US policy fails at reducing child poverty because it aims to fix the poor

If we want to help kids, it’s time to focus on money, not marriage.

[This piece was originally published by the Washington Post at Post Everything.]

From the first federal social welfare program for Civil War widows to Social Security and the 1960s War on Poverty, government support for poor families in the United States has attempted to enforce a moral hierarchy based on marriage: Widows got pensions they were considered to have earned, for example, while single mothers got shame and stigma for their moral misdeeds.

Since the 1960s, as marriage rates have fallen and women’s employment opportunities have improved, fewer and fewer women rely on husbands for their material needs. Now, the majority of children no longer depend primarily on the income of a married father. And yet, our policies to alleviate poverty still remain focused on correcting the behavior of poor people – especially their marital behavior – rather than addressing poverty itself.

The stated goal of the 1996 welfare reform law, for instance, was not to alleviate poverty but to encourage marriage and reduce single parenthood. The problem was seen as poor character rather than poor income, and the solution was imagined as a matter of replacing the dependency of so-called “deadbeat” parents on the state with dependency on a spouse. Those who insisted on remaining unmarried were singled out for special censure: In the words of one architect of the reform effort, Ron Haskins, “mothers on welfare, even those with young children, should be encouraged, cajoled, and, when necessary, forced to work.”   Today, many policymakers still want to impose conditions on families receiving food stamps and housing support, and as of 2015, marriage-promotion programs aimed at reducing poverty through matrimony had cost the federal government nearly a billion dollars.

One wonders if the money could have been better spent. There are about 6 million poor families with children in the United States — which means nearly 1 in 5 families with children in the wealthiest nation on the planet are living in poverty. My analysis of the latest federal data shows that, on average, these families’ income — including tax credits and all sources of welfare — is about $9,000 below the poverty line. That means ensuring no children grow up in poor households would cost $57 billion a year. (To put that in perspective, that’s how much money we’d get if Apple brought back the $200 billion it has stashed overseas, and paid just 29 percent tax on it – it’s a big problem, but it’s small compared to the wealth of our society.)

We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. We don’t try to address poverty directly, or alleviate it; we simply try to change the way poor people behave, especially poor parents. Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.

Policy that addresses poverty by punishing the poor for their perceived misdeeds plays on some popular misunderstandings, especially about marriage and parenting. Many non-poor people mistakenly believe that our lax attitude toward marriage is behind the child poverty problem. That’s why a Heritage Foundation claim that marriage reduces the chance of living in poverty by 82 percent has been a staple on the Republican campaign trail this season, and welfare money has been diverted from alleviating poverty to promoting marriage among the poor.

Yes, the children of single parents face steeper odds of success than their fellow citizens whose parents are happily married. Many single parents – the vast majority of whom are women – experience chronic shortages of money, time and social support. Their children are less likely to be closely supervised, to be well prepared for kindergarten, to graduate high school, and to make it through young adulthood free from entanglements with the criminal justice system. The intuitive case for more marriage is easy to see.

How then, as the share of children born to unmarried mothers has risen from just 1-in-20 in 1960 to 8-in-20 today, is it possible that child poverty has fallen, educational attainment has risen, and (at least since the 1990s) crime rates have fallen dramatically There are two answers.

First, single parenthood doesn’t just cause these social ailments, it also reflects them. Some of these problems are merely the consequence of whatever caused their parents to be single in the first place: poverty, illness, incarceration, weak relationship skills, and so on. In other words, successful people are more likely to raise successful children and to have successful marriages. Research on marriage among poor Americans clearly shows that the majority want to be married, but they aren’t for a variety of reasons related to their poverty. Faced with poor prospects in a marriage partner, some women reason, “I can do bad by myself,” as reported in the book “Promises I Can Keep,” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Some couples place marriage on a pedestal, and plan to postpone it until they are financially stable. As one young man with a pregnant girlfriend put it, “I’d rather get engaged for two years, save money, get a house, make sure … the baby’s got a bedroom.” For too many, however, that moment never arrives.

Poverty clearly lowers the chance of a successful marriage, even as being single may make it harder to escape poverty. This pattern is the subject of a long-running debate among social scientists. Although we can’t agree on the exact breakdown of cause and effect, any reasonable researcher will concede it runs both ways.

But the second answer is perhaps more important for today’s poverty debates. It is that the number of single-parent families doesn’t drive the poverty rate – rather, it mostly helps determine which families and children will be poor, not how many will be. How many people live in poverty is largely the outcome of our policy choices, about jobs and wages, and support for poor families. Akey study compared poverty rates and family structure in 18 countries, finding that the United States had the highest rate of poverty among single-mother families – more than 40 percent, compared with 5 or 10 percent in the Nordic countries. No country had as large a difference in poverty rates between single mothers and the rest of the population as the United States  – that’s our unique penalty for single parenthood.

So how could we actually do it? A new report from the Century Foundation – by the respected poverty scholars Irwin Garfinkel, David Harris, Jane Waldfogel and Christopher Wimer – lays out some of the options. They take two approaches, expanding the current child tax credit (CTC), or joining much of the rich world in using a child allowance that gives families with children cash without conditions.

Our current tax policy (principally the CTC and the Earned Income Tax Credit) reduces child poverty to the shameful 17 percent it is from the catastrophic 24 percent it would be otherwise. The problem with these credits is that they only help people with jobs, leaving those who can’t work – which is most of the poorest families – without assistance. They mostly aren’t working because they don’t have valuable skills, have health problems, or can’t manage a job (or jobs) while caring for their families. Yet you need a job to claim the CTC, on the cruel logic that the government doesn’t want to “disincentivize” work. The current CTC costs about $50 billion per year but does almost nothing to help the very poor, because coercing or cajoling them into getting a job is useless. So we have 3.4 million children living in “deep poverty,” in families with incomes less than half of what the government says they need (again, after accounting for all government benefits).

On the other hand, a universal child allowance could help everyone, and it might be more popular since middle-class voters would get a check, too. Although you end up giving non-poor people money they don’t really need (some of which you could tax back), this is better than the tax credits because it more efficiently reaches the poorest families. Using a child allowance, the report says we could cut child poverty in half, and reduce deep poverty by two-thirds – for about $200 billion per year. That seems like a lot – it is, after all, about one-eighth of what the Pentagon has spent on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq* – but wouldn’t you sleep better at night knowing your poorer neighbors were sleeping better at night?
What about those pro-marriage policies? In short, they have failed; despite more than a billion dollars, marriage promotion programs have produced no increase in marriage. Furthermore, just as our tax policy doesn’t help people who can’t work, marriage doesn’t help people who can’t marry workers capable of supporting them and their children. A child allowance would provide an income floor for those who aren’t married (they’ve been widowed or divorced, had abusive partners, have no one to marry – or, more rarely, don’t want to get married). And it would do so without coercing them into marriage or shaming them for being single, because all parents would get it, married or not.

Our social policy – especially in the post-1996 welfare reform era – says a spouse’s income is a good way to pay for children, and a job is a good way to pay for children, but government support is not. And the people behind our policy feel this so strongly that, rather than shape welfare policy to provide for the needs of children, they have crafted programs instead to pressure parents into either getting a job or getting married. And when neither of those is possible – or they are practically so undesirable that they may as well be impossible – then the suffering of the parent and her children is the cost of teaching that lesson to everyone else.

We know enough now to see that this approach doesn’t work: It doesn’t increase compliance with social norms on marriage and employment, and it doesn’t stop the scourge of child poverty. We can do better.

* Note: In the original I mistakenly described this as the annual Pentagon spending in that region. I have notified the Post of the error, which I regret.

Updated age education birth figures

As fertility continues in the news (see last week’s post on rising birth rates for women with higher education), I am preparing for a planned appearance today on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, on the “grandparent deficit” associated with births at advanced parental age. So I updated some old figures I made in 2012.

These come from two posts:

  • Poverty Poses a Bigger Risk to Pregnancy Than Age, which argued that a focus on parental age was distracting us from economic inequality. I concluded: When it comes to parents’ age versus social class, the challenges are not either/or. We should be concerned about both. But addressing the health problems of parents—especially mothers—with less than a college degree and below-average incomes is the more pressing issue—both for potential lives saved or improved and for social equality.
  • Births to mothers in their forties are less common now than in the old days, which explained that, although first births at older ages are more common, the birth rate among older women is lower now than it was during the Baby Boom. That is, women aren’t more likely to have a kid at age 40 now — they’re just more likely to have their first at that age.

Here are three figures I’ve updated.

The first shows the distribution of births by education within each age group of mothers. It shows, for example, 85% of women under 20 who had a birth in 2013 had a high school education or less. The highest levels of education are found among women have babies in their late 30s (note these are not just first births):

work.xlsxThe next one shows the same information, but now arranged as percentages of all births. This shows, for example, that 27% of all births are to women in their late 20s, with the majority of those having some college education or less:

work.xlsxFinally, the odd phenomenon in which, although the percentage of all births to women age 40+ has increased to the point that it surpassed the Baby Boom years, the birth rate for women that age is still much lower than it was:

advanced age trends.xlsxSo the average 40-year-old was more likely to have a baby in 1960 than today (15.5 per 1000 versus 10.5 per 1000), but a baby born today is more likely to have a mother 40 or older (2.3% versus 2.8%). That’s because more people were having births at all ages in 1960. The U-shape here reflects two historical trends: first, the total number of children per woman declined, which meant fewer born at older ages because people stopped earlier. Then, as marriage age increased, along with women’s education, women started delaying their first births, which led to increasing birth rates — and proportions of births — at older ages.


The source for the first two figures is my analysis of 2013 ACS data from The last one is from National Center for Health Statistics reports: here, here, here, and here; as well as a couple of old Statistical Abstracts, here and here.

Why are women with advanced degrees having more children?

There are a few puzzles in the latest news on U.S. fertility trends.


The issues behind fertility trends and patterns are complex, reflecting changing social and well as biological influences, and demanding careful attention to methods. Birth rates can be measured as annual events (such as the percentage of women having a birth in a given year) or as life-course outcomes (such as the percentage of women who reach age 45 without ever having a birth). Comparisons over time are confounded by changes in the composition of the population with regard to age, and some subgroups are subject to changing composition as a result of social or cultural, rather than biological, trends. For example, consider that a woman may spend the years from age 22 to age 43 as a college graduate, and then register an advanced degree at age 44. That means her births in the previous 20 years count among those with BAs, while her “completed fertility” would be counted among those with advanced degrees.

The news

It’s been a confusing few days for fertility-news watchers, so I’ll try to muddle it up a little more. I ran some numbers for a conversation I had with New York Times Upshot reporter Claire Cain Miller, which she reported under the title, “Births to Single Mothers Are Down, Except for Those 35 and Older.” I’ll show those here. They go along with the various headlines about Gretchen Livingston’s new Pew report, “Childlessness Falls, Family Size Grows Among Highly Educated Women,” reported by Brigid Schulte as, “Why educated women are having more babies.”

Here’s Miller’s chart, based on federal registered birth data. Note these are birth rates for women who aren’t married, which is not the same as the percentage of births occurring to women who aren’t married:


For unmarried women of all ages except 15-17, birth rates increased from 2002 to 2007. As I’ve shown before for women overall, the trend shows the increasing delay of childbearing, with a steeper rise for women ages 30-34 than for those in their early 20s. After 2007, however, reflecting the recession, birth rates fell for all unmarried women except those ages 35 and up. The conventional explanation for this has been that individuals and couples delayed births when they were financially squeezed, but those running up against the end of their fertile years couldn’t delay without risking infertility.

To see how this is working for single women in particular (and single here includes those who are cohabiting), it’s helpful to break it down by age and education. Older women face the biological clock issue regardless of their education level, and women with less education had greater exposure to recession-related hardship. What I showed Miller was this chart, which I made from American Community Survey (ACS) data provided by The solid lines are all unmarried women ages 15-44 — red for less than BA, blue for BA plus — while the dotted lines are just the older subgroup, 35-44. This shows that the volatility is greatest for women without BAs. And there is no real recession decline for the 35+ groups:

unmarried births ACS 01-13.xlsx

Based on that, Miller wrote:

During the recession, the decline in single motherhood was entirely attributable to women without college degrees, according to census data analyzed by Philip Cohen, a sociologist at University of Maryland who writes a blog called Family Inequality.

These are “women for whom the hardships of single motherhood are most acute,” Mr. Cohen said. “This could be deliberate planning, or it could reflect relationship problems or economic stress undermining their family plans.”

Among older women who are unmarried, ages 35 to 39, however, the birthrate was 48 percent higher in 2012 than in 2002, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The increase was driven by college-educated women, according to Mr. Cohen’s analysis. “The delay in general fits a long-term pattern: that family formation is increasingly delayed until women are more established, spend more time in education and more time developing their careers,” he said.

This is tricky because of course single women without BAs do have higher birth rates, so it’s not like poor women just can’t afford to have children — but as a group they were affected more by the crisis. What that means is that a greater proportion of them were affected in such a way as to reduce their fertility than among other groups.

Falling childfreeness

Although it seems contradictory on the surface, this is consistent with Livingston’s headline: Childlessness Falls, Family Size Grows Among Highly Educated Women. Although my figure only shows single women, look at the BA-holding 35+ women: their birth rates rose about 50% from the beginning of the decade till the recession, from about 10 per 1000 to about 15 per 1000, a rate they held through the recession.

But Livingston’s data are “completed” cohort fertility — estimated by the number of children women have had when they’re surveyed in the ages 40-44. Here’s her rather shocking chart:


My chart was annual birth rates. But hers is more interesting because it captures the life course more. What is it that is making women with advanced degrees have bigger families — and making fewer of them have no children at all?

There are several tricky things here, which I’ll show with data in a minute. They are:

  • The advanced-degree group has grown less select as it has grown — more women are entering this category. In particular, there are more Black and Hispanic women going beyond BAs, as well as presumably more women from poor backgrounds. So that might increase the birthrates of the group.
  • On the other hand, although marriage is more common among women with more education — and growing increasingly so — the proportion married among women going for advanced degrees has still fallen. Since married women have more children, this should lower fertility of higher-education women. (A quick check shows a slight decline in the proportion married among advanced degree holders under age 45 from 1990 to 2013, from 68% to 66%.)
  • Finally, as more women get BA degrees and go straight into additional schooling, the average age of women getting advanced degrees has fallen. That gives them more time to rack up births before hitting 44. (To make matters impossibly complicated, if they hold off on having children till they finish their advanced degrees, they will probably be younger when they graduate, as some graduate students with children might tell you.)

Remember that people make decisions about childbearing and education at the same time. If more women decide to get advanced degrees with the goal of having more children from a position of strength, then the statistics will show more women with advanced degrees having children — even if the decisions weren’t made in the order we assume.

It’s hard to get at this with the data we have. The population data we have on education and family characteristics doesn’t tell you when people got their degrees, which means those late 44-year-old medical school graduates are hard to pin down. Ideally, then, we’d have a measure of who is attending school, which would tell us who is on the way toward a degree. But the data from the Current Population Survey that Livingston used didn’t have measure of school attendance for people over age 25 until 2013. So I used the 1990 decennial Census and the 2013 ACS, which both have a measure of school attendance. Unfortunately, the 1990 Census doesn’t identify births, so I counted women as having had a birth if they were living in their own (or their husbands’) households with an “own child” age 0, which is not bad.

I took all the women ages 20-44 who already had a BA degree or higher, were attending school, and were living in their own (or their husbands’) households. In 1990 this was 3.4% of all women in that age group, and by 2013 it was 4.7% — a much bigger group. In 1990 3.5% of them had an infant, but that had increased to 4.6% by 2013. This is consistent with the Livingston finding that they are going to get advanced degrees and reach age 40-44 with more kids (if they experienced this birth rate difference every year, the completed fertility rates would be much higher for the later cohort).

Here are the breakdowns of the two cohorts according to the risk factors for childbearing I just described:

BAs attending school.xlsx

Notice: There are more in their prime childbearing ages (25-34), fewer married, and more Black and Hispanic. As it turns out, a regression analysis shows that the age change accounts for about a quarter of the increase in childbearing, while the change in marital status goes the other way about 8%, meaning they would have had even more kids if more were married. The race/ethnic effects are very small.

That also means the increase in fertility is not just compositional, the result of demographic changes. There is still an increasing tendency to have a child in this group, holding constant these factors. Adjusting for marital status and race/ethnicity, here are the predicted probabilities of having a birth in 1990 and 2013, by age:


Although the younger average age is a big factor, then, there is also a higher chance of having a birth at every age for college graduates pursuing advanced degrees. Why?


The optimistic interpretation of rising fertility for women with advanced degrees is that the cultural and organizational context has changed the childbearing calculus. The husbands or partners of these women are more supportive now. And their workplaces — or the workplaces they anticipate entering — have grown more accepting of professional women with children. Some schools have childcare and lactation spaces for graduate students. So having children may seem more reasonable. It’s also possible — and this is not contradictory — that the growth of this group has been driven by those who are less narrowly focused on their careers. To be a woman pursuing an advanced degree in 1990 you had to be a little more of a pioneer than you do now, so that path may have attracted a different group of women.

On the other hand, this is consistent with an inequality story: that those with better jobs and economic security, and family stability, have a growing advantage when it comes to raising children. Looking forward, I worry that the logistics of successful parenting are becoming an insurmountable challenge for too many people who don’t have enough control over their work lives. If we don’t improve the situation with healthcare, childcare, and family leave, then we risk increasingly making children a luxury that fewer families believe they can afford.

We are trying to fit our rapidly evolving social lives within the relatively narrow biological limits of human reproduction. The inconvenient truth is that the biological prime years for reproduction are also essential years for developing our human capital and adult relationships. We need collective efforts in the form of social policy to manage this compression.

Bogus versus extremely low-quality, Sullins edition
Photo by CTBTO from Flickr Creative Commons (modified)

Calling a study “peer-reviewed” gives it at least some legitimacy. And if a finding is confirmed by “many peer-reviewed studies,” that’s even better. So the proliferation of bogus journals publishing hundreds of thousands of “peer-reviewed” articles of extremely low quality is bad news both for the progress of science and for public discourse that relies on academic research.

Two weeks ago I briefly reviewed some articles published by D. Paul Sullins, the anti-gay professor at Catholic University, on the hazards of being raised by gay and lesbian parents. I called the journals, published by Science Domain International (SDI), “bogus,” but said you could make an argument for extremely low quality instead.

After that Sullins sent me an email with some boilerplate from the publisher in defense of the journals, and he accused me of having a conflict of interest because his conclusions contradict one of my published articles. After correctly pointing out that a sting operation by Science failed to entrap an SDI journal with a bogus paper about cancer research, he said:

SDI is a new and emerging publisher. … While I would not say SDI is yet in the top tier, and I don’t like their journal names much either [which mimic real journal titles], for the reasons listed above I submit that this publisher is far from ‘bogus.’

How far from bogus?

Since that post, the reviews on the third of Sullins’ papers have been published by Science Domain and its journal, the (non-) British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science. So we have some more information on which to judge.

The paper, “Emotional Problems among Children with Same-sex Parents: Difference by Definition,” was reviewed by three anonymous reviewers (from the USA, Brazil, Nigeria) and one identified as Paulo Verlaine Borges e Azevêdo, from Brazil. I summarize them here.

Anonymous USA

This reviewer only suggested minor revisions (nothing in the “compulsory revision” section). These were the suggestions: Avoid the first person, clarify the race of study participants, discuss the results in more detail, don’t use the word “trivial,” add citations to several statements, grammar check.

Anonymous, Brazil

This review demanded compulsory revisions: Clarify the level of statistical significance used, explain acronyms, clarify use of “biological parents” when discussing same-sex parents. And some minor revisions: one typo, one font-size change, standardize number of decimal places.

Anonymous, Nigeria

This reviewer included compulsory revisions: mention instrument used in the abstract, clarify measures used in previous studies on children’s well-being, test all four hypotheses proposed (not just three), clarify use of instrument used, shorten the discussion. Minor revisions: check for typos.

Paulo Verlaine Borges e Azevêdo, Brazil

This reviewer requested reorganizing the text, like this:

Would be better to redistribute the lengths of results (lessened), discussion (up) and conclusion (down) sections. In many moments, in the Result section the author deal with I believe would be better located in the Discussion (e. eg., between lines 345 and 355). I suggest that the subsections of Results would be reviewed by author and parts that discuss the results be transferred to the Discussion section … Strengths and Limitations would be better located in the discussion section too.

A few additional minor text modifications were included in the marked up manuscript.

Round two

Upon revision, Sullins was subjected to a punishing second round of reviews.

This included an interesting if ultimately fruitless attempt by Anonymous Brazil to object to this somewhat nutty sentence by Sullins: “biological parentage uniquely and powerfully distinguishes child outcomes between children with opposite-sex parents and those with same-sex parents.” What he meant was, when he controlled for the biological relationship between children and their parents — since hetero parents are more likely to have any biological parentage (and they’re the only ones with two bio parents) — it statistically reduced the gap in children’s mental health between married hetero versus same-sex parents. Although the exchange was meaningless in the decision whether to publish, and Sullins didn’t change it, and the reviewer dropped the objection, and the editors just said “publish it,” you would have to say this was a moment of actual review.

OK then

That’s it. None of this touched on the obvious fatal flaws in the study — that Sullins combines children in all same-sex families into one category while breaking those currently with different-sex parents into different groups (step-parents, cohabitors, single parents, etc.) — and that he has no data on how long the children currently with same-sex couples have lived with them, or how they came to live with them. So it leaves us right where we started on the question of same-sex parenting “effects” on children.

Of course, lots of individual reviews are screwed up. So, is this journal bogus or merely extremely low quality? Do we have a way of identifying these so-bad-they’re-basically-bogus journals that is meaningful to the various audiences they are reaching?

This matters is because journalists, judges, researchers, and the concerned public would like some way to evaluate the veracity of scientific claims that bear on current social controversies, such as marriage equality and the rights of gay and lesbian parents.

Color and the making of gender in early childhood

Most of today’s readers weren’t following this blog back when I started writing about color preferences. Those posts are listed under the color tag. Now there’s a new paper on the subject that helps me think about how gender works in young children.

It’s called, “Preferences for Pink and Blue: The Development of Color Preferences as a Distinct Gender-Typed Behavior in Toddlers,” by Wang Wong and Melissa Hines, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the same journal where I published my paper on how adult color preferences are affected by the sex of their children. (Their paper is paywalled, but since we’re personal friends feel free to ask me for a look at my licensed copy.)

The researchers studied 126 children ages 20-40 months in a UK college town. The pertinent parts of their findings, for my purposes are: girls prefer pink over blue more than boys; but the the gap starts out quite small before age two and widens to age 3; the preferences are unstable, that is, the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 24 months are not the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 36 months. (The preferences were measured by asking which color they liked better on a card, and letting them choose between pink and blue gender-neutral toys.)

Whenever there is research showing differences between the sexes, I always like to look for the overlap (see, e.g., this post). That’s because people fixate on the differences to confirm their presumption that the differences are total, fixed, and baked in or genetic. This underlies the whole fixation on the dimorphism question. So when they report girls are more likely to choose pink over blue than boys, I plug the means and standard deviations into my graphing spreadsheet to see the implied distributions (assuming normality). Here is the overall pattern:


So, you can decide whether you think that’s a big difference, but you should factor in the size of the overlap. The change over about 14 months was pretty impressive, with boys and girls pulling apart. Here are the curves at 20-26 versus 34-40 months:


One possible interpretation of this pattern is that color preference is learned rather than baked in at birth, and this is a time kids learn it. That interpretation is strengthened by the further finding that, while the gender difference increases from age 2 to age 3, it’s not stable within individuals. That is, whether a kid was pink-positive or -negative at time 1 was not a predictor of their preference at time two. That’s what this figure shows — girls are more likely to be in the top-right, but the time-1–time-2 slopes aren’t significant:


That’s more evidence against the idea that the sex difference in color preference is determined at birth, which is also consistent with the historical evidence, as Jo Paoletti’s work shows.

Children themselves have a strong motivation to perform their gender identity in ways that please adults or perhaps other children, and that tendency exacerbates early sex differences. They can anchor this performance to an arbitrary marker like color. From the paper (references removed):

Gender-related cognitive processes have been implicated in the acquisition of gender-typed color preferences. Specifically, gender-typed behaviors may be acquired through self-socialization after children have developed gender identity, and become self-motivated to adopt gender norms.

Unlike critics of this blog, I don’t fear that gender differences will be erased if we don’t continuously reinforce and celebrate them. People will figure out ways to make the “natural” differences count enough to get the job done when they need to. And reducing the pressure will help decrease both gender inequality and the stigma experienced by non-conforming people.

Children in same-sex parent families, dead horse edition

Not that child well-being in different kinds of families isn’t a legitimate research topic, but this idea of proving same-sex parents are bad to whip up the right-wing religious base and influence court cases is really a shark jumping over a dead horse.

Without getting into all the possible detail and angles, here are some comments on the new research published by D. Paul Sullins, which claims to show negative outcomes for children with same-sex parents. Fortunately, I believe the legal efficacy of this kind of well-being witch-hunt research evaporated with Anthony Kennedy’s Windsor decision. Nevertheless, the gay-parents-are-bad-for-kids research community is still attempting to cause harm, and they still have big backers, so it’s important to respond to their work.

Research integrity

Below I will comment a little on the merits of the new studies, but first a look at the publication process and venues. As in the case of the Regnerus affair, in which Brad Wilcox, Mark Regnerus, and their backers conspired to manufacture mainstream legitimacy, Sullins is attempting to create the image of legitimate research, which can then be cited by advocates to the public and in court cases.

Although he has in the past published in legitimate journals (CV here), Sullins’ work now appears to have veered into the netherworld of scam open access journals (which, of course, does not include all open-access journals). Maybe this is just the decline of his career, but it seems they think a new round of desperate “peer-reviewed” publishing will somehow help with the impending legal door-slam against marriage inequality, so they’re rushing into these journals.

Sullins has three new articles about the mental health of children with same-sex parents. The first, I think, is “Bias in Recruited Sample Research on Children with Same-Sex Parents Using the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ).” This was published in the Journal of Scientific Research and Reports. The point of it is that same-sex parents who are asked to report about their children’s well-being exaggerate how well they’re doing.

The second paper is “Child Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Same-Sex Parent Families in the United States: Prevalence and Comorbidities.” It was published on January 21 in the British Journal of Medicine & Medical Research. It claims that children living with same-sex parents, surveyed in the National Health Interview Survey, are more likely to have ADHD than “natural” children of married couples.

The third — the one I call third because it doesn’t seem to have actually been published yet — is, “Emotional Problems among Children with Same-sex Parents: Difference by Definition,” in the British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science. It’s point is the same as the second, with slightly different variables. (The author’s preprint is here.) This is the one Mark Regnerus referred to in a post calling attention to Sullins’ work. (The legitimacy strategy is apparent in Regnerus naming the fancy-sounding journal in the opening sentence of his post.)

What makes these scam journals? The first clue is that two of them have “British” in the name, despite not being British in any way (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They are all published by Science Domain, which is listed on “Beall’s List” of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers.” They are not published by academic societies, they are not indexed by major academic journal databases, they publish thousands of papers with little or no peer review (at the expense of the authors), and they recruit authors, editors, and reviewers through worldwide spam campaigns that sweep up shady pseudo-scholars.

For the first two, which have been published, Science Domain documents the review process. The first paper, “Bias in Recruited Sample…,” first had to overcome Reviewer 1, Friday Okwaraji, a medical lecturer at the University of Nigeria, who recommended correcting a single typo. Reviewer 2, identified as “anonymous/Brazil,” apparently read the paper, suggesting several style changes and moving some sentences, and expressing misgivings about the whole point. After revisions, the editor considered the two reviews carefully, and then wrote to the managing editor, “Please accept the paper, it is okay.” It was submitted November 18, 2014 and accepted December 17, 2014.

The second paper, “Child ADHD…,” also shows its peer review process. Reviewer 1 was Renata Marques de Oliveira at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. In 2012 she was listed as a masters student in psychiatric nursing, and is now an RN. This is the entirety of her review of Sullins’ paper:


OK, then.

The second review is by Rejani Thudalikunnil Gopalan, described as a faculty member at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, or maybe Gujarat Forensic Sciences University, Gujarat, India. She was recently spotted drumming up submissions for a special issue of the scammy American Journal of Applied Psychology (“What? We didn’t say it was the same journal as the Journal of Applied Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association!”). The journal AJAP is published by the Science Publishing Group (see Beall’s List), but I couldn’t investigate further because their website happens to be down.

Unlike Oliveira, Gopalan seems to have read the paper, and offered a few superficial questions and suggestions – not quite the very worst review from a legitimate journal that I have ever read. After a cursory reply, the editor responded (in full): “The authors have addressed all reviewers’ concerns in a satisfactory way. This is an outstanding paper worthy of publication in BJMMR.” It was accepted two weeks after submission.

I don’t want to imply that three journals are illegitimate just because they are run for profit by low-status academics from developing countries. But looking at the evidence so far I think it’s fair to call these journals bogus. However, I wouldn’t argue too much if you wanted instead to say they are merely of the very lowest quality.

Why does a guy at a real university, with tenure, publish three articles in two months at a paper mill like Science Domain? I fear our dear Dr. Sullins has fallen out of love with the scientific establishment. Anyways.


You might say we should just ignore these papers because of their provenance, but they’re out there. Plus, I want people to take my totally unreviewed blog posts seriously, so I should take these at least a little seriously. Fortunately, I can write them off based on simple, complete objections.

Combining the 1997-2013 National Health Interview Surveys, about 200,000 children, Sullins gets 512 children who are living with a same-sex couple (about 16% married, he says). In both the second and third papers, he compares these children to those living with married, biological or adoptive parents who are of different sexes. The basic problem here is obvious, and was apparent in the infamous Regnerus paper as well: same-sex couples, regardless of their history — married, divorced, never-married, just-married, married before the kid was born, just got together yesterday when the kid was 15, and so on — are all combined in one undifferentiated category. This just can’t show you the “effect” of same-sex parenting. (When Regnerus says this research supports the ” basic narrative … that children who grow up with a married mother and father fare best at face value,” he’s slipping in “grow up with,” though he knows the study doesn’t have the information necessary to make that claim.)

However, if Sullins did the data manipulations right — which I cannot judge because I don’t know the data, little detail is provided, and the reviewers have no expertise with it either — there is a simple descriptive finding here that is interesting, if unsurprising: children living with same-sex parents over the period 1997-2013, the vast majority of whom are not married, and presumably did not conceive or adopt the child in their relationship, have more emotional problems and ADHD than children living with their married, biological parents. We have to be smart enough to consider that — if it’s true — without falling into accepting the claim that such problems are the result of same-sex parenting, because that has not been established. Of course, this supports an argument for marriage equality, but it’s also just an empirical pattern worth understanding. If Sullins, Regnerus, and their ilk weren’t so hellbent on opposing homosexuality they could actually provide useful information that might be part of a knowledge base we use to improve children’s lives.

Sullins’ judgment is no doubt clouded by his overarching religious objection to homosexuality, which, he believes, like abortion and contraception,

contravene the natural operation of the body in order to conform human sexuality to the ideals of modernity… By severing the link between sex and children, both [abortion and homosexuality] increase privatization, diminish the social intentionality and form of the sexual union, and undermine the unitive good and the transcendent goal of marriage.

So for him it’s already settled — long before he extruded these papers (and Regnerus has expressed similar views). Apparently they think they just need a few bogus publications to bring the public along.

Off gender-script art

Fortunately, the hotel we’re stranded at is only a few blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago. Tooling around the museum I was still thinking about sex dimorphism, especially this piece in Time where I referenced ancient art and this one where I compared depictions of Hercules. I have no expertise in art history, so file (or skip) these as random observations of someone interested in cultural depictions of gender.


I’m intrigued by the idea — recurrent in the comments I get — that because animation for kids exaggerates things, then it is obvious that it will include extreme dimorphism. It seems to me that extreme dimorphism is a more common ideal now than it was in lots of other times and places, which perplexes me. So, in the category of dimorphism they didn’t do in the old days, here’s a Greek jar from 500 BC that shows men and a woman fighting. The caption describes her as “a fair-skinned Amazon, or foreign female warrior.”

vaseThe woman warrior’s body is just about the same as the man’s. “Of course,” they’ll say, “it’s because she’s a warrior.” And this is just super realistic art that happens to be about a female warrior — with no implication for gender ideal types.

Beauty standard

On a different subject, thinness in general, which of course is a historically-recent obsession. Here’s a nice example, an 8th century, Tang Dynasty, earthenware sculpture featuring a “matronly rider” with “ample proportions — conveyed by the folds of her flowing, wide-sleeved robe as well as by her plump cheeks and double chin,” which was “fashionable at the mid-eighth-century Tang court.”

chinahorseThey don’t mention her tiny hands, also in fashion among Chinese elites, and possibly bound feet (footbinding is supposed to date from around this period).

Gender (non-)differentiated children

The Art Institute is all about Impressionism, and there is a recurring theme among the French painters of little boys with long hair and dresses. Here is Jean Renoir, from 1899. The caption says the boy wanted his hair shorter but his father made him keep it long till school rules required him to cut it at age seven.

jeanrenoirThe caption doesn’t say whether he liked sewing.

Who knew Claude Monet also had a son named Jean? Here he is at age five or six, in 1873, playing hoop while his mother watches. The scene depicts the well-being of a period of “financial security” for the family, so it’s not like they couldn’t afford boy’s clothes.


Finally, Camille Pissarro’s Woman with Child at the Well, part of a series “depicting peasant girls taking a break from their chores.” The model for the little boy was the painter’s fourth son, Ludovic-Rodolphe, who was four at the time.

ludovicNone of this is surprising to people who’ve seen this portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age two, in 1884:

Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897 and barely updated here, is that (a) you can’t prove there is no Santa, so agnosticism is the strongest possible objection, and (b) Santa enriches our lives and promotes non-rationalized gift-giving, “so we might as well believe in him.” That’s the substance of it. It’s a very common argument, identical to one employed against atheists in favor of belief in God, but more charming and whimsical when directed at killjoy Santa-deniers.

All harmless fun and existential comfort-food. But we have two problems that the Santa situation may exacerbate. First is science denial. And second is inequality. So, consider this an attempted joyicide.


From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened.

Here are the details:


So the Santa situation is not an isolated question. We’re talking about a population with a very strong tendency to express literal belief in fantastical accounts. This Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism. For the past 20 years, the General Social Survey GSS has found that a third of American adults agrees with the statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” versus two other options: “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”; and,”The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” Those “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.

Using the GSS I analyzed the attitudes of the “actual word of God” people (my Stata data and work files are here). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, political ideology, and the year of the survey, they are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • Agree that “We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith”
  • Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
  • Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
  • Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”

This isn’t the direction I’d like to push our culture. Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

Children’s ways of knowing

A little reading led me to this interesting review of the research on young children’s skepticism and credulity, by Woolley and Ghossainy (citations below were mostly referred by them).

It goes back to Margaret Mead’s early work. In the psychological version of sociology’s reading history sideways, Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels social evolution. Children were thought to be “more closely related to the thought of the savage than to the thought of the civilized man,” with animism in “primitive” societies being similar to the spontaneous thought of young children. This goes along with the idea of believing in Santa as indicative of a state of innocence.

In pursuit of empirical confirmation of the universality of childhood, Mead investigated the Manus tribe in Melanesia, who were pagans, looking for magical thinking in children: “animistic premise, anthropomorphic interpretation and faulty logic.”

Instead, she found “no evidence of spontaneous animistic thought in the uncontrolled sayings or games” over five months of continuous observation of a few dozen children. And while adults in the community attributed mysterious or random events to spirits and ghosts, children never did:

I found no instance of a child’s personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or stars. I found no evidence of a child’s attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes.

On the other hand, adults blamed spirits for hurricanes hitting the houses of people who behave badly, believed statues can talk, thought lost objects had been stolen by spirits, and said people who are insane are possessed by spirits. The grown men all thought they had personal ghosts looking out for them – with whom they communicated – but the children dismissed the reality of the ghosts that were assigned to them. They didn’t play ghost games.

Does this mean magical thinking is not inherent to childhood? Mead wrote:

The Manus child is less spontaneously animistic and less traditionally animistic than is the Manus adult [“traditionally” here referring to the adoption of ritual superstitious behavior]. This result is a direct contradiction of findings in our own society, in which the child has been found to be more animistic, in both traditional and spontaneous fashions, than are his elders. When such a reversal is found in two contrasting societies, the explanation must be sought in terms of the culture; a purely psychological explanation is inadequate.

Maybe people have the natural capacity for both animistic and realistic thinking, and societies differ in which trait they nurture and develop through children’s education and socialization. Mead speculated that the pattern she found had to do with the self-sufficiency required of Manus children. A Manus child must…

…make correct physical adjustments to his environment, so that his entire attention is focused upon cause and effect relationships, the neglect of which would result in immediate disaster. … Manus children are taught the properties of fire and water, taught to estimate distance, to allow for illusion when objects are seen under water, to allow for obstacles and judge possible clearage for canoes, etc., at the age of two or three.

Plus, perhaps unlike in industrialized society, their simple technology is understandable to children without the invocation of magic. And she observed that parents didn’t tell the children imaginary stories, myths, and legends.

I should note here that I’m not saying we have to choose between religious fundamentalism and a society without art and literature. The question is about believing things that aren’t true, and can’t be true. I’d like to think we can cultivate imagination without launching people down the path of blind credulity.

Modern credulity

For evidence that culture produces credulity, consider the results of a study that showed most four-year-old children understood that Old Testament stories are not factual. Six-year-olds, however, tended to believe the stories were factual, if their impossible events were attributed to God rather than rewritten in secular terms (e.g., “Matthew and the Green Sea” instead of “Moses and the Red Sea”). Why? Belief in supernatural or superstitious things, contrary to what you might assume, requires a higher level of cognitive sophistication than does disbelief, which is why five-year-olds are more likely to believe in fairies than three-year-olds. These studies suggest children have to be taught to believe in magic. (Adults use persuasion to do that, but teaching with rewards – like presents under a tree or money under a pillow – is of course more effective.)

Richard Dawkins has speculated that religion spreads so easily because humans have an adaptive tendency from childhood to believe adults rather than wait for direct evidence of dangers to accumulate (e.g., “snakes are dangerous”). That is, credulity is adaptive for humans. But Woolley and Ghossainy review mounting evidence for young children’s skepticism as well as credulity. That, along with the obvious survival disadvantages associated with believing everything you’re told, doesn’t support Dawkins’ story.

Children can know things either from direct observation or experience, or from being taught. So they can know dinosaurs are real if they believe books and teachers and museums, even if they can’t observe them living (true reality detection). And they can know that Santa Claus and imaginary friends are not real if they believe either authorities or their own senses (true baloney detection). Similarly, children also have two kinds of reality-assessment errors: false positive and false negative. Believing in Santa Claus is false positive. Refusing to believe in dinosaurs is false negative. In this figure, adapted from Woolley and Ghossainy, true judgment is in green, errors are in red.


We know a lot about kids’ credulity (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, etc.). But, Woolley and Ghossainy write, their skepticism has been neglected:

It is perplexing that a young child could believe that his or her knowledge of the world is complete enough to deny the existence of anything new. It would seem that young children would understand that there are many things that exist in the real world that they have yet to experience. As intuitive as this seems, it appears not to be the case. From this perspective, development regarding beliefs about reality involves, in addition to decreased reliance on knowledge and experience, increased awareness of one’s own knowledge and its limitations for assessing reality status. This realization that one’s own knowledge is limited gradually inspires a waning reliance on it alone for making reality status decisions and a concomitant increase in the use of a wider range of strategies for assessing reality status, including, for example, seeking more information, assessing contextual cues, and evaluating the quality of the new information.

The “realization that one’s own knowledge is limited” is a vital development, ultimately necessary for being able to tell fact from fiction. But, sadly, it need not lead to real understanding – under some conditions, such as, apparently, the USA today, it often leads instead to reliance on misguided or dishonest authorities who compete with science to fill the void beyond what we can directly observe or deduce. Believing in Santa because we can’t disprove his existence is a developmental dead end, a backward-looking reliance on authority for determining truth. But so is failure to believe in germs or vaccines or evolution just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to inhabit the green boxes without giving up our love for things imaginary, and that seems impossible without education in both science and art.

Rationalizing gifts

What is the essence of Santa, anyway? In Kaplan’s NYT essay it’s all about non-rationalized giving — for the sake of giving. The latest craze in Santa culture, however, says otherwise: Elf on the Shelf. According to Google Trends, interest in this concept has increased 100-fold since 2008. In case you’ve missed it, the idea is to put a cute little elf somewhere on a shelf in the house. You tell your kids it’s watching them, and that every night it goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on their nice/naughty ratio. While the kids are sleeping, you move it to another shelf in house, and the kids delight in finding it again each morning.

Foucault is not amused. Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like these handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on:


So is this non-rationalize gift giving? Quite the opposite. In fact, rather than cultivating a whimsical love of magic, this is closer to a dystopian fantasy in which the conjured enforcers of arbitrary moral codes leap out of their fictional realm to impose harsh consequences in the real life of innocent children.


What does all this mean for inequality? My developmental question is, what is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? In other words, how long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? Where do these curves cross?


Beyond worrying about how Santa rewards or punishes them individually, if children are to believe that Christmas gifts are doled out according to moral merit, than what are they to make of the obvious fact that rich kids get more than poor kids? Rich or poor, the message seems the same: children deserve what they get. Of course, I’m not the first to think of this:



I can’t demonstrate that believing in Santa causes children to believe that economic inequality is justified by character differences between social classes. Or that Santa belief undermines future openness to science and logic. But those are hypotheses.

Between the anti-science epidemic and the pervasive assumption that poor people deserve what they get, this whole Santa enterprise seems risky. Would it be so bad, so destructive to the wonder that is childhood, if instead of attributing gifts to supernatural beings we instead told children that we just buy them gifts because we love them unconditionally and want them — and all other children — to be happy?

To know poverty proportions, know your terms (Fox News edition)

In a recent interview on Fox & Friends, despite preparing, I found myself not prepared for Tucker Carlson to ask me this:

It’s pretty conclusive that kids who grow up with married parents — biological parents — do way better than kids who don’t. So the fact that the percentage of kids growing up in that environment has been dropping, why shouldn’t we call that a tragedy?

After a little back-and-forth, I came out with this pretty inarticulate statement:

I think we want to think about pros and cons and and challenges that people face in all different arrangements. And part of the point of this report is that we can’t put people in one category and try to come up with a solution. Our poverty problem for example: Only a third of people in poverty now are living in single-mother families. So we have a large problem of poverty in married couple families as well.

More below the full interview…

My inarticulateness would probably have been even worse if I had noticed that the Fox audience at that moment was being treated to a completely wrong statistic in the caption below our talking heads:


The report I provided to the Fox staff had actually shown that one-third — not two-thirds — of children under 15 live with unmarried parents.

Anyway, my statement, “Only a third of people in poverty now are living in single-mother families,” is pretty much true. On the other hand, the oft-cited Heritage Foundation statement, “Nearly three out of four poor families with children in America are headed by single parents,” is pretty much true, too. How can that be?

To put it as confusingly as possible, the basic issue is that poverty numbers can be reported for different data universes: individuals, families, family households, individuals in families, and families with children. Some families are sub-families — that is, they are in someone else’s household — and some children (if they live in group quarters, or are ages 16-18 and live on their own as neither married nor parents) don’t live in families.

Here are some poverty numbers for 2013 (from various tables here). The rates are just for your information; it’s the numbers in poverty that I refer to below — you can use them to mix and match your own proportions:


Notice that there are 14 million poor people who don’t live in families at all. Some of them have housemates or cohabiting partners that they are sharing income with, but because they’re not technically families that shared income doesn’t count as shared income.

Because, from the 1st and 3rd rows of the table, 15,606/45,318 = .34, my statement that only a third of poor people live in single-mother families was pretty much true. I say “pretty much” because a few of those female-householder-no-husband families aren’t single mothers of children, but rather single women hosting some other family member in their households (such as an older relative).

And because, from rows 12-14, (3,937+607)/6,482 = .70, the Heritage Foundation’s statement that, “Nearly three out of four poor families with children in America are headed by single parents” is pretty much true, too.

So, who’s right?

Well, if you want to talk about the whole poverty problem, it’s fair to say that only a third of it involves people in single-mother families. Maybe by excluding the single fathers from that I’m guilty of shading the number downward to minimize the problem (and I definitely shouldn’t have implied that the rest of the poor people live in married-couple families). I actually did that because the table I get those numbers from (hstpov2) doesn’t report single-man families.

If you want to talk about the problem of children in poverty, then you should use the second panel, which tells you that 57% of children in poverty live with single mothers (8,339/14,659), or if you include single fathers, 65%. That’s what Heritage should do.

The “nearly three out of four” number is true — if you’re OK with 70% as nearly three out of four — but there’s no reason families is the more logical unit of analysis instead of children.

Marriage tracks poverty

Anyway, I was reminded of all this because Brad Wilcox tweeted a link to this editorial from the Tyler Morning Telegraph. The editorial includes the Heritage statistic, and explains why poverty rates haven’t fallen much in the last few years, while unemployment rates have. Quoting Joe Carter of the Acton Institute:

“The findings align with what many family scholars and economists have been predicting: the decline of marriage leads to an increase in poverty. From 2007 to 2011, the American population increased by 10,360,000 while the number of marriages decreased during that same period by 79,000. Over the last few years we’ve seen the same trend: more people, fewer marriages. … The effect of the decline in marriage, coupled with an increase in single parenthood, is that many more children live in poverty than they would if marriage was more common.”

That’s why the headline for the editorial is, “Marriage statistics track with poverty.” To illustrate marriage tracking poverty, I’ve put the two historical trends on the same graph, using this for marriage and this for poverty:

poverty and marriage 1960-2013

As the chart clearly shows (since 1977 at least), when marriage falls, poverty goes up. Also, when marriage falls, poverty goes down. In math-grammar terms, those two equations reduce to: marriage falls; poverty goes up and down.

Survivor bias and the 92% of Southern Black men who support spanking

In today’s New York Times both Michael Eric Dyson and Charles Blow write about spanking. Blow doesn’t mention race and the South, but that’s in the background when we writes:

I understand the reasoning that undergirds much of this thinking about spanking: Better to feel the pain of being punished by someone in the home who loves you than by someone outside the home who doesn’t.

Dyson goes further, and ties the practice back to slave plantations:

Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

Here are a couple of logical points, and then some data.

First, please note that the rationale some Black parents use doesn’t need to explain all of the practice of beating children, just the difference between Blacks and Whites. Blacks are more likely to support spanking than Whites, but a strong majority of both groups in this country agree spanking is “sometimes necessary.” So not every case of Black parents beating their children is attributable to slavery and racism. Some may be, and the rationale no doubt is in many cases, but that’s not the whole story.

Second, it’s common for people who suffer some disadvantage and survive to attribute their survival to the hardship they suffered. NFL player Adrian Peterson, who beat his 4-year-old son with a stick, said, “I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.”

If there were 15 boys on a lifeboat, and one survived, he would probably say, “I have always believed that my lifeboat experience has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.” If he were successful in his post-lifeboat life, people might agree with his explanation. In fact, statistics might even show that lifeboat survivors are more successful. Statistically, that’s a survivor bias – the people who should be dragging down the average aren’t alive to weigh in.

A more subtle effect is not just statistical bias but real survival selection — the one lifeboat guy who lives was probably the strongest. So his story seems credible, even though lifeboat populations have very high mortality. In fact, the “Black-White mortality crossover” is a classic puzzle upon which many demographers (including me, though I sadly didn’t get it published) have cut their teeth: At old ages, Blacks have lower mortality rates than Whites (here’s a recent update). That’s partly because to live to old age in Black America you have to be tough (and partly because some old Blacks exaggerate their age, intentionally or unintentionally, which is a cultural expression of the same thing).


Anyway, kudos Harry Enten at 538 for turning to the General Social Survey to show trends in spanking attitudes. He shows that born-again Christians, Blacks, Southerners, and Republicans are all more likely to support spanking. And he did a regression showing those variables all predict spanking agreement when entered together. However, what he doesn’t show is the the interaction most important for today’s news: The support for spanking among Black men raised in the South. (Enten uses the GSS code for where people currently live, when for a question like this I think it’s more appropriate to use the code for where people lived when they were age 16.)

To get a decent sample size (this is down to 211 Southern Black men), I pooled three administrations of the GSS (2008, 2010, 2012), to get this:

spanking race and region.xlsx

Notice the huge gender gaps, which Enten for some reason didn’t consider.  And see that the Southern-at-age-16 people have higher rates of supporting spanking than the currently-Southern. If spanking were a reasonable adaptation to hardship, necessary for children to toughen up and learn to follow orders so they don’t get killed by Whites, why would Black men support it more than Black women?

So 92% of Southern Black men support a “good, hard spanking,” and Charles Barkley was probably right, empirically, when he said spanking was ubiquitous in the South in his childhood. But 75% of non-Southern White men support it, too. So it’s variations on a nearly-universal theme.

And the people who think it helps children because it helped them are not alone among the survivors of difficult childhoods. But that doesn’t mean they’re right.

Clarification: Don’t take the term “survivor” too literally. The lifeboat analogy is just an extreme version of, “15 people experienced harsh beating as a child, and one ended up a successful football player.” People who suffer and succeed often incorrectly attribute their success to their suffering.