Tag Archives: consumption

I knew that marriage-is-good-for-the-economy thing sounded familiar

When I wrote the other day about Brad Wilcox’s “Strong Families, Prosperous States” report, I forgot about a conceptually similar foundation-money spoof he produced four years ago which claimed, among other things, that “Strong, sustainable families pay long-term dividends to the entire economy.” (It was part of a report that included such recommendations as “Clean up the culture” and “Respect the role of religion as a pronatal force.”)

One of the conclusions of Wilcox’s new report is that states with more married couples have higher household income than states with fewer married couples. Hm. I realize now that’s building on the report he wrote four years ago, basically saying that marriage makes households spend more, so Proctor and Gamble is excellent. I wrote about it here, but hardly any of you were reading back then, so here is an edited rehash:

Farce or fraud?

Did you know that married couples with children spend 50-times more on childcare than single adults without children? Well, if you didn’t you might not realize how good marriage is for “the economy.”

Brad Wilcox and Kathryn Sharpe have a contribution in the Bradley Foundation-funded report, “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend,” which aims to describe the benefits of marriage for the economy.

What they do is produce a simple table showing that married-couple-with-children households spend more on various things than single-childless households. If you’re thinking, “but there are more people in married-couple-with-children households,” then you may already have done more thinking than the report’s authors.

To explain why this spending pattern occurs, they offer several reasons, the first of which is “household size.” Wait — you’re still thinking — if household size explains the difference in spending, then it’s not a difference in spending, it’s a difference in accounting, just pooling the spending of several people and calling it a spending increase. So how does this help “the economy”? Believe it or not, this is their reasoning:

To serve the needs of all the adults and children in their homes, they are more likely to buy many brands in bulk, from Bounty to Tide, and to fill their shopping carts at the local grocery store.

I must be doing something wrong, because I thought I spent less in the end when I bought in bulk. (But then again, I’m apparently not as good at raising money from giant foundations, either.)

The data abused in this report are from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, which is the authoritative source on household spending in the U.S. It’s something I’ve used before to study household spending (here and here). And if you use it, all I can say in a sentence is: you better account for household size, since all the spending is reported for households, not individuals.

To illustrate this, I did a simple manipulation of the data in Wilcox and Sharpe’s report. They list average spending on specific categories for households according to family structure. Yes, households. Here is a taste of the table:

oldwilcoxtable

This shows, for example, that single-childless households average a paltry $1.40 per week on cereal, compared with a robust economic contribution of $4.44 for married-with-children households. This doesn’t just mean children are good for “the economy,” because single parents spend only $2.86. So spouses are good for “the economy” too.

Or, maybe this just means people eat cereal.

I took the data from their list and compared married-with-children households to the sum of single-childless and single-parent households. On average, if every adult buys one beer a day, and every child buys one glass of milk, then the level of spending in married-with-children households should be the same as the sum of spending in single-childless plus single-parent households (if they have the same number of children). This is not serious consumer science, but it’s appropriate for a blog-scale debunking. And the results:

This graph is for weekly expenses on small consumer items;* the graph for bigger ticket items looks about the same. If the dots fell along the dotted line, my beer-and-milk hypothesis would be supported. It’s pretty close — but tipping a little the way you would expect it to — toward bigger households spending less, since they have economies of scale (“buying in bulk”).

Anyway, the analysis is junk. But the more interesting question is: Is this farce or fraud? Maybe they really don’t know what they’re doing, in which case the foundation funding makes it a farce. Or maybe it’s fraud.** Maybe they are deliberately misleading the public, the foundation, and the major corporations they are hoping will spend their “philanthropy” money on such “public education” projects.

Actual recommendations:

Companies whose fortunes are linked to the health of the family, such as Procter & Gamble, spend billions of dollars each year on advertising. … Executives with oversight across brands should ask themselves a simple question: Do the messages used in our advertising make family life look attractive? Or do they exalt single living? Obviously, it’s in their long-term interest to do more of the former.

If you have another 3 minutes, consider watching this hilarious video they link to as an example of “family life = attractive.” It’s from Proctor & Gamble’s 75th anniversary in the Philippines (unless it’s a spoof, too), which includes images like this:

2015 Population addendum

Of course, people spend more than things that aren’t people, so population growth spurs economic growth. But not all economic growth is the same, because, for example, people without incomes create less “demand” (because they “choose” not to consume as much). As I explain in this one-minute animated video, rich families spend a lot more on their kids than poor families do. Is that waste, or economic stimulus? The answer might affect whether we want to take money from rich people and give it to poor people to spend on their kids, or coerce poor people into having fewer kids, or coerce rich people into having fewer kids — or convince rich men to marry poor women. My guess is that, if you want more people to grow the economy (which is not an unambiguously good thing, but for argument’s sake), the most efficient thing would be to get poor people to have more kids and then train those kids to be high-skilled workers. Also, allowing more poor people to immigrate. Probably getting rich people to have more kids and spend more on them is not as good, because there is so much waste on rich kids. But I could be wrong.

Anyway, none of this that I can see suggests much influence of “marriage” on the economy, and if it did I wouldn’t want the state to be promoting marriage anyway. If Proctor and Gamble wants to promote marriage, that’s fine, as long as they’re taxed at a sufficiently high rate, too.

* cereal, baked goods, beef, pork, other meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, fresh fruit, fresh veggies, processed fruit, processed veggies, sweets, non-alch bevs, oils, misc. food, alchohol, tobacco, personal care products and services, and household products and services.

** colloquial use of the term “fraud” in this blogosphere context is not meant to express or imply legally criminal fraud.

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Little man meet little cupcake

This stuff is a-dime-a-dozen, but I still love it.

These are the Luvable Friends 6-Pack Flannel Receiving Blankets available from Amazon (and this is not a paid product placement). They come in two color sets. A blue theme for “little man”…

…and a pink theme for the “little cupcake.”

So what are we supposed to wrap the little women in?

Follow the Family Inequality color obsession with posts under the color tag.

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New to-reads

After the American Sociological Association meeting, there are always new books to read. Here are a couple I put on my own list.

First is Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture, by Allison Pugh. This won the annual book award from ASA’s Family Section.

From the publisher:

Even as they see their wages go down and their buying power decrease, many parents are still putting their kids’ material desires first. These parents struggle with how to handle children’s consumer wants, which continue unabated despite the economic downturn. And, indeed, parents and other adults continue to spend billions of dollars on children every year. Why do children seem to desire so much, so often, so soon, and why do parents capitulate so readily? To determine what forces lie behind the onslaught of Nintendo Wiis and Bratz dolls, Allison J. Pugh spent three years observing and interviewing children and their families. In Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture, Pugh teases out the complex factors that contribute to how we buy, from lunchroom conversations about Game Boys to the stark inequalities facing American children. Pugh finds that children’s desires stem less from striving for status or falling victim to advertising than from their yearning to join the conversation at school or in the neighborhood. Most parents respond to children’s need to belong by buying the particular goods and experiences that act as passports in children’s social worlds, because they sympathize with their children’s fear of being different from their peers. Even under financial constraints, families prioritize children “feeling normal”. Pugh masterfully illuminates the surprising similarities in the fears and hopes of parents and children from vastly different social contexts, showing that while corporate marketing and materialism play a part in the commodification of childhood, at the heart of the matter is the desire to belong.

Another book I’ve seen of but haven’t read yet: When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage, by M. V. Lee Badgett:

In order to find out the impact of same-sex marriage, M. V. Lee Badgett traveled to a land where it has been legal for same-sex couples to marry since 2001: the Netherlands. Badgett interviews gay couples to find out how this step has affected their lives. … In the end, Badgett compellingly shows that allowing gay couples to marry does not destroy the institution of marriage and that many gay couples do benefit, in expected as well as surprising ways, from the legal, social, and political rights that the institution offers.

Also, one of the panelists I heard contrasted the work of Eva Illouz on families with that of Anthony Giddens on the Transformation of Intimacy and his idea of late modernity’s “pure relationship.” I’ve read a little of her book Consuming the Romantic Utopia from 1997, but I’m thinking to take up her 2007 book, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism:

It is commonly assumed that capitalism has created an a-emotional world dominated by bureaucratic rationality; that economic behavior conflicts with intimate, authentic relationships; that the public and private spheres are irremediably opposed to each other; and that true love is opposed to calculation and self-interest. Eva Illouz rejects these conventional ideas and argues that the culture of capitalism has fostered an intensely emotional culture in the workplace, in the family, and in our own relationship to ourselves. She argues that economic relations have become deeply emotional, while close, intimate relationships have become increasingly defined by economic and political models of bargaining, exchange, and equity. This dual process by which emotional and economic relationships come to define and shape each other is called emotional capitalism. Illouz finds evidence of this process of emotional capitalism in various social sites: self-help literature, women’s magazines, talk shows, support groups, and the Internet dating sites.

I like the cover. If you have other ideas, from the conference or otherwise, feel free to share in the comments.

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