Marriage promotion snake oil tour

W. Bradford Wilcox is in Oklahoma today, lecturing on the benefits of marriage promotion for an anti-abortion activist group. His speech was previewed in an op-ed in the Oklahoman. (It’s fitting that this comes up the day after my post about promoting your research — I never said your research was good.)

Just briefly, here are two of the claims, with the QBD™ (QuickBradDebunk).

He wrote:

“Strong Families, Prosperous States,” a report I recently coauthored, found that states with more families headed by married parents enjoyed significantly higher levels of economic growth, family median income, and less child poverty, compared with states with fewer married-parent families. Indeed, if Oklahoma enjoyed its 1980-levels of married parenthood, its per capita GDP would be 2.5 percent higher, its median family income would be 5.6 percent higher, and its child poverty rate would be 8.5 percent lower.

Indeed. I wrote about that deeply ridiculous report in this post last fall. This just adds a wrinkle. Even if that research were reasonable, which it definitely isn’t, this kind of statement is completely misleading. It’s fine to illustrate a regression coefficient with a statement about the magnitude of the coefficient, as in, “for every year of history, net of other factors, the marriage rate declined X%.” But when you’re describing a trend over time it is not reasonable to say that rolling back a single variable would actually create that effect. Nothing really works that way, and any statement isolating a regression coefficient like that needs to make explicit that it is a counterfactual illustration of an effect size, not an actual statement about what “would” happen.

More extremely fraudulent, however, is this one:

The state should continue supporting the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The initiative is one of the bright spots on the state’s family landscape, as its programs have been shown to increase the quality and stability of family life among lower-income Sooner families. Indeed, one study found that OMI was responsible for a 3-percentage-point increase in the share of Sooner children living with two parents.

Indeed. Thorough research on this marriage promotion program puts the lie to this exaggeration. Yes, some of the local results from this program showed very small relationship improvements to program participants. These results did not include increases in marriage, which is what most people think of when a “marriage scholar” (from the headline of the piece) refers to “quality and stability of family life.” And readers can be excused for thinking he was talking about marriage if they read the next sentence, which refers to an increase in “the share of Sooner children living with two parents.”

That last claim is unsourced, but I think it might come from the study that I debunked here. They found that states with higher marriage promotion funding, in some years, had a higher proportion of children living with two parents. Wow. Except when they removed Washington, D.C. the effect was gone. I’m not kidding about this; it’s all in the post. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that is where he gets the claim that marriage promotion worked in Oklahoma. (Read all about Oklahoma’s marriage promotion program in Melanie Heath’s excellent book, One Marriage Under God.)

In any event, this certainly doesn’t reflect what actually happened in Oklahoma, which is that the proportion of families with children headed by married couples continued to fall throughout the marriage promotion period, actually declining faster than the national average. Here are the trends, using data from the American Community Survey via


Wilcox may have some legalistic defense of this claim. But he knows that it is not true, and that it will be misunderstood and misused by his credulous audience. In fact, based on the template of this op-ed, Wilcox could literally go to every state and tell them that marriage promotion increased the rate at which children live with two parents, because every state had greater-than-zero funding. Even as marriage has declined in every state. Regression!

Such a tour would not be unprecedented in America, of course. The original snake oil salesmen took something that was actually good — the fatty oils used by Chinese immigrants — and turned it into a bogus miracle cure peddled by American hucksters to gullible consumers. This is the modern bureaucratic update to that hoax, funded with more than a billion dollars of welfare money and peddled through think tanks and academic journals.

Marriage promotion does not die, it is undead, requiring none of the material sustenance upon which mortal movements rely (such as facts or evidence of effectiveness). Lakshmi Gandhi’s piece on snake oil is fitting:

playwright Eugene O’Neill referred to snake oil in his 1956 play The Iceman Cometh, when a character suggested that a rival was “standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there’s nothing like snake oil for a bad burn.”

4 thoughts on “Marriage promotion snake oil tour

    1. From a link he tweeted earlier it’s clear he is referring to the Hawkins et al paper on state-level effects. It’s amazing. That’s the paper where the state effect completely disappeared when they removed DC from the model. It’s pure bs.


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