W. Bradford Wilcox responds

I received this response to yesterday’s post from W. Bradford Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, who requested I post it on the blog. I’m making it an independent post to make sure it is widely seen by Family Inequality readers.

Response to Dr. Philip Cohen

In his recent blog post, sociologist Philip Cohen accuses me, inter alia, of telling “tall tales,” playing fast and loose with divorce statistics in the National Marriage Project’s most recent report, “The Great Recession and Marriage,” and bypassing the peer-review process.

On the first point, Professor Cohen is simply mistaken. I tell no tall tales in this report, which was produced to offer a brief overview of new data related to marriage and the recession from a nationally representative survey of married couples in the U.S., the Survey of Marital Generosity, which was conducted in December of 2010 and January of 2011. Instead, I offer a brief commentary on a number of the ways in which the financial stresses and economic hardship associated with the Great Recession appear to be linked to both negative and positive outcomes, judging by data from this survey. I encourage readers of this blog to look at the report itself and see if it seems replete with tall tales. And I should also note that surveys by The New York Times and the Pew Research Center also suggest that the Great Recession has led some Americans to deepen their family ties.

Second, Professor Cohen claims that I have no basis for claiming that the Great Recession has had an independent effect on the divorce rate. It is true that the divorce rate has generally fallen since the early 1980s, and that the 2009 NMP State of Our Unions report did not make that fact sufficiently clear (as Cohen noted in earlier blog post). But the rate of decline in the U.S. divorce rate from 2007 to 2009 was steeper than the rate of decline from 1980 to 2007, according to estimates based both on the crude divorce rate and the rate of divorce per 1,000 married women. So I stand by my claim that the Great Recession has, in all probability, pushed the divorce rate down more than it otherwise would have gone down without this recession. It is also true, if history is any indication, that there will be an uptick in divorce once the recovery arrives in full.

Third, Professor Cohen also notes that this report was not peer reviewed. This is true. Although I have published more than 15 articles and books through the peer-review process, I do not think that every report written by an academic must be peer reviewed. In this case, I thought it would be helpful to convey new data to a public audience in a timely fashion. Here, the National Marriage Project (NMP) is following a convention found at other research institutes located at American public universities, from the Center for WorkLife Law to the Williams Institute.

I honestly do not know why Professor Cohen got so exercised by this modest report. Perhaps he thinks that the NMP’s devotion to marriage is blind. So let me be clear here: The National Marriage Project does not think that every marriage can and should be sustained, nor does it simply aim to increase the number of adults who are married. But, generally speaking, children are more likely to thrive when they are raised in an intact, married family, compared to the alternatives. And that is why the NMP is dedicated to monitoring the health of marriage, understanding the cultural and social forces affecting marriage in America, and identifying strategies to strengthen the quality and stability of married life.

8 thoughts on “W. Bradford Wilcox responds

  1. I don’t think that the recession is causing people to recommit to their marriages like that. I think — and I have anecdotal evidence — that people who want to split up find out in tough times that they just can’t afford to maintain two households.

    I have further anecdotal evidence that this sort of “bad” reason to stay together may have a good effect — just hanging together can, at times, force couples to make the best of it, and can come to a stronger relationship from that. I don’t think that this is the common result, but I think it is one to be celebrated and encouraged.


  2. “I honestly do not know why Professor Cohen got so exercised by this modest report.”

    Bet you didn’t realize that writing a thoughtful, research-driven and fact filled blog post in response to his article was getting “exercised”.

    I’m pretty sure accusing the other side of being -emotional- or some such is a common cop out to avoid actually discussing facts and statistics.


  3. Yes, all those distracting facts and statistics, unlike the cooked up-chopped up- propaganda funded by right wing “think tanks.” What is so loathsome about this media whoremongering is that it feeds into a political framing of inequality where it is good that we have the poor, and they should suffer. They should suffer tremendously if they have children, and the women should leave the labor force instead of taking menial jobs. Yeah! Inequality is great for the Christian Patriarchy movement! We love inequality and it is good for families. And, so if children benefit from marriage do you think these yahoos are now supporting same sex marriage?


  4. That inequality / marriage connection is big. If it’s true, as Wilcox says, that “children are more likely to thrive when they are raised in an intact, married family, compared to the alternatives,” then you could think of two different approaches: increase marriage, or decrease the well-being gap between the two groups. The NMP seems to presume the reason for pursuing the first option is self-explanatory, and they have ideological reasons to think marriage is good anyway. I think that’s analogous to saying, “rich people are better off, so money is good.”


    1. I strongly disagree with the contention that “children are more likely to thrive when they are raised in an intact, married family, compared to the alternatives.” Children raised in an unhappy household are NOT better off than those raised by a happy balanced individual, whether it be the father or the mother.


  5. 1. In the survey, 29% said they had suffered financially in the current recession. But many others experienced the other two stressors — worry and mortgage problems. If a person still has a job and the same or higher income, it’s unlikely that these other two stressors are caused by the recession.

    2. People who were considering divorce: As I think Philip said, sixty people (5% of 1200) is not a sample size to inspire confidence. Besides, we don’t know whether staying together strengthened the marriage. Is it, “Gee honey, together we can get through this” or “If I hadn’t lost my job, I could afford to leave this creep.”? The cover photo suggests the former, but do we really know?

    3. “divorce rate from 2007 to 2009 was steeper than the rate of decline from 1980 to 2007.” The unemployment rate doesn’t zoom upwards until 2008. So whatever part of the steeper decline comes in 2007 is probably not attributable to the recession.

    4. “Has the recession deepened your commitment to your marriage?” sounds like a straightforward question. But people are not well situated to know the causes of their own behavior.


    1. Jay, I’m glad you made that last point #4. There might be better ways of getting at that. Maybe list 10 things and ask if each one helped or hurt the marriage? (like financial problems, health problems, etc.). What is “the recession” — it’s way too vague, and like you say lots of people aren’t directly affected but you’re asking them to evaluate its effect. I think it’s loaded to be answered Yes by people in good marriages (which seems consistent with the results).


  6. I’ve often wondered: If marriage has a positive, causal effect on outcome X, why don’t the scholars/politicians/pundits that push the pro-marriage political / religious agenda also push for gay marriage, child marriage, and polygamy?

    One answer may be that they have simply bracketed off these forms of marriage as unacceptable for religious or other ideological reasons. That’s not science.

    Another possibility is that they implicitly recognize that there is heterogeneity in the effects of marriage — not all marriages lead to positive outcomes, and gay marriages are in the class of marriages that don’t. This has two problems: one is that it’s impossible with existing data to show that gay marriages are worse for the participants, unless you define worse as “something of which other people don’t approve.” The other is that the same belief in the heterogeneity of marriage effects is not usually applied within the class of heterosexual marriages, leading to the simplistic dichotomy of “[hetero] marriage good, everything else bad.”

    More generally, I have yet to see a convincing research design that can show that marriage has a truly causal effect on anything. Problem is that 99.9% of the work is based on observational data (surveys, qualitative interviews). These data just can’t support the causal claim that marriage, as opposed to selection effects or joint causes, that benefit kids / increases income (for men) / increases happiness / saves the puppies. This is, of course, true with many of the things sociologists study — we can’t randomly assign people to marriage, or to marriage of a particular type (e.g., gay marriage) any more than we can randomly assign people to parents’ SES, employing organizations, or ethnicity. But the problem of overstating causal claims seems to me to be much, much more prevalent in marriage studies, probably because a it represents the “perfect storm” where a legitimate scientific question is tied up in religion, politics, and big-money external sponsorship.


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