African American marital status by age, Du Bois replication edition

At the 1900 Paris Exposition, sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois presented some the work of his students. In The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, Aldon Morris writes:

Du Bois’s meticulousness as a teacher is apparent in the charts and graphs that he prepared with his students. For example, as part of his gold medal-winning exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition, Du Bois and his students produced detailed hand-drawn artistically colored graphs and charts that depicted the journey of black Georgians from slavery to freedom.

Some of collection is shown in this post at the Public Domain Review (shared by Tressie McMillan Cottom yesterday); the full collection is online at the Library of Congress (LOC).

The one that caught my eye was this, showing marital status (“conjugal condition”) by age and sex for the Black population. I can’t find the source details in the LOC record, so I don’t know if it’s Georgia or national, but I presume it’s from tabulations of 1890 decennial census or earlier:


It’s artistic and meticulous and clearly informative, beautiful. So I tried to make a 2015 update to complement it. I used data from the 2015 American Community Survey via, and did it a little differently.* Most importantly, I added two more conjugal conditions, cohabiting and separated/divorced. Second, I used five-year age groupings all the way up, instead of ten. Third, I detailed the age groups up to age 85. Here’s what I got:

du bois marstat replication.xlsx

Some very big differences: Much smaller proportions of African Americans married now. Also, much later marriage. In the 1900 figure more than 30% of men and 60% of women have been married by age 25; those numbers are 5-6% now. I don’t know how they counted separated/divorced people in 1900, but those numbers are high now at 31% for women and 24% for men at age 60-64. Widowhood is later now, as 42% of women were widowed before age 65 in 1900, compared with only 13% now (of course, that’s off a lower marriage rate, and remarried people are just counted as married). And of course cohabitation, which the chart doesn’t show for 1900. Note I included people in same-sex as well as different-sex couples.

So, thanks for indulging me. I hope you don’t think it’s frivolous. I just love staring at the old charts, and going through the (very different) steps of replicating it was really satisfying. (I also just love that in another 100 years someone might look back on this and say, “Wait, which one was Earth again?”)

Note: If you want to compare them side-by-side, here’s a go at that. The age ranges don’t line up perfectly but you can get the idea (click to enlarge):

* SAS code, ACS data, images, and the spreadsheet used for this post are shared as an Open Science Framework project, here.

Cohabitation in the marriage trend

The other day I complained about the low value added from a commercial marriage soothsayer. Making predictions about marriage in the short run isn’t very important (because short-run change is modest), and in the long run is much more complicated than the simple models I used. One very important complication that we in the United States are ill-prepared to deal with is cohabitation, raised in a comment yesterday by Gosta Esping-Andersen.

After a scare last fall over funding for the marital events and marital history questions in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the government decided to keep the questions (I wrote about it here, here, and here). With these questions, we know a lot about the timing of marriage and divorce, in addition to births, from the biggest annual survey we have. However, we don’t know much about cohabitation. We know if people are cohabiting as “unmarried partners,” but only if they are doing so in a home owned or rented by one of the partners. And we don’t know how long they’ve been living together, or if someone used to cohabit but no longer does (cohab breakups aren’t recorded like divorces).

This isn’t so bad in the U.S., compared to some other countries where cohabitation tends to me more serious and long-lasting, but it still is a significant blind spot in our demographic data system. For example, according to an analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth (much smaller and less frequent than the ACS), by the Nation Center for Family and Marriage Research, the majority of unmarried women having births (57%) are in cohabiting relationships, which amounts to a quarter of all births. The proportion of single new-mothers living with someone is higher among Whites and Hispanics (two-thirds) than among Blacks (one-third).

Ultimately, the reason we care whether parents are married, or cohabiting, is because we want to know who’s going to take care of the children, and pay for them, and what their developmental environment will be. Marital status or living arrangements are a rough way to measure these things.

Marriage trends

Anyway, what role does cohabitation play in the decline in marriage? If people were just redefining their commitments, choosing cohabitation instead of marriage, that would mean something different than if they were just spending more of their lives truly single.

Frustratingly, the best annual data on cohabitation now comes from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), rather than the ACS, which means it’s not paired with the marital events and history questions. In the CPS, since 2007 (a change I discussed here), we know if someone is cohabiting even if the couple is living in someone else’s household (such as a parent or roommate). So here’s a look at where cohabitation fits in to the marriage trends for young adults, from 2007 to 2014 (for these trends, I counted people as married only if they were not separated, and I counted people as cohabiting if they said they were living with a boyfriend or girlfriend even if they were married but separated):

Microsoft PowerPoint - marcohab-07-14.pptx

The figure shows that, even with the increase in cohabitation for 25-34-year-olds, singleness is still increasing. This is especially true for those in the peak marriage age of 25-29, for whom marriage has decreased 9% while cohabitation has increased only 4%. Strikingly, it also shows that cohabitation now is more common among 20-24-year-olds than marriage; I don’t remember noticing that before.*

So, at least in these broad strokes, cohabitation doesn’t account statistically for recent declines in marriage. But it is important: if you just focus on marriages, you miss the trend toward higher rates of cohabitation among unmarried people.


Here are some figures showing the relative prevalence of cohabitation versus marriage, by sex, age, and year, using the same data and definitions as above. Restricting the data to those who are married or cohabiting, these figures show the percentage cohabiting, so over 50% means more people are cohabiting than are married (spouse present). Green is more cohabitation, red is less. Moving down the figures is time, and to the right is age, so older people are more likely to be married, and cohabitation increased from 2007 to 2014. By 2014, cohabiting was more common for men up to age 25, for women up to age 23. Because the samples are relatively small the estimates bounce around, so I smoothed the figures by averaging adjacent cells.



My rejection of the National Marriage Project’s “Before ‘I Do'”

All day today, “The Decisive Marriage” has topped the New York Times most-emailed list. The piece is a Well Blog post, written by Tara Parker-Pope, which reports on a report published by the National Marriage Project and written by Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley, “Before ‘I Do’: What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?”

I have frequently criticized the National Marriage Project, run by Bradford Wilcox (posts listed under this tag), and I ignore their work when I can. But this report is getting a lot of attention now and several people have asked my opinion. Since the research in the report has not been subject to peer review, and the Pope piece does not include any expert commentary from non-authors, I figured I’d structure this post like the peer review report I would dash off if I had been asked to review the piece (it’s a little different because I have access to the author and funding information, and I wouldn’t include links or graphics, but this is more or less how it would go if I were asked to review it).

Before “I Do”

This paper reports results from an original data collection which sampled 1,294 people in 2007/08, and then followed an unknown number of them for five years. The present paper reports on the marriage quality of 418 of the individuals who reported marrying over the period (ages 18-40). The authors provide no information on sample attrition or how this was handled in the analysis, or the determinants of marriage within the sample. Although they claim (without evidence) that the sample was “reasonably representative of unmarried adults,” they note it is 65% female, so it’s obviously not representative. More importantly, the analysis sample is only those who married, which is highly select. Neither sexual orientation of the respondents, nor gender composition of the couples described is reported.

The outcome variable in the study is a reasonable measure of “marital quality” based on a four-item reduced-form version of the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (originally developed by Graham Spanier), which includes these items:

  • How often do you discuss or have you considered divorce, separation, or terminating your relationship?
  • In general, how often do you think that things between you and your partner are going well?
  • Do you confide in your mate?
  • Please circle the dot which best describes the degree of happiness, all things considered, of your relationship.

The authors provide no details on the coding of these items, but say the scale ranges from 0 to 21, and their sample included people who scored from 0 to 21. However, the mean was 16.5 and the standard deviation was 3.7, indicating a strong skew toward high scores. Inexplicably, for the presentation of results the authors dichotomize the dependent variable into those they classify as “higher quality,” the 40% of respondents who scored (19-21), versus everyone else (0-18). To defend this decision, the authors offer this non-explanation, which means exactly nothing:

This cut point was selected by inspection of the distribution. While it is somewhat arbitrary, we reasoned that these people are not just doing “above average” in their marriages, but are doing quite well.

The average marriage duration is not reported, but the maximum possible is 5 years, so we are talking about marriage quality very early in these marriages.

The main presentation of findings consists of bar graphs misleadingly labeled “Percent in Higher-Quality Marriages, by…” various independent variables. These are misleading because, according to the notes to these figures, “These percentages are adjusted for race/ethnicity, years of education, personal income, religiousness, and frequency of attendance at religious services.” Here is one:


The method for arriving at these “adjusted” percentages is not given. This apparently confused Parker-Pope, who reported them as unadjusted percentages, like this:

People who lived with another person before marrying also reported a lower-quality relationship. In that group, 35 percent had higher-quality marriages. Among those who had not lived with another romantic partner before marriage, 42 percent had higher-quality marriages.

The statistical significance of this difference is not reported. However, if this were a simple difference of proportions, the difference would not be statistically significant at conventional levels (with a sample of 418, 39% of whom lived with someone else before, the test for difference of proportions for .42 and .35 yields a z-score of 1.43, p=.15). The full report includes an appendix which says they used multilevel modeling, but the form of the regression is not specified. The regression table provided includes no fit statistics or variance components so the efficacy of the model cannot be evaluated.

Regression says: Adding 100 people to the wedding party 5 times would not equal the effect on marital quality of not being Black.
Regression says: Adding 100 people to the wedding party 5 times would not equal the effect on marital quality of not being Black.

Much is made here (and in the Pope article about these findings) about the wedding-size effect. That is, among married couples, those who reported bigger weddings had higher average marriage quality. The mean wedding size was 117. In the regression model, each additional wedding guest was associated with an increase in marriage quality (on the 0-21 scale) of .005. That is, if this were a real effect, adding 100 wedding guests would increase marital quality by half a point, or less than 1/7 of a standard deviation. For comparison, in the model, the negative effect of being Black (-2.69) is more than 5-times greater than the effect of a 100-guest swing in wedding attendance. (The issue of effect size did not enter into Pope’s description of the results.)

The possibility of nonlinear effects of wedding size or other variables is not discussed.

Are the results plausible?

It is definitely possible that, for example, less complicated relationship histories, or larger weddings, do contribute to marital happiness early in the marriage. The authors speculate, based on psychological research from the 1970s, that the “desire for consistency” means “having more witnesses at a wedding may actually strengthen marital quality.”

Sure. The much bigger issue, however, is two kinds of selection. The first, which they address — very poorly — concerns spurious effects. Thus, the simplest explanation is that (holding income constant) people with larger weddings simply had better relationships to begin with. Or, because personal income (not couple income — and note only one person from each couple was interviewed) is at best a very noisy indicator of resources available to couples, big weddings may simply proxy for wealthier families.

Or, about the finding that living with someone else prior to the current relationship is associated with poorer marriage quality, it may simply be that people who have trouble in relationships are more likely to have both lived with someone else and have poor quality marriages later. Cherlin et al. have reported, for example, that women with a history of sexual abuse are more likely to be in transitory relationships, including serial cohabiting relationships, so a history of abuse could account for some of these results. And so on.

The authors address this philosophically, which is all they can do given their data:

One obvious objection to this study is that it may be capturing what social scientists call “selection effects” rather than a causal relationship between our independent variables and the outcome at hand. That is, this report’s results may reflect the fact that certain types of people are more likely to engage in certain behaviors—such as having a child prior to marriage—that are correlated with experiencing lower odds of marital quality. It could be that these underlying traits or experiences, rather than the behaviors we analyzed, explain the associations reported here. This objection applies to most research that is not based on randomized experiments. We cannot prove causal associations between the personal and couple factors we explore and marital quality.

However, because they have rudimentary demographic controls, and the independent variables chronologically precede the outcome variable, they think they’re on pretty firm ground:

With the help of our research, we hope current and future couples will better understand the factors that appear to contribute to building a healthy, loving marriage in contemporary America.

This is Wilcox’s standard way of nodding to selection before plowing ahead with unjustified conclusions. This is not a reasonable approach, for reasons apparent in today’s New York Times. Tara Parker-Pope does not mention this issue, and her piece will obviously reach many more people than the original report or this post.

They hope people will take their results as relationship advice. In Pope’s piece, Stanley offers exactly the same advice he always gives. If that is to be the case, the best advice by far — based on their models — is to avoid being Black, and to finish high school. Living with both one’s biological parents at age 14 helps, too. In relationship terms, unfortunately, most of the results could just as easily reflect wealth or initial relationship quality rather than relationship decisions, and thus tell us that people who have healthy (and less complicated) relationships before marriage have healthy relationships in the first few years after marriage.

Perhaps more serious, however, for this study design, is the second kind of selection: selection into the sample (by marriage). Anything that affects both the odds of marrying and the quality of marriage is potentially corrupting these results. This is a big, complicated issue, with a whole school of statistical methods attached to it. Unless they attend to that issue this analysis should not be published.

On the funding

The authors state the project was “initially funded” by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, but the report also acknowledges support from the William E. Simon Foundation, a very conservative foundation that in 2012 gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Witherspoon Institute (which funded the notorious Wilcox/Regnerus research on children of same-sex couples), the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and other conservative and Christian activist organizations. Details on funding are not provided.

The National Marriage Project is well-known for publishing only work that supports their agenda of marriage promotion. Some of what they publish may be true, but based on their track record they cannot be trusted as honest brokers of new research.

Cohabitation as an inertia problem

Here’s another view on the cohabitation-parenting discussion.

This is from Scott Stanley, a psychology professor who has a blog called Sliding vs Deciding, and who told me he is a co-signer on “Why Marriage Matters” by W. Bradford Wilcox.

His view is that some couples end up living together because the barriers to entry are low, and then stay together out of inertia even though their commitment is low, and then have children in a less-committed relationship, with a higher-than-average risk of negative consequences. In a longer post, he writes:

There is a lot of selection involved in who cohabits prior to having clear, mutual plans for marriage. However, on top of those selection characteristics, cohabitation adds to the picture by making some of these already riskier relationships harder to leave. This does not prevent a child from being born to two cohabiting parents. … This model of cohabitation risk based on inertia fully embraces selection. In this way of thinking, cohabitation may not causes poorer parenting but it may well increase the number of couples who have or bear children who are not well matched and who will have difficulty parenting together. Hence, one can predict that a net societal increase in cohabitation that begins before partners have a clear and mutual commitment will lead to a greater number of children living in difficult contexts.

This seems like a reasonable hypothesis of what happens in some cohabiting relationships. This perspective is more fully developed in an article Stanley wrote with Galena Rhoades and Howard Markman called, “Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect.” Empirically, there is lots of evidence that many couples “slide” into cohabitation rather than making a deliberate decision to do so, going back to the qualitative research by Wendy Manning and Pam Smock.

Policy-wise, I’m still inclined to look for ways to reduce the negative consequences that might follow from these arrangements, rather than try to redirect trends in family formation patterns, which undermines potentially positive innovations, and hasn’t proven successful anyway.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago:

Yes, there is less marriage, and many people are less well off without it. Does that mean we have a “marriage” problem, or a family inequality problem? … In the categorical math of inequality, you can try (with little chance of success in this case) to reduce the number of people in the disadvantaged category (non-married families), or you can try to reduce the size of the disparity between the two categories.

Cohabitation dustup followup thoughts

Just a few roundup thoughts and graphs on the cohabitation-is-bad-for-kids thing.

First, W. Bradford Wilcox sent me an email reply, which he asked me to post, and I have added it to the comments section of yesterday’s post, here. (It doesn’t include complete references to the passages he quotes or research he cites, which is a violation of my blog style requirements, so I’m not putting it in its own post.) Some of these comments are inspired by that reply, and some are just further thoughts.

Who are these cohabitors?

Host Pat Morrison, on the radio show with Wilcox and Stephanie Coontz, asked, “Are you looking at long-term relationships, Mr. Wilcox, or more transient relations, when you look at these unmarried couple figures?”

Wilcox, to his credit, does sometimes highlight this distinction, but it is too often lost. For example, on the show he mentioned the names of R. Kelly Raley and Shannon Cavanagh. It looks to me like he meant this Raley paper and this Cavanagh paper, both of which studied cohabiting step-family arrangements, not those in those in which biological or adoptive parents cohabit instead of marrying.

To clarify, there are two different family situations going under the name of “cohabitation” here:

  1. Some parents have children (through procreation or adoption) without being married. These are sometimes called “unmarried parents.” In 2009, 69% of children lived with “two parents,” including 4% who lived with “unmarried parents.”
  2. Sometimes people (usually women) who already have children move in with a man to whom they are not married. These could be thought of as step-cohabitating arrangements — but that cohabiting partner may or may not “parent” those children, and from a distance you can’t assume they are “cohabiting parents” or “unmarried parents.” In Census lingo, they are a single parent and that parent’s “unmarried partner.” In 2009, 27% of children lived with one parent, and 10.3% of them — or less than 3% of all children — live with a single parent and that parent’s partner. Of course, because these are relatively unstable relationships, more than 3% of children will have this experience at some point in their lives.

Anyway, these two “cohabiting” situations are very different. The New York Times Room for Debate on this was titled, “Should Parents Marry for the Kids?”, which seems like a reference to the first scenario. In fact, the URL for the item at NYT included, “shotgun-weddings-vs-cohabitating-parents,” as if the issue is about whether couples should marry when they are having kids. The great majority of the research in this area is not about that issue.

For example, the report that Wilcox cited in the NYT debate does show higher rates of abuse among children whose biological parents are living with a partner, controlling for basic demographics. It is not surprising that children are at greater risk of abuse when they live with unrelated adults (usually men), who are not committed to them as parents. Does that mean these cohabitation situations “cause” that abuse, or might there be, as I and others suggested, a selection mechanism? Contrary to what Wilcox suggested in the NYT piece, we can’t say from this research, but I am concerned that these families are experiencing tumult, uncertainty and insecurity on a scale unfamiliar to the majority of two-bio-parent-married families with whom they are being compared in these analyses. That is, the women who actually face the issue of whether their boyfriend should move in with them and their children do not have lives that are otherwise similar to the relatively low-risk reference groups in the research. In fact, even simple statistical controls for education, race and income, for example, are unlikely to capture the life experience and history of these mothers.

Single parents and crime

At the end of yesterday’s post I said that, “Today’s cohabitation-causes-bad-parenting is the 2010s version of the single-mothers-and-welfare-cause-crime hype from the 1980s.” Wilcox’s response to that is:

Evidently, Cohen believes that single parenthood per se has nothing to do with crime. Say what? What about Harper and McLanahan (2004), LaFree et al. (2010), and Sampson et al. (2005), among others? What does Cohen make of Sampson’s (1995) observation that “family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictors of… urban violence across cities in the United States?”

This actually convinces me even more of what I said (not what he says I said). I don’t know what causes crime, but I do know something about hype. That Sampson quote, for example, seems to be from a chapter in a 1995 book, in which he analyzed the pattern of crime rates across large cities in 1980 as a function of family structure and other variables. That analysis, besides being 30 years old (see below), is a perfect example of something that can’t show a causal effect of family structure on crime — besides a few demographic controls, things that cause (or are correlated with) single-parent families could be causing the crime. The same holds for the LaFree et al. 2010 paper, which I believe is this: “Still Separate and Unequal? : A City-Level Analysis of the Black-White Gap in Homicide Arrests since 1960.”

But on the hype issue: I hope many of you readers are too young to remember the 1980s, when (Black) single parenthood was the bogeyman behind the crack-homicide craze. So, let me ask conservative marriage people this: Why aren’t we still fighting that single-parenthood battle? Are single mothers gone? Of course not.

Two reasons come to mind: first, crime rates collapsed even though single parenthood didn’t; and second, the 1990s welfare reform used punitive economic sanctions to try to discourage single parenthood, and failed completely. Here are the trends.

Up until 1991 or so, it sure looked like single-parent families were the harbinger of a collapsing civilization:

Sources: Violent crime from Uniform Crime Reports, single mother families from U.S. Census Bureau.

In fact, from 1960 to 1991, the trends for violent crime rates and single-mother-headed families were correlated at .95! And then, in what can only be described as one of the greatest trend-correlation reversals of modern times, the bottom fell out from under violent crime, plunging American back into the light ages of the early 1970s — while more and more families continued to come under the reign of unmarried women. The correlation since 1991 is reversed: -.51. That’s something.

For what it’s worth, the same pattern holds if you use births to unmarried women instead of living arrangements of children. In this figure the blue line for violent crime is the same. Same story: family continues heading toward hell-in-a-hand-basket, yet peace now guides the planet.

Sources: Violent crime from Uniform Crime Reports, single mother births from these: a, b, c, d.

Maybe single-parenting does have a causal effect on crime — I’m not saying it doesn’t, and there reasons it might (such as lower levels of supervision). But what these trends show is that it was possible to reduce crime drastically without reversing the family structure tends.

How’s that change-family-structure-through-policy thing workin’ out for ya?

Finally, I argued previously that even if marriage is giving some people an advantage, I’d rather work to undermine that advantage (or, the disadvantage it implies for everyone else) than change marriage behavior.

In fact, the social engineers of traditional family salvation have already taken a very big whack at trying to redirect family structure trends, and it hasn’t worked. Remember welfare reform? Remember this stuff from the 1990s?

Welfare also plays a powerful role in promoting illegitimacy …  Being born outside of marriage and raised in single parent homes … doubles the probability a boy will become a threat to society, engage in criminal activity, and wind up in jail. … Steps must be taken to reduce future illegitimacy, beginning with restricting cash welfare to unmarried teen mothers.

Well, they got what they wanted. They kicked millions of families off welfare while the number in poverty remained virtually constant, ripping away that toxic incentive to have children in an unmarried state. And?

Source: TANF data from here.

I hope it was worth it.

Addendum: Paul Krugman today is thinking along similar lines…

If you’re an intellectual of a certain age, you remember that in the 80s and maybe a bit of a way into the 90s it was common on the right to see American society as being in a process of catastrophic moral decline, descending into social anarchy. Crime would continue to rise, chaos would continue to spread, until and unless we returned to the Victorian virtues — and more specifically, to Dickensian social policies, in which only the deserving poor — as so designated by faith-based charities — received help. … But then, in the 90s, a funny thing happened: in many ways, American society began healing. True, out-of-wedlock births continued to rise, although at a much slower pace. But crime plunged, and in general our society began to look a lot more functional… [OK, as a card-carrying sociologist I wouldn’t say “functional”… -pnc]

h/t Neal Caren for the link.

This cohabitation-causes-bad-parenting thing

W. Bradford Wilcox is getting bolder in his public campaign against cohabitation, and it’s moving him further from the evidence.

Today’s NY Times Room for Debate follows the last week’s appearance on KPCC radio, and his claim of a causal effect of cohabiting on parents’ parenting is growing more expansive.

Last week on the radio he was slightly cautious:

Part of that is what we call selection in the sciences, where certain types of people are more likely to select into a cohabiting relationship, and these are folks who generally have less economic resources and less commitment to each other. But there also seems to be kind of a causal effect of cohabitation, where the very fact of being in a relationship without that same degree of commitment and that same level of trust, and fidelity for instance, that in turn makes them more likely to be poorer functioning parents.

This week the cautious tone is gone:

But is cohabitation really the problem, or some deeper factor — like poverty or relationship troubles that predated the cohabitation? The truth is that these other factors account for some of cohabitation’s negative impact but the best studies suggest that cohabitation also has an independent negative effect, precisely because it does not institutionalize commitment in a way that is easily understood and honored by romantic partners and their friends and family.

Now the causal effect is found in “the best studies,” which somehow also are able to distinguish the reason for this causal effect, “because it does not institutionalize commitment…”

This is a dishonest representation of the scholarly record.

I can’t find any study that accounts for selection into cohabitation while finding a negative effect on parenting or children’s outcomes — and the claim that any negative effect is “because it does not institutionalize commitment” is essentially impossible to substantiate.

After Wilcox mentions “the best studies,” he quotes one that does not make a claim for an independent effect. He writes:

Children in cohabiting families are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, use drugs, or end up depressed, compared with children in intact, married families. They are also at least three times more likely to be physically, sexually or emotionally abused, according to a recent federal report.

But that study includes this:

Factors such as parents’ labor force participation, household socioeconomic status, family size, and family structure and living arrangement are not only associated with the incidence of maltreatment but are also correlated with each other. Further analyses could determine their independent relationships to maltreatment, such as whether households with more children have higher incidence rates even when household socioeconomic status is taken into account.

In a comprehensive 2008 review in Annual Review of Sociology titled “Family Structure and the Reproduction of Inequalities,” Sara McLanahan and Christine Percheski wrote:

Do children from families with two stably cohabiting, unmarried parents fare as well as children from married parent families? The evidence so far suggests they do not (Brown 2004, Artis 2007), although the research on this topic is limited.

If you follow those two references, you find that both scholars responsibly point out that they do not account for selection into cohabitation:

  • Artis (2007): “ these data cannot address how selection into marriage may influence these patterns.”
  • Brown (2004): “Selection likely plays a role in the family structure and child outcomes relationship but could not be addressed because of data limitations.”

On that radio show, Stephanie Coontz did a great job of explaining the risks of “causal generations,” and in today’s piece she bluntly titles her contribution, “Cohabitation Doesn’t Cause Bad Parenting.”

Sharon Sassler summarizes the actual evidence correctly, as I see it:

But a growing body of evidence suggests that any advantages from marriage are more a result of selection than causation. In other words, the most educated and economically established adults are the most likely to wed, and overwhelmingly defer childbearing until after marriage. The benefits redound to their children.

Unfortunately, the one-side-other-side format of these debates just provides fuel for Wilcox’s campaign, reducing the “debate” to a mind-numbing he-said-she-said in which the public is encouraged to choose the evidence that fits their preconceptions. In fact, Wilcox makes a direct appeal to the Times‘ readers’ preconception:

Anyone who disagrees should answer this question: When was the last time you saw a cohabiting couple enter their relationship by vowing, in front of their closest friends and family, to love and cherish one another, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do they part?

That is just ridiculous, a public relinquishment of his credential as a social scientist. Teaching people not to reason like this is one of the great contributions of sociology.

Today’s cohabitation-causes-bad-parenting is the 2010s version of the single-mothers-and-welfare-cause-crime hype from the 1980s. Both are dressed in a stated concern for the well-being of poor people, but both speak to the non-poor, creating a stigmatizing social distance from the poor, undermining real efforts to improve their conditions and reinforcing the “common sense” belief that systemic poverty results from poor individuals’ intimate decisions.

NPR reports on a report

In today’s example of the sorry state of reporting, NPR reports on “a new report.”

I wasn’t even really awake this morning when I found myself thinking, “OK, here comes Brad Wilcox. OK, now here comes Stephanie Coontz.” It’s the Groundhog Day of social science journalism on the family.

It would  be surprising if it wasn’t: A right-wing think tank with academic gloss sets the agenda, and a news organization repeats its framing, adding in a single comment from the most-commonly quoted critic of conservative family distortion (Stephanie Coontz – who does all she can) — which they then undermine with a simplistic conclusion, which was not supported by any actual research: “Gottman’s advice, even if you decide not to tie the knot: pick a partner carefully, then hang in there — for better, or worse.”

Two unusually bad elements of this case: First, the audio version of the story, which is presumably how most people get their NPR, didn’t even mention the Institute for American Values, which is the foundation-funded publicity machine behind the “report.” And second, the deep-pockets have the gall to charge $6.50 for the report (do you just get the PDF?), and require registration for the “executive summary.” Did NPR get past the free, 3-page press release?

Demographic trends and ngrams

Do words follow families?

I previously used Google ngrams to identify the arrival of terms such as “parenting” and “sibling rivalry.” And I took a shot at tracking family relation words in relation to family structure in histoty. But what about specific demographic trends that have captured the public’s attention and sparked debate? Here are two: cohabitation and divorce.


Cohabitation existed as a concept in law and culture for a long time before it appeared as a common household structure – a man and a woman living in what the Census Bureau used to call a “close personal relationship” (by which they didn’t mean any old close personal relationship). Looking at some of the old Google Books uses, it’s clear they are referring to men and women living together unmarried.

Here are the ngram for cohabitation (above) and the percent of U.S. households that include cohabitors. I’ve scaled them so the horizontal gridlines line up with the decades from 1960 to 2010.

You can’t see the scales, but they are similar up to 1980. That is, next to nothing till 1970, then a doubling to 1980.  But after that the demographic trend continued upward while the language trend plateaued.


Divorce appears to be something like a social panic, with the hype not often matching the facts, except in the most general sense that there is more divorce now than in the old days. In fact, divorce rates have had their ups and downs, as you can see below. Again, I’ve lined up the gridlines.

Here it appears that the word database doesn’t pick up the post-WWII spike in divorces. But the run-up in the 1970s is well represented. Then it took about 15 years for the gradual decline in divorce rates to be reflected in the word database. That’s reasonable, since this crude divorce rate is not quite reflected in the popular visibility of divorce (for example, the aging of the population will tend to reduce the crude divorce rate, as still-married people live on and on, adding to the denominator of the rate).

Anyway, I’m satisfied to conclude tentatively that ngrams trends may follow (or even drive) demographic trends, and I’m interested in possibility that the disparities in the timing of fluctuations might be useful.

Coupling inequality

Cohabitation and equality go together like a horse and carriage. But where are they going?

Cohabitation has become more common during the recession, with unknown consequences for future families. The context in which couples move in together influences their relationships, and may affect the odds of a breakup. We know that economic hardship contributes to conflict within couples of all kinds, so couples that make decisions under duress may be scarred in ways we can’t predict.

If new couples are deciding to cohabit instead of marrying, or delaying the marriage decision, however, they may get off on a more egalitarian foot. Couples that live together before marriage share housework more, and are more likely to maintain separate finances.* And, unlike in married couples, cohabiting couples are more likely to stay together if they have similar work and earnings patterns.

A Pew study recently reported that wives earn more than their husbands in 22% of U.S. couples. But heterogamous cohabiting couples are more equal than married ones. That is, men and women in these couples are more likely to have similar earnings, and they’re’ less likely to have big gaps between  partners. Here is the breakdown from the 2009 Current Population Survey:

Source: My graph from CPS data.

The biggest gap is at the far left of the graph — where married men earn $50,ooo+ more than their female partners at 2.6-times the rate of cohabiting men. But the cohabitors are more likely to have gaps in the $10,000-$29,000 range, so if these are younger couples without kids, they might be just starting to grow their gender gaps (aw, how cute!) along with their (his) careers.

One other thing to watch out for in these comparisons is that cohabiting couples are poorer altogether. A very nice factsheet on trends in cohabitation from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research shows that college graduates have much lower cohabitation rates than those with fewer years of education.

A final caveat, suitable for a mish-mash post on cohabitation and inequality — cohabiting couples are diverse, incompletely identified, and institutionally ambiguous — for example, more than 1-in-4 unmarried women who have babies are cohabiting. Generalizers, beware.

*Hamplova, Dana, and Celine Le Bourdais. “One pot or two pot strategies? Income pooling in married and unmarried households in comparative perspective.Onepottwo” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 40.3 (Summer 2009): 355(34).

Cohabitation’s neotraditional turn

A sudden, large jump in the number of cohabiting couples.

A new analysis from Rose Kreider at the Census Bureau shows a sudden, large jump in the number of (heterogamous) cohabiting couples, including an unusually large number of couples with only one member employed.

Defining, identifying and measuring unmarried cohabitation — an old hobby of mine — is messy business. The Census Bureau’s measurement approach has changed a few times, most recently in 2007, when they found a way to count people living as unmarried partners in someone else’s home. But there was no method change from 2009 to 2010, and the numbers show an unmistakable jump:

Source: My graph from the new report and historical trends.

As you can see, although two-earner couples are still the most common, more than half of the increase last year was in couples with only one earner — and the greatest proportional increase was among those with neither employed. Rose’s suspicion is that the recession — unemployment, foreclosures, insecurity, etc. — is squeezing more people into the decision to move in together.

The innovative way she came up with to look for that was to isolated those couples that were just formed — that is, where someone was living with no partner in one year but with a partner the next year. This shows an even larger jump in the proportion of couples in which only one member is employed. (And her statistical tests showed that the new couples were more likely to have only one earner than the already-existing couples.)

Some cohabitation looks like carefree, decadent, Swedish-style have-it-all-ism. But in the U.S. it’s often about people making ends meet. These relationships are notoriously unstable. Past experience suggests that, when cohabitors marry, they are more likely to divorce — unless they were engaged at the point they moved in together.

So is it good news or bad news? At the extremes, these financial-crisis cohabs might be both good survival strategies and/or relationship time-bombs. In any event, by my calculations, it will be seen as bad news by approximately 38% of poll-participating Americans.