriage promotion funding levels to the percentage of the population that was married and divorced, the number of children living with two parents or one parent, the nonmarital birth rate, and the poverty and near-poverty rates for the years 2000–2010. This kind of study offers an almost endless supply of subjective, post hoc decisions for researchers to make in their search for some relationship that passes the official cutoff for “statistical significance.” Here’s an example of one such choice these researchers made to find beneficial effects (no easy task, apparently): arbitrarily dividing the years covered into two separate periods. Here is their rationale: “We hypothesized that any HMI 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 is wrong. 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 analysis for all years should show that funding had an effect; that is the point of the analysis. This decision does not pass the smell test. Having determined that this decision would help them show that marriage promotion was good, they went on to report their beneficial effects, which were “significant” if you allowed them a 90 percent confidence (rather than the customary 95 percent, which is kosher under some house rules).

However, then they admitted their effects were significant only with Washington, D.C., included. Our nonstate capital city is a handy wiggle-room device for researchers studying state-level patterns; you can justify including it because it’s a real place, or you can justify excluding it because it’s not really a state. It turns out that the District of Columbia had per capita marriage promotion funding levels about nine times the average. With an improving family well-being profile during the period under study, this single case (out of fifty-one) could have a large statistical effect on the overall pattern. Statistical outliers are like the levers you learned about in physics—the further they are from the average, the more they can move the pile. To deal with this extreme outlier, they first cut the independent variable in half for D.C., bringing it down to about 4.4 times the mean and a third higher than the next most-extreme state, Oklahoma (itself pretty extreme). That change alone cut the number of significant effects on their outcomes down from six to three.

Then, performing a tragic coup de grâce on their own paper, they removed D.C. from the analysis altogether, and nothing was left. They didn’t quite see it that way, however: “But with the District of Columbia excluded from the data, 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 in direction and magnitude, but they were rendered nonsignificant by a further increase in the size of the standard errors.”

Really. These kinds of shenanigans give social scientists a bad name. (Everything that is nonsignificant is that way because of the [relative] size of the standard errors—that’s what nonsignificant means.) And what does “comparable in direction and magnitude” mean, exactly? This is the kind of statement one hopes the peer reviewers or editors would check closely. For example, with D.C. removed, the effect of marriage promotion on two-parent families fell 44 percent, and the effect on the poor/near-poor fell 78 percent. That’s “comparable” in the sense that they can be compared, but not in the sense that they are similar. Again, the authors helpfully explain that “the lack of significance can be explained by the larger standard errors.” That’s just another way of saying their model was ridiculously dependent on D.C. being in the sample and that removing it left them with nothing.

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.”

In short, this paper provides no evidence that HMI funding increased marriage rates or family wellbeing.

The other link Wilcox provides (“modest success for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative”) goes to an essay on his website by the same Alan Hawkins. The evidence about Oklahoma’s “modest success” in that essay is limited to a broken link to another page on Wilcox’s site, and—I find this hard to even believe—an estimate of the effects of HMI funding in Oklahoma extrapolated from the paper I discussed above! That is, they took the very bad models from that paper and used them to predict how much the funding should have mattered in Oklahoma based on the level of funding there (and remember, Oklahoma was an outlier in that analysis). There was no estimate of the actual effect in Oklahoma. In fact, as I explained in a followup debunking, Oklahoma during this period experienced a greaterdecline in married-parent families than the rest of the country, even as they sucked up much more than their share of marriage promotion funds. This is, to put it mildly, not good social science. (The Oklahoma program, incidentally, is the subject of an excellent book by Melanie Heath: One Marriage Under God.)

Wilcox also argues that I am too demanding of federal programs, expecting demonstrable success. He concludes, “If the United States had adapted Cohen’s standard a half century ago, this would have resulted in the elimination of scores of federally funded programs that now garner hundreds of billions of dollars every year in public spending—from job training to Head Start.”

Amazingly, because Wilcox has made this argument before, I also addressed it in my book. Specifically, I wrote:

Of course, lots of programs fail. And, specifically, some studies have failed to show that kids whose parents were offered Head Start programs do better in the long run than those whose parents were not. But Head Start is offering a service to parents who want it, a service that most of them would buy on their own if it were not offered free. Head Start might fail at lifting children out of poverty while successfully providing a valuable, need-based service to low-income families.

As you can imagine, I am all for giving free marriage counseling to poor people if they want it (along with lots of other free stuff, including healthcare and childcare). And if they like it and keep using it, I might define that program as a success. But it’s not an antipoverty program.

Finally, in response to the idea that we just need more funding and more research to know if marriage promotion works, here’s my suggestion: in the studies testing marriage promotion programs, have a third group—in addition to the program and control group—who just get the cash equivalent to the cost of the service (a few thousand dollars). Then check to see how well the group getting the cash is doing compared with those getting the service. That’s the measure of whether this kind of policy is a success.

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Breaking: Matt Richtel book homepage bogus statistic removed

For at least three years, the website for New York Times reporter Matt Richtel’s book, A Deadly Wandering, about the dangers of texting and driving, has prominently featured a bogus internet meme statistic claiming that 11 teens per die from texting and driving accidents every day. I first debunked it in 2014, by simply pointing out that not even 11 teens die per day from all auto accidents regardless of cause.

I wrote about it again here. I also complained that Richtel had a financial interest in hyping teen texting deaths, and that it was unreasonable to say traffic fatalities were “soaring at a rate not seen in 50 years,” when in fact fatalities were almost at a 50-year low (down more than 60% from 1966, on a per capita basis, and still below the pre-recession levels).

I emailed Richtel, as well as the publisher. I tweeted. All to no avail — until sometime between last September (the last archived copy at the Wayback Machine) and today, when I saw they had finally removed the bogus statistic. Here’s the change:

richtel fixed

The footnote stayed the same, which is funny because it’s not a “statistic” anymore (it never was on the IIHSFF site).

Anyway, because I complained so much it’s important to acknowledge the change.

Meanwhile, while Richtel and his publisher were taking three years to do 10 minutes work to correct an egregious factual error, the meme was still going around. I happened to see it today as I was reading an editorial in the Moscow-Pullman (Idaho) Daily News, in support of our lawsuit against Trump (long story), when I saw this letter:

Letter: Texting while driving is more lethal than school shootings
May 29, 2018

Kudos to the Daily News Editorial Board for having the courage to state (“Our View: Gun reform alone can’t prevent mass killings,” May 23) “it is not the guns killing people, it is the people pulling the trigger …” It sounds like something the NRA would say. And the real problem facing us is ” how to prevent weapons from getting into the wrong hands ” As a longtime NRA member I support all rational steps taken to do exactly that.

Blaming the NRA or gun manufacturers for school shooting deaths is akin to blaming Facebook and/or Apple iPhones and/or Ford Motor Company for teen texting-while-driving deaths, which some reports say cause an average of 11 teen deaths in America every day. It’s not Facebook or the cellphone or the automobile maker that runs that car through the red light or up a tree. It’s the distracted person behind the wheel. Let’s see what kind of reaction we get when we try to separate those young people from their cellphones for their own safety and that of those in the car with them. Mom and dad, have at it.

Texting while driving is vastly more lethal to our teens than school shootings.

Bill Tozer, Moscow

Bogus statistical memes have consequences.

See all the texting posts under this tag.

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We won our First Amendment lawsuit against President Trump

unblocked

Federal judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled yesterday that the president is violating our First Amendment rights when he blocked me and six other plaintiffs for disagreeing with him on Twitter. The details and decision are available here. Congratulations and deep appreciation to the legal team at the Knight First Amendment Institute, especially Katie Fallow, Jameel Jaffer, Alex Abdo, and Carrie DeCell (sorry for those I’m missing).

I described my participation in the suit and my tweets last year here, and the oral arguments in March here.

Judge Buchwald’s introduction to the decision is great:

This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, “block” a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States. The answer to both questions is no.

She went on to issue declaratory relief, meaning she told the president he’s breaking the law, rather than injunctive relief (an order to act), writing:

It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803), and we have held that the President’s blocking of the individual plaintiffs is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Because no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the President and [social media director Dan] Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional.

That remains to be seen, of course (I’m still blocked at this writing).

Here are a couple of snippets of analysis.

From Wired:

“In an age when we’re seeing so many norms broken by government regarding free speech, this is an important and right decision,” says [Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland]. “It sends a message that we’re not going to destroy free speech norms.”

[David Greene, a senior staff attorney and civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation] says he hopes the ruling warns other elected officials who are blocking constituents on social media to stop. “We routinely get a ton of people complaining to us about similar practices,” he says. “I hope they take it as a message that you have to stop doing this.”

From the Mercury News:

“The First Amendment prohibits government officials from suppressing speech on the basis of viewpoint,” said Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at the institute, in a statement Wednesday. “The court’s application of that principle here should guide all of the public officials who are communicating with their constituents through social media.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law at UC Berkeley, agrees.

“The judge followed clear law: A government official cannot give selective access of this sort,” Chereminsky said.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Knight staff attorney Carrie DeCell said the organization was pleased with the decision, but expects the White House to appeal. “Twitter is a new communications platform, but First Amendment principles are foundations,” DeCell said. “Public discourse is increasingly taking place online.”

DeCell said the case could have implications for all public officials using social media — not just Trump’s account. “The reasoning in the court decisions, we think, should inform public officials’ activities on our social media pages throughout the country,” she said.

My co-plaintiffs have also written on the decision. See Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter Poza in Daily Kos:

Public officials are relying on social media more and more to communicate to constituents. As that shift accelerates, it’s imperative that courts recognize that the First Amendment protects against viewpoint discrimination in digital public forums like the @realdonaldtrump account just as it does in more traditional town halls. An official’s Twitter account is often the central forum for direct political debate with and among constituents, a tenet of democracy.

and Holly Figueroa O’Reilly in the Guardian:

Twitter is as public a forum as a town hall meeting. By blocking people who disagree with him, he’s not only blocking our right to petition our government and access important information, but he distorts that public forum by purging critical voices. It’s like a senator throwing someone out of a town hall because they held up a “disagree” sign.

The New York Times also did a piece on other people Trump blocked (the public doesn’t know how many such people there are), one of whom called the decision “incredibly vindicating.”

I agree. The decision is a breath of democracy fresh air.

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Fertility trends explained, 2017 edition

Not really, but some thoughts and a bunch of figures on the 2017 fertility situation.

There was a big drop in the U.S. fertility rate in 2017. As measured by the total fertility rate (TFR), which is a projection of lifetime births for the average woman based on one year’s data, the drop was 3.1%, from 1.82 projected births per woman to 1.76. (See this measure explained, and learn how to calculate it yourself, in my blockbuster video, “Total Fertility Rate.”) To put that change in perspective, here is the trend in TFR back to 1940, followed by a plot of the annual changes since 1971:

tfr4017

tfrchanges

That drop in 2017 is the biggest since the last recession started. In fact, we have seen no drop that big that’s not associated with a time of national economic distress, at least since the Baby Boom. In 2010, I noted that the drop in fertility at that time preceded the official start of the recession and the big unemployment spike. There is now some more systematic evidence (pointed out by Karen Benjamin Guzzo) that fertility falls before economic indicators turn down. Which makes this New York Times headline a little funny, “US Births Hit a 30-Year Low, Despite Good Economy.” This is a pretty solid warning sign, although not definitive, of an economic downturn coming in the next year or so. (On the other hand, maybe it’s a Trump effect, as people are just freaking out and not thinking positively about the future; something to think about.)

Whatever the role of immediate economic conditions, the long-term trend is toward later births, which is generally going to mean fewer births — both because people who want later births tend to want fewer births, and because some people run out of time if they start late. And that is not wholly separable from economic factors, of course. People (especially women) delay childbearing to improve their economic situation, as they improve their economic situation when they delay births (if they have the right suite of economic opportunities). To show this trend, I’ve been updating this figure for a few years (you’ll find it, and a description, in my book Enduring Bonds).

change in birthrates by age 1989-2016.xlsx

The real reason I made this figure was to highlight the interconnected nature of teen births. Birth rates for teens have fallen dramatically, but it’s been along with drops among younger women generally, and increases among older women — it’s about delaying births overall. Note, however, that 2017 is the first time since the depths of the last recession that birth rates fell for all age groups except women over age 40.

So, sell stock now. But it is hard to know for sure what’s a local temporal reaction and what’s just the way things are going nowadays. For that it’s useful to compare the U.S. to other countries. The next figure shows the U.S. and 15 other hand-picked countries, from World Bank data. Rising fertility in the decade before the last recession wasn’t so unusual. We are a little like Spain and France in this figure, who had rising fertility then and falling now. But Germany and Japan are still rising, at least through 2016. All this is at below-replacement levels (about 2.0), meaning eventually these rates lead to population decline, in the absence of immigration. The figure really shows the amazing fertility transformation of the last half century, especially in giant countries like China, India, and Brazil. Who would have thought we’d live to see Brazil have lower fertility rates than the U.S.? It’s been that way for more than a decade (click to enlarge).

country fertilitiy trends.xlsx

Anyway, it’s my position that our below-replacement fertility levels are themselves nothing to worry about at present. There are still lots of people who want to move here (or, there were before Trump). And we can live with low fertility for a long time before the population starts to decline in a meaningful way. Eventually it will be a good idea to stop perpetual population growth anyway, so we may as well start working on it. This is better than trying to shape domestic policy to increase birth rates.

That said, there is an argument that Americans are having fewer children than they want to because of our stone age work-family policies, especially poor family leave support and the high costs of good childcare. I’m sure that’s happening to some degree, but it’s still the case that more privileged people, who should be able to overcome those things more readily — people with college degrees and Whites — have lower fertility rates than people who are getting squeezed more. People who assume their kids are going to college are naturally concerned with rising higher education costs, both their own loan payments and their kids’ future payments. So it’s a mixed bag story. Here are the predictors of childbearing for women ages 15-44 in the 2016 American Community Survey. These are the probabilities of having had a birth in the previous 12 months, estimated (with logistic regression) at the mean of all the variables shown.*

birth model simple 2016.xlsx

Interesting that there’s only a small foreign-born fertility edge in this multivariate model. In the unadjusted data, 7.4% of foreign-born versus 6.0% of U.S.-born women had a baby, but that’s mostly accounted for by their age, education, and race/ethnicity.

To summarize: 2017 was a big year for fertility decline (at all but the highest ages), the economy is probably about to tank, and the U.S. fertility rate is still relatively high for our income level, especially for racial-ethnic minorities.

Happy to have your thoughts in the comments. For more, check the fertility tag.


* Here’s the Stata code for the regression analysis. It’s just some simple recodes of the ACS data from IPUMS.org. Start with a file of women ages 15-44, with the variables you see here, and then do this to it:

recode educd (0/61=1) (62/64=2) (65/90=3) (101/116=4), gen(edcat)
label define edlbl 1 "Less than high school"
label define edlbl 2 "High school graduate", add
label define edlbl 3 "Some college", add
label define edlbl 4 "BA or higher", add
label values edcat edlbl
gen raceth=race
replace raceth=4 if race==5 | race==6 /* now 4 is all API */
replace raceth=5 if hispan>0
drop if race>5
label define raceth_lbl 1 "White"
label define raceth_lbl 2 "Black", add
label define raceth_lbl 3 "AIAN", add
label define raceth_lbl 4 "API", add
label define raceth_lbl 5 "Hispanic", add
label values raceth raceth_lbl
egen agecat=cut(age), at(15(5)50)
gen forborn=citizen!=0
gen birth=fertyr==2
logit birth i.agecat i.raceth i.forborn i.edcat i.marst [weight=perwt]
margins i.agecat i.raceth i.forborn i.edcat i.marst

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The failure of the success sequence

This essay was originally published as part of a forum on the success sequence sponsored by the Cato Institute, featuring Michael Tanner, Isabel Sawhill, and Brad Wilcox.

The success sequence is often (mistakenly) attributed to the 2009 book Creating an Opportunity Society by the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill. “First comes education,” they wrote. “Then comes a stable job that pays a decent wage, made decent by the addition of wage supplements and work supports if necessary. Finally comes marriage, followed by children.” They called for “marketing campaigns and educational programs to change social norms: to bring back the success sequence as the expected path for young Americans.”

The only issue here is marriage, as the rest is obvious to everyone. And in that regard this model of social change is wholly unproven and without precedent. Seat belt laws and anti-smoking campaigns, always cited by success sequence advocates, are not comparable. Those are daily habits easily addressed by legal regulations and tax policy (seat belts are required by law; with taxes, the price of cigarettes has more than tripled since 1980). The decline in marriage is a massive global trend driven by economic development and cultural adaptation. And the decline in teen pregnancy, to which success sequencers also point as a precedent for public information campaigns, flows with rather than against that underlying trend. As I detail in my new book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible, the drop in teen birth was part of the general increase in the age at which women have children, driven by the expansion of their educational and professional opportunities.

That idea of using public information campaigns to preach “marriage culture” echoed the futile proclamations of a previous generation. In a Hoover Institution symposium in 1996, former vice president Dan Quayle wrote that, “when it comes to strengthening families … we also desperately need help from nongovernment institutions like the media and the entertainment community.” Taking up the call with even more zeal, in 2001 Heritage Foundation fellow Patrick Fagan declared it was time to add three W’s to the common three R’s of schooling. “We need to stress something just as fundamental [as reading, writing, and arithmetic],” he wrote. “Call it the three W’s: work, wedlock and worship. … Put all three in the lives of parents and children, and they thrive.”* Five years later, another Heritage fellow said of the three W’s, “According to the social science data, if these three fundamentals are in place, government social policy is virtually unnecessary.” In 2012, the National Marriage Project, under director W. Bradford Wilcox, was again calling for “community-based and focused public service announcements” and a Hollywood “conversation” to promote marriage.

Meanwhile, slightly more liberal think tank denizens had discretely replaced “worship” with education, but they stuck to the basic idea that the problem with poor people is that they’re doing life wrong—and the “three somethings” formula. In a 2006 report for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Marline Pearson wrote that it was time to “teach teens the rules of the success sequence,” which they defined as, “Finish high school, or better still, get a college degree; wait until your twenties to marry; and have children after you marry.” (Three things is a favorite formula of Chinese social engineers we well, as with Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Three Supremes”—but China combines such slogans with centralized education and state repression to increase their salience.)

Today, more than two decades after Quayle’s plea, 17 years after the three W’s, 12 years after the first “success sequence” proclamation, and one president after the National Marriage Project pitched its “President’s Marriage Agenda,” movement leaders are still calling for “Public and private social marketing campaigns on behalf of marriage and the ‘success sequence’,” to quote Wilcox and Wendy Wang’s latest report. Neither the policy nor the campaign to promote the policy have changed appreciably over the years, although the definition of the success sequence has varied from author to author. And in all this time, I could not find one academic study, outside of those published by think tanks, that seriously evaluates the claims of the success sequence.

What Could Go Wrong?

Today’s success sequence movement is puzzling in part because it fails to recognize—or admit—the extent to which its adherents already won. After the landmark 1996 welfare reform act, the federal government pumped more than $1 billion into national marriage promotion programs (the Healthy Marriage and the Responsible Fatherhood initiatives). This was cause for great celebration in the movement, as it should have been. In 2004, a Heritage Foundation report gushed, “The President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative is a future-oriented, preventive policy. It will foster better life-planning skills—encouraging couples to develop loving, committed marriages before bringing children into the world.”

It didn’t. The previous decade’s marriage promotion programs sent the same message the “success sequence” promoters do today. But where is the recognition that they failed? Rigorous evaluations of the marriage promotion efforts showed unequivocally that they produced no increase in marriage, not even among the people coerced into sitting for hours in relationship skills courses required to qualify for welfare benefits. As most readers probably know, in the years after welfare reform, marriage rates have continued to fall, and they have fallen fastest for those with less than a college education, the very population the programs were supposed to help. Even though pro-marriage billboards dotted the highways and FedEx delivered thousands of new-daddy care packages to hospitals. In fact, the only people more likely to marry after all these years of conservative activism are gays and lesbians. (This history is also reviewed in my book.)

Does this mean it’s bad advice to get an education, get a job, and find a permanent partner before having children? Of course not. But the success sequence is bad public policy, which is not the same thing at all. For public policy the question is, what will we accomplish with this money, compared with other things we could spend it on (or nothing at all)? Will the proposed campaigns have any positive effect on family outcomes? And if so, would they be better than some other way of spending money, like giving it to poor people, which is what most rich countries do, along with jobs, paid family leave, health care, and preschool education? Specifically, the rationale for spending money on these campaigns assumes that there are people who are on the fence about the success sequence, whose minds might be changed by the campaign, and that those altered decisions would lead to better outcomes in the future for those specific people. There is simply no evidence to support anything like that chain of events. Despite the ad nauseam repetition of the obvious fact that educated, employed, and (much less importantly) married people are less likely to be poor, there is no evidence at all that convincing people who are not one of those things of their importance will cause a reduction in poverty rates.

Given the well-documented desire of most young adults to finish high school, get a job, and get married—if the opportunity to follow that course presents itself—there is no reason to think the people reached by the proposed campaigns would not either already plan to follow the sequence or rightly suspect that it is not feasible for them. The decision to delay childbearing in hopes of marrying first rests on assumptions about the future—education, economics, relationships, health, stability—that the target population simply cannot makeabout their own destinies in today’s economic and social context. Improve the basic equation, the material expectations of young adults, and you won’t need a campaign to change behavior.

When women have more to lose, they delay parenthood. The college students in my classes, overwhelmingly women (I teach sociology of the family), almost all want to get married and then have children after they finish college. They understand that their marriage prospects will improve after college, and they don’t want children to interfere with their education or career launch. So, why shouldn’t we tell all women, especially those with poorer education and career prospects, to follow this course as well? Success sequencers believe it’s hypocritical to hoard this advice and only dispense it to the children of privilege. But you can’t wish away education, career, and marriage uncertainty or impose order on instability by force of will. If we’re not prepared to guarantee all women the same opportunities as those in my classes have, it’s not reasonable to demand the same attachment to the success sequence that those opportunities make feasible. In the absence of that guarantee, you’re simply asking, or requiring, poor people to delay (until “they’re ready,” in Sawhill’s terms, meaning not poor) or forego having children, one of the great joys of life, and something we should consider a human right.

In addition, what signals will a federal “success sequence” program send? What message will these campaigns send to people who are currently materially underserved by the welfare state, and people who don’t have the option to pursue the sequence because stable partners, education, or jobs aren’t available to them? What message will it send to the majority of Americans who are in a position to look down upon, and act against, those who become, in Sawhill’s chilling phrase, “norm breakers”?

And here race becomes especially salient. Black women have low marriage rates and black single mothers have high poverty rates. They face marriage markets with drastic shortages of eligible men, as Michael Tanner noted in the essay that opened this discussion. Not coincidentally, the history of welfare politics in the United States is intricately bound up with the history of racism against black women, who have been labeled pathological and congenitally dependent. The idea that delaying parenthood until marriage is a choice one makes is highly salient and prized by the white middle class, and the fact that black women often don’t have that choice makes them the objects of scorn for their perceived lax morals. The framing of the success sequence plays into this dynamic. For example, Ron Haskins has argued that welfare reform was needed to “[change] the values and the approach to life of people on welfare that they have to do their part.” The image of the poor welfare “taker” has a race and a gender in America.

In their book, Haskins and Sawhill proudly acknowledge that their cause was out of step with contemporary society. “To those who argue that this goal is old-fashioned or inconsistent with modern culture,” they wrote, “we argue that modern culture is inconsistent with the needs of children.” That may by a reasonable ideological position, but it’s no way to make public policy. The success sequence is a political meme repeated in highly similar form over more than a generation of public policy debates, without yet having any discernible impact for the better. The third “step” or “norm” in particular—marriage—has already been promoted with massive federal subsidies for almost two decades. The first two, education and jobs, are terrific ideas, obvious for good reasons, and not in need of much normative boosting, and we should turn our attention to improving the opportunity for more people to attain them.

* Thanks to Shawn Fremstad for this nugget.

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