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.

11 thoughts on “Doing math one-handed? Inequality and the marriage problem (#asa14)

  1. “help people develop high quality relationships with their parents”.

    What the ……..?

    ” complete more education, get better jobs, accrue financial assets and maintain good physical and mental health”

    How is all of this related to each other? especially the physical and mental health part.


  2. It seems to me that if social scientists are going to promote marriage on the basis of findings that suggest that married people are “happier, healthier, and wealthier”, then those same social scientists also need to promote childlessness. After all, parents living in the more symptoms of depression and emotional distress than their childless adult peers. Almost every published study indicates that men’s and women’s marital satisfaction declines after the arrival of a child (Generally, marital satisfaction is highest among newlyweds and later-life couples). Women who combine parenthood with paid work suffer the “motherhood penalty” in which they earn substantially less that their non-mother counterparts, and are less likely to get hired or promoted. Finally, having children puts a huge financial burden on parents, both in direct costs and opportunity costs. Of course, I don’t expect to see any members of the pro-marriage movement using social science findings to mobilize against parenthood.


  3. Another explanation is that people, who tend to raise happy and healthy children, tend also to have stable relationships; i.e. both effects (they marry; their children are better off) are results of set of heritable characteristics.


  4. “The logical problem is when people conclude from this pattern that the obvious response is to ‘strengthen marriage and family life.’ ”

    And it’s really scary the way some conservatives see the issue. The more extreme ones would like to see us stigmatize single parenthood and divorce to “encourage” people to get married and stay married. Invariably, these are the same people who have known nothing but basically healthy relationships and remain blissfully, willfully ignorant of the fact that for some people, divorce is quite literally a lifesaver. These are also usually the same people that blame feminism for giving women options to support themselves if they decide they need to leave their marriages (the horror!).

    You can’t correct for the people that get divorced for trivial reasons by making the rest of us suffer even more.


  5. You often see conservatives advocate making single motherhood more burdensome, onerous, penalizing, and so forth in order to drive women into marriage (or back into marriage) with the fathers of their children. I have yet to see any of them advocate making out-of-wedlock or divorced fatherhood itself more burdensome, onerous, penalizing and so forth by, say, massively increasing the mandated proportion of fathers’ income that must be dedicated to child support. It would be as likely to incentivize marriage (if your kids and the mother of your kids are getting such a big chunk of your income, you might as well marry or stay married and thus get more direct control over more of your income). It’s another example of doing the math with one hand.

    And this is only to think in terms of more even-handed usage of available sticks; policies designed with a view toward “carrots for everyone, men and women alike, distributed so as to maximally promote the happiness and well-being of children” seem not to interest them at all.


  6. Well, lowering the cost of single-motherhood while ignoring the impact it will make on decisions of women whether to get into marriage, or divorce, and what impact it wuld make on society as a whole is also doing a math with only one hand.


  7. Hey, remember that Oklahoma divorce study?. Scroll down to page 16, where respondents indicate the reasons for their divorce. Eight percent of men indicated domestic violence was a factor….as opposed to forty-four percent of women. Sit with that for a moment.

    Then there’s also this statistic from the “Love and Marriage in Middle America” project. It didn’t strike me that almost every couple the Lapp’s featured on the old Family Scholars blog during the course of this project had drug abuse and DUIs as a problem; it did strike me that they didn’t seem to notice—that they seemed to regard marriage as a reasonable future for those couples, despite the myriad red flags. That’s a common trait with the “promote marriage” set—they regard marriage as a medicine that starts working on those problems right after the ink is dry on the marriage certificate (something for which there is no evidence), and they don’t seem to want to promote the characteristics that are identified with long-term, healthy marriages (waiting until mid-twenties to marry, higher education, egalitarian communication styles and gender roles, that sort of thing). W.Bradford Wilcox is the worst—his tendency toward magical thinking about the impact of getting married on men (that marriage itself inspires irresponsible men to become responsible) is breathtaking.


  8. I’m sad that Cherlin is doing this with Wilcox. I often disagree with Cherlin, but I have a lot more respect for him as a scientist.


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