Jenée Desmond-Harris from Vox.com interviewed me about the Moynihan backlash post. The piece is here. In it she links to this blog, but not to the specific post. If you’re looking for that, it’s here.
Tag Archives: black women
This expands on some practice-what-you-preach criticism of conservative marriage promotion, with some numbers. I’m not endorsing the approach described here — I’m saying marriage promoters should adopt this if they are serious about promoting marriage to reduce poverty.
At Demos, Matt Bruenig wrote:
After rigging the institutions to capture the majority of the national income and basically all of the national wealth, segregating themselves residentially, intermarrying almost solely in their rich enclaves, and even sealing off their schools from being accessed by the unwashed masses, these rich social conservatives turn around and implore others to marry people that they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, people they can’t even bring themselves to make even the most minimal of community with.
In response, Sandy Darity tweeted: “I proposed that a marriage antipoverty strategy should have rich white men marry poor black women.” I don’t want to put the onus for ending poverty just on pro-marriage pundits. Instead — as Darity suggests — we should think in terms of broader policy.
Marriage promotion is mostly about convincing (educating, coaching) poor people to marry other poor people. That follows from the “culture matters” perspective on marriage decline advocated by some social scientists as an explanation for declining marriage rates. For example, in a New Yorker profile of Orlando Patterson, Kelefa Sanneh writes:
[William Julius] Wilson argued that declining professional prospects made some black men less marriageable. Patterson thinks that declining marriage rates had more to do with the increased availability of contraception and abortion, which eroded cultural norms that had once compelled men to marry the women they impregnated.
Whether the proximate cause is men’s reduced economic prospects or changing norms, the fact is that if poor people changed their attitudes (norms, culture) about marriage — if they put more priority on the importance of marriage and worried less about the economic qualities of the match — there would be more marriage and, they say they believe, less poverty, inequality, violence, and abuse).
An obvious problem with this whole enterprise is that the marriage boosters assume the next marriage they generate through marriage promotion will be as economically beneficial to the participants as the average existing marriage observed in the population. But if one of the reasons for non-marriage is poor economic status, then it follows that the next marriage generated will on average be much less beneficial economically than the average marriage (I expanded on this here). So the plan to reduce poverty by promoting marriage among the poor is running uphill. Or, it would be running uphill if it was running at all, but of course (ridiculous research shenanigans notwithstanding) their billion dollars spent has yet to generate a marriage, so this is really all very generous speculation.
If they really wanted to change “the culture”
For several decades, marriage promoters have been complaining that “the culture” isn’t pro-marriage enough. The latest version of this, from David Blankenhorn and colleagues, seeks to “restore a marriage culture among the less privileged.” But, although it’s true that poor people (especially poor Black people) have seen a faster drop in marriage rates, that’s not where the biggest anti-poverty gains are to be had. If you really want marriage to reduce poverty, and you really think policy can change “the culture” to make more marriages, then what you really need is (as Darity said) some rich (mostly) White men to marry some poor (disproportionately) Black women.
Why not? Is it really more far-fetched to imagine you could change rich White men’s attitudes toward poor Black women than it is to suppose you could “restore a marriage culture” among the poor? Why? Maybe one reason policies to increase marriage among the poor haven’t work is because the economic benefits aren’t great enough. If you were the kind of person that goes in for this sort of policy (which, again I am not), you’d have to assume poor people would be more receptive to the idea of marrying rich people — that’s one important premise of Wilson and Patterson’s perspective. So the problem is rich people don’t want to marry them.
How difficult can this be? Just to put some numbers to the idea, I did the following simple exercise. Take all the poor single mothers — specifically, non-married women living in their own households with their own children, with family incomes that put them below the federal poverty line — and match them up with rich single men.
How many rich single men do you need? With this definition, I get 3.5 million poor single mothers. I started with the richest single man, and went down the income ladder till I had enough to solve the single-mother poverty problem. It turns out you only have to go down to $80,000 per year in income. Here’s the matching, with the race/ethnicity of the two groups shown:
If the problem is that poor women are too economically choosy to marry the poor men in their lives, then we could easily lift these 3.5 million single mothers — and the 7.1 million children in their families — out of poverty simply by changing the anti-marriage views of these selfish, rich, single men. Of course, we’d have to reduce racist attitudes also, but not entirely — only a third of the non-Black rich single men would need to open their minds to the possibility of marrying a Black woman. You would have to be creative with the incentives for these men, including consciousness-raising and parenting classes, as well as, for example, Starbucks gift cards and subscriptions to the Economist.
Now, no one thinks you can socially engineer — through shame or tax incentives — the marital behavior of entire populations, so this strategy couldn’t be expected to completely eliminate the problem of single mothers and their children living in poverty. But it couldn’t be less effective than the marriage promoters have achieved with the last billion dollars they spent.
One thing a lot of liberals and conservatives can agree on: not talking about race.
[If you don’t have time for the text, just skip to the figure.]
Liberals are happy when conservatives talk about inequality, which they’re doing a lot more these days. And when they debate marriage as a way to “cure” poverty, neither talks about race. For example, Annie Lowrey writes in the the NYT Magazine:
With Democrats and Republicans pitted against one another in a vicious election-year battle over how to alleviate poverty, marriage is the policy solution du jour.
First, Lowrie makes the now universal mistake in interpreting the famous Chetty et al. result:
In a new study, the economist Raj Chetty and his co-authors found that, in terms of income mobility, nothing matters more for a low-income child than the family structures she sees in her community — not neighborhood segregation, school quality or a host of other factors.
Traditionally in America, when you say “a host of other factors,” that includes race. But the Chetty et al. paper is nearly unique in its avoidance of race, partly because race isn’t specified in tax records. So “nothing matters more” is at best untested, and at worst completely wrong, since race isn’t in the model. (My argument on this is here).
To those of us old enough to remember, or have read stuff from, the 1980s, not including race in this conversation is bizarre. Of course, it is not crazy to talk about poverty as an issue. In that article, Kristi Williams is right when she says:
It isn’t that having a lasting and successful marriage is a cure for living in poverty. Living in poverty is a barrier to having a lasting and successful marriage.
But the article doesn’t address the hard demographic reality that the things that make marriage less available or attractive to poor women — Lowrey lists “globalization, the decline of labor unions, technological change and other tidal economic forces” — have done it much more for Black women, even among the poor. In addition to even worse job prospects, for Black men you need to add incarceration, mortality, and intermarriage rates much higher for men than for women.
Here’s a simple way to see this. Adapting the old formula from William Julius Wilson, I counted up the number of employed, non-married men per non-married woman (employed or not) in the age range 25-34, separately for Blacks and Whites, and by education, for the 50 biggest metropolitan areas (one not shown because of data shortage, one outlier excluded). With intermarriage rates so low for Black women, and the tendency not to marry men without jobs, this is a reasonable approximation of the marriage market for Black women, though it understates the number of men available to White women.
This is the result:
Dots in the green areas show relative surpluses of men. Dots under the red line show better markets for White women than for Black women. It takes a minute to figure out. If your jaw dropped, you got it. With or without college degrees Black women face a shortage of “mariageable” men in every single market except five (Portland OR, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Providence, which was the outlier not shown). For college graduates Black women are under 75 men per 100 women in all but two markets, non-graduates are under 75 in 40 out of 48.
White women’s market is better than Black women’s in all but six (those five plus Sacramento). In most cases White women graduates have a surplus of men from which to choose.
Poverty is one thing. Race is another. They overlap, but on some questions they can’t be combined. Marriage is one of those issues. So, when you talk about the shortage of men to marry, I recommend remembering race.
Note: After I made this graph, Joanna Pepin and I decided to write a paper together on this. That is still in the pipeline, and I was going to save this for when it’s ready. But there will be plenty more.
Correcting an old figure.
For several years I have been using a figure that shows the disparity in marriage pools for Black versus White women. I’ve used it here and here, and who knows where else (certainly in class). As I was updating it with the latest data I realized I had two of the rows in my – wait for it – Excel spreadsheet reversed, so the ratio for White women was wrong. The old one showed unmarried White women with a surplus of available employed men, compared with a large deficit for Black women. The corrected figure merely shows Black women with a much larger deficit.
So here is it corrected (and I corrected it on the old pages as well).
Source: American Community Survey data from IPUMS. Note: Whites are single-race and exclude Latinos; Blacks are alone or in combination with other races.
Family Inequality regrets the error.
When I was in college a lot of people were reading Black Feminist Thought, by the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, which came out in 1990 (it’s now pushing 11,000 citations in Google Scholar, and Prof. Collins is a colleague in my department). That book helped popularize intersectionality, from the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar.
Thinking about and acting on intersecting inequalities was a big issue in the 1990s. It motivated me to do my only research on social movements (the women’s suffrage movement), as well as my dissertation, which included an article on the intersection of race, class and gender in U.S. labor markets (related to work my advisor Reeve Vanneman and colleagues were doing back then).
Anyways, long story short: I was interested to see that the latest edition of the journal Signs (paywalled) is devoted to intersectionality, or the critical analysis of how different kinds of inequality and identity occur simultaneously. I haven’t kept up with the theoretical side of this work, which has drifted away from the statistical modeling vein we were mining.
First I read the essay by Catharine MacKinnon, whose work I’ve been teaching for years in courses on gender, theory, and inequality. Since I last paid attention, she did a lot of work on women and international law, and in the essay here she discusses rape and genocide in the Balkan wars. Just as she once asked some feminists (paraphrasing), “if rape is about violence and not sex, why doesn’t he just hit her?”, she now asks (paraphrasing), “if genocide is about wiping people out, why do they commit mass rape against women instead of just killing them?” Thanks in part to her legal and theoretical work, the idea of genocide as a national, racial or ethnic crime is linked to sex-based atrocities such as forced prostitution and impregnation.
Although it’s hard to read, I am a sucker for MacKinnon’s wordplay (and always hear her phrase, “Man fucks woman; subject verb object,” when I talk about subjects and objects). So I was drawn in by her introduction to intersectionality as a method, which included, “Talking about thinking about the way one thinks is complicated, in that one is doing what one is talking about doing at the same time one is talking about doing it.”
For example, as we think about how we think, she wants us to avoid confusing the products of inequality for their causes. She writes,
No question about it, categories and stereotypes and classifications are authentic instruments of inequality. And they are static and hard to move. But they are the ossified outcomes of the dynamic intersection of multiple hierarchies, not the dynamic that creates them. They are there, but they are not the reason they are there.
Anyway, I recommend the essay, which, in addition to rape and genocide, also discusses the conundrums of intersecting inequality in U.S. law, where race and gender discrimination each are illegal, but discrimination by race-and-gender simultaneously is somehow sometimes left out.
That last point draws heavily off the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, who, along with Sumi Cho and Leslie McCall, guest-edited the special issue.
And here, after recommending the issue and praising its authors, I offer a criticism: intersectionality has a writing situation. Everyone in academia has their jargon. But in this area there is a common aesthetic preference for extra words and clauses — including long words and clauses — that is a real barrier to entry for those who don’t spend a lot of their time reading it.
Here is the opening paragraph of the introductory essay, by the guest editors:
As intersectionality has emerged in a number of discursive spaces, the projects and debates that have accompanied its travel have converged into a burgeoning field of intersectional studies. This field can be usefully framed as representing three loosely defined sets of engagements: the first consisting of applications of an intersectional framework or investigations of intersectional dynamics, the second consisting of discursive debates about the scope and content of intersectionality as a theoretical and methodological paradigm, and the third consisting of political interventions employing an intersectional lens.
That’s 86 words. I think not much would be lost cutting it down to 42 words, like this:
In the growing field of intersectional studies, we identify three categories of work. First, there are applications of the intersectional framework and studies of intersecting inequalities. Second, there are debates about intersectionality itself as a paradigm. And third, there are intersectional politics.
That’s just an example chosen for convenience — there are worse and better passages in the various essays, and I don’t want to belabor it. I suspect that to many outsiders this problem seems obvious, but I don’t know how these writers see it. I think academics should try to say what they want to say as clearly and directly as possible. If this principle were directly weighed against the loss of nuance — and aesthetic satisfaction — it might entail, I hope the balance would tip in the direction of readability.
Homicides in D.C. have hit a historic low, while the percentage of single-parent households remains steady.
As the year draws to a close, the Washington Post reports that the District of Columbia is heading for a historic low number of homicides: fewer than 100 for 2012. That’s down from the highs of about 450 per year at the start of the 1990s (while the population is about the same size).
Not mentioned in the story: the breakdown of the family. That’s surprising, because it was a big part of the story 20 years ago, when D.C. was the murder capital of the country during a national crime wave. I think single mothers—especially those who were raising their kids back in the 1990s—deserve an apology from the conventional-wisdom purveyors of that time.
Using the numbers from the Washington Post feature and Census data, I constructed homicide and single mother rates for 1990, 2000, and 2011, for Washington, D.C. Both trends have been pretty linear, so it’s reasonable to illustrate them with just a few points:
The Post attributes the declining murder rates to rising incomes, improved law enforcement technology and community relations, and better trauma care (although the number of non-fatal assaults has fallen similarly). But if you go back to the Post from the late 1980s and early 1990s, you would have heard a lot about family structure.
A very early story, from 1985, raised the alarm about an apparent growing epidemic of amoral, violent, black young men:
Such incidents have raised new fears here [in D.C.] and across the country about the growing instability of urban black family structure and the creation of an underclass of young men capable of killing for a warmup jacket or a pair of running shoes. Social scientists, law enforcement officials and community leaders share some of the same theories about the reasons for this kind of homicide among poor black youngsters. They point to the intense desire for material things amid deprivation, easy access to handguns, and the inability of parents—often young, unmarried mothers—to control or instill values in their children.
In 1991, when Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan released a study on homicide trends, he declared:
The collapse of the American family in the past few decades is historically unprecedented in the U.S., and possibly in the world. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the black community…. Some argue that the high rate of single parenthood has not adversely affected our children. But, sadly, the research does not bear them out. . . . Study after study has shown that children from single-parent families are five times more likely to be poor and twice as likely to drop out of school. . . . They are also more likely to be involved in criminal activity, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to suffer ill health, and to become trapped in welfare dependency.
Sullivan’s solution was a return to a “culture of character,” which he described as “a culture in which parents invest time and attention in their children, and the children of a neighborhood; a culture in which children growing up without a father are a small minority.”
A 1994 article focusing on the increase in homicide among young people summarized it this way:
At the bottom of all this, people in every section of the juvenile justice system say, is a critical lack of parenting. … Federal officials estimate that 70 percent of children in juvenile court are from single-parent households. In the last 30 years, the proportion of single mothers has grown from one in 20 to one in four.
Family structure and parenting were not the only explanations offered for the epidemic of murder. There was plenty written about crack cocaine and the drug war turf disputes, the availability of guns, and about poverty and failing schools. But that single-parent theme was quite widespread.
Looking at it from the perspective of 1990, it was easy to assume a strong causal relationship between the rise in single motherhood and the murder epidemic. By my reading of the research, it is true that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes. But other factors are more important. That must be the case, or we wouldn’t see the overall trends in the United States split this dramatically starting in the 1990s:
Violent crime has fallen through the floor (or at least back to the rates of the 1970s) relative to the bad old days. And this is true not just for homicide but also for rape and other assaults. At the same time, the decline of marriage has continued apace. Looking at two aggregate trends is never enough to tell a whole story of social change, of course. However, if two trends going together doesn’t prove a causal relationship, the opposite is not quite as true. If two trends do not go together, the theory that one causes the other has a steeper hill to climb. In the case of family breakdown driving crime rates, I don’t think the story will make it anymore.
And I’m open to explanations for why crime has really fallen, even including some minor role for the incarceration craze. But there were a lot of people who were not nearly so circumspect about the soundness of their causal stories when the family-breakdown-crime assumption served their ends. And it would be big of them to own up to it now.
Posted on TheAtlantic.com as Why Demographics Can’t Fully Predict How People Vote
Two-thirds of single women voted for Obama, according to the exit polls taken on the day of the election. On the other hand, the majority—53 percent—of married women went for Romney. With marriage on the decline, figured one pundit,
If [Republicans] are unable to attract the support of more unmarried female voters in future elections, they could face years in the political wilderness.
And Fox News reported:
Marital status was a more significant factor than gender this year. Women, a traditional Democratic voting group, backed Obama by 11 points—about the same as by 13 points in 2008. Even so, married women backed Romney by 7 points (an improvement from McCain’s +3 showing). Men backed Romney (52-45 percent), and married men backed him by an even wider margin (60-38 percent).
But these conclusions are overdrawn, because “unmarried women” are a data category more than a lived social group. Most people who aren’t married will get married. And people who are likely not to get married—such as poor people with fewer marriage prospects—tend to have traditional viewsabout marriage anyway. So what distinguishes unmarried women? Birth control is a common explanation. But almost everyone thinks birth control is okay these days, and although single women might be more worried about access, that’s because they’re less likely to have health insurance. In short, even if some women do have a strong identity as members of the single-women category, most unmarried women are just passing through.
What is grouping good for?
From the large sample interviewed by the major media’s exit polling consortium, we can see that simple demography can make some very strong predictions. At the extreme, with just two data points—race and gender—we can guess how a person voted 96 percent of the time, if she’s a black woman.
But that doesn’t tell us why people voted the way they did. On average, for example, black women also have lower incomes, are younger, and have completed less education than whites—and they have worse healthcare.
Source: National Health Interview Survey.
So did black women vote for Obama because they are proud of him as a black man and identify with his personal experience, or because his policies are more beneficial for them as workers, concerned family members, or medical patients?
And the closer a group gets to the 50/50 middle of the odds breakdown, the harder it is to guess what’s going on from the demographics. When the plane I was on Tuesday night landed, I turned on my iPhone to see who had won Ohio. Waiting for the page to load, I looked around and saw a guy a few rows back, smiling and giving me a thumbs up. He must have noticed I’m a white man, almost two-thirds of whom went for Romney. But did he think I was Jewish, or gay? Maybe it was my rumpled casual-business wear, shaggy hair, and dead-giveaway academic backpack. Or my facial expression.
In real life, even with people we don’t know personally, the cues we get from interactions and behavior explain more than simple demographics, although they all go into the quick mix of judgments we are forced to form on short notice throughout the day. In statistical terms, the basic demographic variables leave a lot of variance unexplained.
These demographic categories are useful for prediction at the group level, as punditry has proved. Show me a room full of randomly-chosen Mormons and I can guess that 78 percent of them voted for Romney. But give me 30 seconds with one of them personally and I might figure out whether she is the one who didn’t.
This paradox is why the “big data” people were so central to the campaigns. If you can get someone to give you a few key bits of information—even just a zip code—and then track them as they wander around the web after leaving your site, your models can be much more powerful than the demographics alone. It’s the equivalent of sizing up someone by their shoes, haircut, and the flight they’re on, rather than just sex and race.