Category Archives: In the news

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.”


Filed under In the news

When the map says race but all you can talk about is fatherhood

Raj Chetty and colleagues have a new paper showing that “childhood environments play an important role in shaping gender gaps in adulthood.” Essentially, boys from poor or or single parents are doing worse. Also, this gender difference is greater in Black and poor places.

The tricky thing with this data, and I don’t blame Chetty et al. for this, although I would like them to say more about it, is that they don’t know the race of the children. The data are from tax records, which allow you to know the income and marital status of the parents, but not the race. But they know where they grew up. So if they have a strong effect of the racial composition of the county kids grow up in, but they don’t know the race of the kids, you have to figure a big part of that is race of the kids — and by “you” I mean someone who knows anything about America.

So here’s their map of the gender difference in employment rates associated with having poor parents:


To help make the point, here is their list of local areas at the top and bottom of the map:


I hope that is enough to make the point for the demographically literate reader.

I credit them in this paper for at least using percent Black as a variable, which they oddly omitted from a previous analysis. This allows the careful reader to see that this is the most important local-area variable — which makes perfect sense because it is doing the work of the individual data, which doesn’t include race.



It’s important that these examples are all about employment rates. We know that the penalty for being a Black man is especially large for employment, partly because of the direct effects of mass incarceration, but also because of discrimination, some of which is directly related to incarceration and the rest of which may be affected by its aura. This is not something we measure well. Our employment reporting system does not include prison records. Prisoners are excluded from the Current Population Survey, but then included when they are released. So they show up as jobless (mostly) men.

Whenever you see something about how race affects poor men, you have to think hard about what incarceration is doing there — we can’t just rely on the data in front of us and assume it’s telling the whole story, when we know there is a massive influence not captured in the data.

This is exactly what marriage promoters delight in doing. I give just one example, a blog post by the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves, which — amazingly, astoundingly, remarkably, disappointingly, not surprisingly — discusses the effect of growing up poor and “less-educated” in Baltimore (Baltimore!) without once mentioning race or incarceration. Instead, he goes right to this:

Wanted: Fathers

Of course, there is much more to being a man than money: in fact, to define masculinity in breadwinning terms alone is a fatal move. As Barack Obama said on Fathers’ Day seven years ago, fathers are “teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models.” But as he also said, “too many fathers are missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes.” In its poorest neighborhoods, America faces a fathering deficit, one that will make it even harder for the boys of today to make it as men in the new world.

Fatherhood is important. You could investigate a fathering deficit, but if you really cared about it you want to look at in the context of well-known, massive causes of harm to Black boys in America, chief among them racism and mass incarceration.



Filed under In the news

What if Reason didn’t write the NYT coverage of Oberlin students?


1989 Michigan Daily poto by Robin Loznak.

Daily Beast columnist Robby Soave is also a staff editor at Reason, according to his Twitter profile. Here I’m comparing his column from Dec. 20, “Oberlin College Students: Cafeteria Food Is Racist,” with a Dec. 21 news article in the New York Times, written by Katie Rogers, “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall.”

Soave’s opening:

University dining halls aren’t exactly famous for serving gourmet dishes, but Oberlin students say their meals aren’t merely bad—they are racially inauthentic, and thus, a form of microaggression.

Rogers’s opening:

Some students at Oberlin College are taking their demands for diversity and racial inclusion to the dining hall, asking for more traditional meals and criticizing what they consider poor efforts at multicultural cooking.

First, the facts from Soave, in order:

  • Oberlin student with Japanese name, quoted in Oberlin Review, complained the sushi was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin student with Vietnamese name, also quoted in OR, complained that banh mi sandwich was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin tuition is $50,000
  • Fredrik de Boer snarky tweet about General Tso chicken not being authentic in the first place.
  • Black students (according to document linked, “obtained by Legal Insurrection,” a right-wing activist site) are demanding “safe space” for Black students.
  • Black students also demand Black psychologists and non-Western healers at the counseling center.
  • Black students also demand pay for organizing time. Offending community members “banished” (Soave’s word), and four buildings renamed.

Here are the facts from Rogers’s story, also in order:

  • Black student union “earlier this month” protested lack of response to an earlier petition for more traditional food, “including more fried chicken,” as reported by Oberlin Review.
  • List of complaints from the other OR story, including banh mi, sushi, and General Tso chicken. Same quote from Japanese-name student, attributed to OR.
  • Quoted statement from Oberlin dining services director.
  • Fredrik Boer tweet.
  • Response from dining services conglomerate.
  • Black student demands (same link to right-wing source): “segregated safe spaces” (Rogers’ paraphrasing of Soave’s critique), plus demand for increase in Black student enrollment.

Rogers added the next day’s worth of news to the story. So that’s the news. But the whole existence of the story is based on the Soave piece. The Vietnamese student complaint is from a story dated Nov. 6; the Black student dining hall protest was reported Dec. 12. As for the mysteriously-linked Black student demands, they were posted a week earlier by Legal Insurrection, who admit they don’t know who wrote them or who they represent, and their source for the document is anonymous. Nice reporting, NYT.


People have been telling student activists to get off their lawns since they invented lawns. The criticism just varies between national-security-threat tear-gas them off the lawn and liberal disdain kids-these-days get off my lawn, depending on the context and climate. The difference is whether they spank (gas, arrest, surveil) or merely mock them for abusing their privileges when they should  be thanking their betters. Neither Soave nor Rogers nor any of the many who shared and copied the story cared to get the actual story from the actual actors involved. This is not required (by editors or readers) when all you’re doing is reinforcing the already-known sorry.

You wouldn’t know from the Soave/Rogers story that the Black student demands also include benefits for part-time dining hall workers, as well as better pay and benefits.

Of course, if the students are concerned about racism they could spend their energies instead just protesting the giant national racist movement that is leading one of our two political parties, and therefore presumably simply be ignored by the NY Times. But the transition from annoying spoiled brats to national security threat is surprisingly easy to make — when the story is owned by the national news media. Rogers could have written her story about the students’ explicit anti-imperialist rhetoric and tied it to the San Bernardino “self-radicalizing” story instead. The stretch wouldn’t have been much further.

When I complained that the Times was highlighting the fried chicken demand instead of the labor demand, Judith Shulevitz tweeted, “They kinda set themselves up for that one. Gotta pick your battles.”

But it’s not that simple.


When I first saw this story I immediately linked it to the Daily Beast story, which I had been arguing about the previous day. When I saw how similar they were, I tweeted this:

I said it would be plagiarism in a class paper, because the main idea and most of the facts came from someone who was not acknowledged for that contribution. I honestly don’t know what constitutes plagiarism in journalism, but in my line of work such writing is unacceptable. In response, Patrick LaForge, who describes himself as senior editor of the NYTimes Express Team,* objected with three tweets (in reverse order):


My argument really is not about plagiarism, it’s about the news coverage – the story itself, the sources, and the writing. It is true that the NYTimes story did link to the Soave piece, but not in a way that gave any credit for all it contributed. I don’t see that as dispositive. Soave also tweeted that he “didn’t have a problem with the story,” which is nice. I guess he cares more about his influence whipping up the national hysteria about kids on the lawn than about getting individual credit for his work, which is admirable.**

* No disparagement intended by “describes himself”; I just couldn’t find this information on the NYTimes website.

** Of course, criticizing the NYTimes is all fun and games until you enrage an editor, and then it’s like, “Dude, I didn’t mean anything by it … you’re still gonna quote me, right? We’re good?”


Filed under In the news

Trump’s manhandling

The Internet is full of hate, but it’s not random hate.

Some Trump supporters like to yell “Sig Heil!” and, “Light the motherfucker on fire!” at Black protesters, but not that many of them, so that’s not it. His people are younger, less educated, and less Evangelical than the typical Republican primary voter. But what motivates them besides, presumably, racism? It’s not necessary, or really possible, to answer whether Trump is a true fascist in a literal sense, but what he brings out is a mix of racism, nationalism, and masculinity that has something in common with the old fascisms (and here I’m influenced by some old work I read by George Mosse, which I can’t really vouch for, as I haven’t kept up with the masculinity/fascism literature).

This is salient in the U.S., of course, where racism, nationalism, and masculinity are three peas in a pod (see lynching, etc.). Anyway, this came home a little during last night’s Republic primary debate.

After Bush attacked Trump for his lack of foreign policy knowledge and said he was “not a serious kind of candidate,” Trump lashed out (transcript here):

Look, the problem is we need toughness. Honestly, I think Jeb is a very nice person. He’s a very nice person. But we need tough people. We need toughness. We need intelligence and we need tough. Jeb said when they come across the southern border they come as an “act of love.”

That is true, by the way. In another era – early 2014 – when Bush said this about some immigrants:

Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.

But what struck me was the repetition of “tough” and it’s juxtaposition with “love.” The contempt with which Trump said it, obviously a prepared line. After they got done interrupting each other, Trump continued:

We need a toughness. We need strength. We’re not respected, you know, as a nation anymore. We don’t have that level of respect that we need. And if we don’t get it back fast, we’re just going to go weaker, weaker and just disintegrate.

trump-bush-debate This is a line of attack Trump has used against both Bush and Hillary Clinton before. This is from a couple weeks ago:

“They only understand strength,” Mr. Trump said [about people the president has to deal with]. “They don’t understand weakness. Somebody like Jeb, and others that are running against me — and by the way, Hillary is another one. I mean, Hillary is a person who doesn’t have the strength or the stamina, in my opinion, to be president. She doesn’t have strength or stamina. She’s not a strong enough person to be president.”

Trump’s tone and the masculinist references to toughness (and strength, and stamina*), as opposed to love, prompted me to tweet this:

It seemed he was saying it without saying it. Weak, not tough, lovey-dovey — gay. Am I reaching? A number of my Twitter readers seemed to agree. But then, after a little while, the Tweet started to get liked and retweeted by a bunch of Trump supporters, including some far-right, racist and nativist types, like these:



One of the responses I got from this Obama hating guy was a picture created by the Patriot Retort, a site that mocks Bush for his pro-Latino rhetoric and use of Spanish:


Forrest Gump was not gay, but I don’t have to try to hard to connect this dig to homophobia, because Patriot Retort has this on the same page:


Anyway, I could go on following this trail, but you get the point: they want Trump to call him gay. 

New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza Tweeted this clip from Back to the Future, in which bully Biff tortures George McFly, which he said the Trump-Bush interaction called to mind:


You don’t have to be gay (George McFly wasn’t) to be tarred with the not-masculine brush, of course. It’s a series of associations. And in the Trump situation, they’re really blooming.

* Note: Trump’s recent medical report specifically stated his “strength and stamina are extraordinary.”)


Filed under In the news, Uncategorized

Is the New York Times trapped in an economics echo chamber?

Ask a stupid question.

When Justin Wolfers wrote about the dominance of economists in the pages of the New York Times, he concluded, “our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.” I discussed the evidence for that in this post, which focused on the particular organizational features of the NYT. At the time it didn’t occur to me that his data — relying on uses of “economist” in the paper — would be corrupted by false attributions. So this is a small data story and a larger point.

The small data story comes from a personal reflection by Dionne Searcey, who wrote about work-family conflict in her new post as West Africa Bureau Chief for the NYT. It was a perfectly reasonable piece, except for one thing:

Much has been written about work-life balance, about women getting ahead in their careers and trying to have it all. I often find that if you scratch beneath the surface of many successful working moms, they have husbands who work from home or have flexible schedules and possibly a trust fund. Or in many cases, you find a mom who does more than her fair share at home — or at least feels as if she does. Economists have a name for it, “the second shift.”

Wait, “economists”? The Second Shift is a classic work of sociology by Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung first published in 1989 and revised twice. Why “economists”? The (very good) article that Searcey linked to was called, “The Second Shift: Men Do More at Home, but Not as Much as They Think,” written by journalist Claire Cain Miller, focusing principally on the research of several sociologists, led by Jill Yavorsky (a sociology PhD candidate at Ohio State with whom I have collaborated). There are no economists cited or quoted in the story.

The small data story is that this mention of economists will go into Wolfers’ count of the influence of economists in the marketplace of ideas, but it’s a false positive — it’s the influence of sociologists being falsely attributed to economists.

But why would Searcey say “economists”? The answer lies in the organizational culture of the NYT. Here’s why.

Here are my two tweets on the piece:

Considerately, Searcey replied:

How odd. When I pointed out again that the story she linked to was about sociologists talking about the second shift, she didn’t reply.

I recently wrote that economists don’t cite sociologists’ work as much as sociologists cite economists even when the two groups are working on the same questions with obvious implications for both. What about the second shift? A JSTOR search reveals 473 cases of “second shift” and “housework” in journals identified as sociology by the database. The same search in the realm of economics produces just 35 mentions (no fewer than 6 of which were written by sociologists).

So, why did Searcey think she “was referring to how economists talk about the second shift”? My only explanation is that it’s because the piece was published in the NYT section The Upshot. As I wrote in my Contexts post, Upshot

is edited by David Leonhardt, who was an economics columnist before he was promoted to Washington bureau chief in 2011. That promotion was a dramatic move, elevating an economics writer who hadn’t been a Washington political reporter. Upshot is a “data journalism” hub, which often (but not always) implies an economic focus. (On the opinion pages, economist Paul Krugman writes a column twice a week, and Joseph Stiglitz moderated a long series on inequality.) This can’t be the whole story, but in broad strokes it’s fair to say the paper as an organization moved in the direction of business and economics.

Upshot is, of course, where Wolfers was writing in praise of the idea-market power of economists. Is this just the free market of ideas allowing the most persuasive to rise to the top? Searcey’s errors suggests that it is not. Rather, the organizational status of economics has corrupted her perceptions so that if something appears there she simply believes it reflects economics (and no editor notices).

Incidentally David Leonhardt (whom I’ve written about several times) has been promoted to Op-Ed page columnist and associate editorial page editor.


Filed under In the news

Mary lives? (You’re welcome edition)

Things are looking up since last I wrote about the fate of the name Mary. It’s too early to tell, but it’s just possible things are beginning to turn around.

In 2014, Mary held steady at the 120th most-popular girls name in the U.S., as recorded by the Social Security Administration. That’s two years she’s been above her worst-ever showing of 123rd in 2012. Here’s the trend, starting with her last year at Number One, 1961:


You may recall that I first breathlessly reported Mary’s fall in 2009 when she dropped out of the top 100 U.S. girls names for the first time in recorded history (presumably ever). At the time I also speculated that she might have a chance of bouncing back, especially given the historical precedent of Emma, currently enjoying rare return to Number One:


Note that Emma had about 10 years of uncertainty before definitively tracking upward. With just a couple years of stall it’s way too early to write Mary’s triumph narrative, but you have to weight her odds of recovery higher than average because of the whole Christianity thing — especially with Catholics, who are holding their own amidst the general crisis of Christ.


What is the basis for a potential Mary revival? We have seen before that popular events can hurt a name (Forrest, Monica, Ellen), or help a name (Maggie, Brandy, Angie, and my favorite, Rhiannon). In this case historians my someday date the resugence of Mary to the appearance in 2012 — her worst year ever — of my essay in The Atlantic with the memorable illustration:


Call it a classic bottoming out.

1 Comment

Filed under In the news

Update: Adjusted divorce risk, 2008-2014

Quick update to yesterday’s post, which showed this declining refined divorce rate for the years 2008-2014:

On Twitter Kelly Raley suggested this could have to do with increasing education levels among married people. As I’ve reported using these data before, there is a much lower divorce risk for people with BA degrees or higher education.

Yesterday I quickly (but I hope accurately) replicated my basic model from that previous paper, so now I can show the trend as a marginal effect of year holding constant marital duration (from year of marriage), age, education, race/ethnicity, and nativity.*

2014 update

This shows that there has been a decrease in the adjusted odds of divorce from 2008 to 2014. You could interpret this as a continuous decline with a major detour caused by the recession, but that case is weaker than it was yesterday, looking at just the unadjusted trend.

If it turns out that increase in 2010-2012 is related to the recession, it’s not so different from my original view — a recession drop followed by rebound, it’s just that the drop is less and the rebound is more, and took longer, than I thought.  In any event, this should undermine any effort to resuscitate the old idea that the recession caused a decline in divorce by causing families to pull together during troubled times.

This does not contradict the results from Kennedy and Ruggles that show age-adjusted divorce rising between 1980 and 2008, since I’m not trying to compare these ACS trends with the older data sources. For time beyond 2008, they wrote in that paper:

If current trends continue, overall age-standardized divorce rates could level off or even decline over the next few decades. We argue that the leveling of divorce among persons born since 1980 probably reflects the increasing selectivity of marriage.

That would fit the idea of a long-term decline with a stress-induced recession bounce (with real-estate delay).

Alternative interpretations welcome.

* This takes a really long time for Stata to compute on my sad little public-university computer because it’s a non-linear model with 4.8 million cases – so please don’t ask for a lot of different iterations of this figure. I don’t have my code and output cleaned up for sharing, but if you ask me I’ll happily send it to you.


Filed under In the news