5 minutes on the three-parent family

In the Atlantic article, “The Rise of the Three-Parent Family” I was quoted saying, “the increasing visibility and legalization of three-parent arrangements ‘is one of the signs that our definition of family is opening up.'”

That led to an interview with a different journalist. I recorded my end of the interview, and re-enact it here as a five-minute commentary. Could be suitable for a class discussion.

Family diversity, new normal

Family diversity is not just a buzzword (although it is that), and it’s not just the recognition of diversity that always existed (although it is that). There really is more actually-existing diversity than there used to be.

In The Family, I use a figure with five simple household types to show family conformity increasing from 1900 to a peak in 1960 — and then increasing diversity after that. I’ve updated that now for the upcoming third edition of the book.

ch 2 household diversity.xlsx

In 2014, I wrote a report for the Council on Contemporary Families called “Family Diversity is the New Normal for America’s Children,” which generated some news coverage and a ridiculous appearance with Tucker Carlson on Fox & Friends. A key point was to demonstrate that the declining dominant family arrangement after 1960 — the male-breadwinner-homemaker family — was replaced by a diversity of arrangements rather than a new dominant form. Here I’ve updated one the main figures from that report, which shows that “fanning out from a dominant category to a veritable peacock’s tail of work-family arrangements.”

peacock family diversity update.xlsx

For this update, I take advantage of the great new IPUMS mother and father pointers to identify children’s (likely) parents, including same-sex couple parents who are cohabiting as well as those who are married. Census doesn’t collect multiple parent identifiers in the Decennial Census or American Community Survey, and IPUMS has tackled the issue of how to best presume or guess about these with a consistent and well-documented standard. In this figure, 0.42% of children ages 0-14 (about 250,000) are living in the households of their same-sex couple parents. I also rejiggered the other categories a little, but the basic story is the same.

I published a version of this figure for K-12 educators in Educational Leadership magazine in 2017. I wrote:

Today, teachers need to have a more inclusive mindset that recognizes the diversity of family structures. Although there are reasons for concern about some of the changes shown in the data, the driving factors have often been positive. For example, changes in family roles reflect increased educational and occupational opportunities for women and greater gender equality within families. Fathers are expected to play an active role in parenting—and usually do—to a much greater degree than they did half a century ago.

My advice to teachers is:

The key points of diversity in family experiences that teachers should watch for are family structure (such as who the student lives with), family trajectories (the transitions and changes in family structure), and family roles (who cares and provides for the student). Using principles from universal design, teachers can promote language and concepts that work for all students. Done right, this is an opportunity to broaden the learning experience for everyone—to teach that care, intimate relationships, and family structures can include people of different ages, genders, and familial connections.

So that’s my update.

How many Black scholars does it take to have any Black scholars?

I had a very nice time at the 21st Annual Symposium on Family Issues at Penn State University, where I presented remarks in response to a paper by Sara McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen. The theme of the symposium was “Diverging Destinies,” or the growing differences in family experiences by social class in the US. The event has lots of time for discussion and debate, and much of that focused on poor people and their families, around contested terms such as choices, parenting, behavior, attitudes, orientation, and so on. I had plenty to agree and disagree with, there were lots of good talks, and it was a good conversation.

The scenic Nittany Lion Inn (photo by me)
The scenic Nittany Lion Inn (photo by me)

Here are two observations.

The first was a moment when Ron Haskins from the Brookings Institution, a long-time member of the welfare policy establishment (his bio describes him as “instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of national welfare policy”), responded to Harvard professor Kathryn Edin’s response to his presentation. She had spent most of her time talking about her new book, Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner City. For the book, Edin undertook years of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, and emerged with a very sympathetic yet sobering description of the poor young men she studied, men who want more than anything to be good fathers — according to the contemporary ideals of both economic provision and emotional togetherness — but for many reasons usually can’t meet their own goals.

When they were both on the dais, Haskins said she was “too optimistic” about her subjects, in describing them as eager to do the right thing for their children. “I know these guys!” he said, before describing some anecdotal experiences from his (apparently distant) personal past. It struck me because it seemed profoundly disrespectful of not only her work, but of her kind of research. Of course ethnographers can do bad studies or misinterpret their data. But I would only discount a serious work of ethnography based on my personal experience if that experience were pretty deep. I suspect Haskins wouldn’t have struck that note if her work had been a quantitative demography, but I could be wrong. (Earlier, I had pointed out that welfare reform failed at its stated goal of making poor single mothers get married, and he countered that it had been successful at getting them to work, so “behavior modification does work” — and we should use that program as a model for future work-mandating reforms.)

Who's on that dais?
Who’s on that dais?

Anyway, the second observation was about the composition of the speakers. None of our 16 speakers this year was Black. When I grumbled about that on Facebook, someone said he felt the same way last year. That got me to check the previous programs. (Each year the organizers of the symposium produce a book from the papers — you can see previous editions here, where the contributors are all listed.) I had to go back to 2008 to find an African American speaker, according to my reading of their photos and bios (which is not the best way to identify race/ethnicity, obviously, so I maybe wrong). Overall, of the last 114 speakers going back to 2007, I think only one was Black.

I don’t know who decides on the topics or the invitations, or how the event has unfolded over time, so I can’t comment on the process or motivations of those involved. But I think this is not good. The symposium is a substantial endeavor, with grant money from various sources. An invitation to speak there is a line on your CV, it comes with a small honorarium and travel expenses, and it’s a chance to network with other family researchers, grant-makers, and policy people. There also are a lot of students attending the talks. So whatever the reasons, it’s a shame more Black scholars haven’t been there.

All opposed? (to family change)

Over on his Iranian Redneck blog, Darren Sherkat has an interesting series of posts on religion and attitudes toward same-sex marriage, using new data from the 2012 General Social Survey (fundamentalism, denominations, young Republicans 2x, race, and the 2004-2012 trend) — all extensions of his academic work on the subject (2x). All of this shows that, in addition to political conservatism, religious fundamentalists and people in sectarian Christian denominations are (or were) driving opposition to marriage rights.

But same-sex marriage (homogamy) is only one aspect of growing family diversity. I was reminded of a survey the Pew Research Center did with Time in 2010, called “The Changing American Family,” which asked a question I like:

These days there seems to be a growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in. Overall, do you think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or don’t you think it makes a difference?

I’m not sure what to make of the people who think it’s “good” versus those who think it makes “no difference.” But the people who think family diversity is a “bad thing” — 28% of the population — might be the definition of family conservatives. So who are they (or, who were they in 2010)? Think of them as the sky-is-falling set.

Couple looking up

The good people at Pew offer a data download, which (once you get it out of SPSS format) is pretty easy to use. Using religion, political affiliation, education, race/ethnicity, and some other demographic variables, I made a simple regression model that explained 19% of the variance in “bad thing” attitude. Rather than show the regression table, here are the bivariate relationships between “bad thing” and those characteristics (I also labeled the blocks with how much of the variance they independently explained).

bad-thingAs with Sherkat’s findings for same-sex marriage, the most important predictors of opposition to family diversity are religion and political affiliation – but religion is by far the strongest. For example, people who don’t think family diversity is bad were about 3-times more likely to never attend religious services. The absolute majority – 54% of people who chose “bad thing” – described themselves as born again Christians, and a quarter of them attend church more than once per week. The counter-stereotypical findings are:

  • Latinos are less likely to oppose family diversity than anyone else.
  • Those with high school education or less are the least likely to say “bad thing.” (In the multivariate model, college graduates also choose “bad thing” less, making the some-college crowd the most conservative.)

This is not a scientific study, but an illustrative exploration. I don’t know enough about the data collection to know how well these data could withstand peer review, or whether this could be done with a more rigorous dataset such as the General Social Survey. But I like the question, so figured I’d share the results.

Conservatives doubling down on single mothers and crime

The reaction from the right-wing family folks to my post about single mothers and crime.

In a post that appeared here and on TheAtlantic.com — but got extra attention when the figure appeared on Jezebel, Mother Jones, Slate, Andrew Sullivan’s Dish, Family Scholars, and Alas! — my point was that conservatives had been quick to attribute the rise in crime in the 1980s to the “breakdown of the family” and single parents. But then they didn’t revise their stories when crime dropped drastically without a reversal of the family structure trends. I thought single mothers deserved an apology.

They’ll have to keep waiting, I guess.

Within a few hours on Tuesday, we heard from some of the leading lights on the issue. Their conclusion was that if I don’t want more marriage then I must want more incarceration.

Maggie (let’s “drive a wedge between blacks and gays!”) Gallagher, on Family Scholars:

The ending of the violent crime wave was a great policy achievement. It seems however to involve massively incarcerating millions of young men we have not succeeded in civilizing. There is never only one way to skin a cat. But I’m not sure our souls should rest too comfortably on the solution we found.

Ross (Charles Murray is “brilliant!”) Douthat tweeted:

Fortunately, family breakdown doesn’t create any problems that mass incarceration of young men can’t solve.

(One good turn deserves another, I guess: Murray himself tweeted back: “Lovely. Menckenesque. Maybe even Wildeian (if Oscar had been a social scientist).”

Soon Elizabeth Marquardt, who is always committed to “excellent arguments and accurate data,” chimed in:

Well for pete’s sake, one thing we now do is lock up a lot more of those fatherless boys and throw away the key. Which means less crime.

Then Brad (recession is good news for marriage!) Wilcox produced a 10-year old graph of incarceration rates under the title, “Who Needs An Intact Family? Jail Will Do Just Fine,” suggesting that we might be “forced to choose between a stronger marriage culture and mass incarceration.”

What followed on all these blogs was a debate about all the interesting possible explanations for the decline of crime in America. Lost in all of it was that none of the old “family values” folks backed off the original story that crime rose in the first place because of family “breakdown.” Just to clarify: It is one thing to say that children who grow up with one parent present are more likely to commit violent crime. As a statistical association that is true, though the causal story is muddied by important confounds. But it is another — unjustified — thing to say that the crime wave of the 1980s and 1990s was substantially driven by the rise of single parents, which was a common claim, as I illustrated in the post.

Ballpark-acts of violence

(Here is the part where I spend more time thinking about the actual evidence than the pundits I’m complaining about. What follows isn’t scientific analysis: this is data ballparking and rumination.)

As Stephen Demuth and Susan Brown wrote in a 2004 article, identifying the causal effect of family structure itself on whether kids become violent is very difficult. You need to consider parental monitoring and supervision, the quality of the relationship between parents and children, the level of conflict in the home, as well as poverty, education, family transitions, housing, neighborhood factors, and so on.

In that article, however, they offered some numbers we can look at to ballpark the relationship between single-parents and violent crime.

Using the National Adolescent Survey of Adolescent Health, they added up the self-reported violent acts of students in grades 7 to 12 in 1995. The kids were asked how many times in the last year they (1) “hurt someone badly enough to need bandages or care from a doctor or nurse,” (2) “use or threaten to use a weapon to get something from someone,” and (3) “take part in a fight where a group of your friends is against another group.” They didn’t ask the specific number of times, but rather asked kids to report “0 (never), 1 (once or twice), 2 (three or four times), or 3 (five or more times).”

That’s enough to get a sense of what was going on in 1995, when the survey was done. If you take the scores on the three items added together, and take the mean of that sum for kids in different family structures, you can ballpark how many of these acts of violence kids in each family type committed. The idea is just to get a sense of the magnitude of the family structure difference and the relative contribution of kids in each group.

I’ve turned the scale into the average number of acts to make the figure below. For example, the mean for children living with single mothers was 1.2 on the scale. I gave them 1.5 (for “once or twice”), and then, for the additional 0.2, added 0.2*2 (with 2 representing the difference between 1.5 and 3.5 for “three or four times”). That’s a total of 1.9 “ballpark-acts”:

To show the relative contribution of the different groups of kids, I set the width of the bars to their share of the sample, in which 26% were living with either a single mother or single father, which is about right for that period. You can see from the estimate, for example, that kids living with single mothers admitted to 0.7 more ballpark-acts of violence per year, and those with single fathers admitted to 1.1 more.

With the amount of violence committed by each kid, and the relative size of the groups, it’s easy to calculate that those 26% of kids living with single parents committed 35% of the violent acts — more than their share, but not most of the total.

Remember, there are no controls in that analysis – it’s just compositional. There are a host of real reasons children with single parents commit more violence. This is just to see how big is the difference we are trying to understand.

Still, I have no trouble believing the decline of married-couple living arrangements contributed to the rise in violent crime rates since the 1960s, especially if you set aside the huge spike in violence from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Single-parent families have lots of challenges and shortages — mostly of money and time — that make it harder on average to keep their kids in line. (And, of course, one of the causes of single-parenthood is the rise of incarceration.) In the absence of sufficient big-government nanny-state infrastructure to help them get by, it’s not surprising that the problems they experience include a higher risk of violence.

But I see nothing to justify the apocalyptic end-of-civilization associations that were commonly served up then — and which apparently are still palatable to many of today’s family conservatives.

Aside: scale

In that Demuth and Brown article, they have multivariate models that allow us to compare effect sizes on violence. They show, for example, that having a parent who graduated college is associated with odds of committing violent acts 3.5-times as much as living with a single mother, once other factors are controlled (-.42 versus .12). It’s always easier to say there is an association than to ascertain how important it is relative to other things — and especially for how it contributes to a trend over time.

Consider some other findings in this literature that allow us to compare the scale of effects:

  • A study of religion and family structure effects on delinquency (an amalgamated concept) reported that living with a single parent increased the odds of delinquency about as much as 6 years of education reduced the odds.
  • A study from one school district found that, for boys (but not girls), having a single mother increased the odds of being referred for delinquency by 13%, compared with 9% for being poor.
  • Many studies — like this, this, and this, find no effect of family structure on delinquency once aspects of the parent-child relationship are controlled.

A common finding is that the level of attachment children feel with their mothers swamps the family structure effect, as was found in this study, in which there was no effect of family structure on serious or non-serious delinquency. Some, like this one, find that living with a single mother has a significant effect on delinquency, but it is smaller than the effect of maternal closeness.

Given the importance of factors such as poverty level, parents’ education, and peer and network effects – as well as family relationships – the more important and useful questions have to do with how we can improve the environment and outcomes for children with single parents (and for their parents). The causal impact of family structure itself is less pressing.

Disciplining cultural minorities: 1960s housing guidelines for Inuit families

An article in the journal Health & Place raises the issue of how to define residential crowding.

The authors, Nathanael Lauster and Frank Tester, point out that the definition of “crowded” living conditions in the U.S. has been downsized from 2 people per room in 1940 to 1 person per room now. And in Canada the current common definition is based on the age, gender and relationship of the household members, such that children over age 4, for example, can only share rooms with siblings of the same gender without being “crowded.”

In such a way, a household comprised of an adult couple with two sons, aged 4 and 6, would require housing with a minimum of two bedrooms to avoid being considered overcrowded. Change the 6 year old son to a daughter, or age the 6 year old son to 19, and a minimum of three bedrooms would be required.

It’s nice to have a standard of crowded housing, since at some point crowded conditions have negative effects on health. But once a standard is set, well-meaning government programs may end up “disciplining” cultural minority groups, the authors argue.

They cite as evidence the Inuit communities in Arctic Canada, who were semi-nomadic until the 1950s, and lived in “extended family-based hunting camps.” Part of the overall process of cultural dispossession involved getting them to move into modern housing. The fear of overcrowding required special attention from authorities, who stressed the desirability of each family having its own house. The result was an education program designed to change cultural standards of appropriate household sharing and gender propriety that were quite foreign.

The article has a figure used as part of this program, from 1966:

This two-bedroom house is suitable for up to two couples with one baby each, but if any children are 12 or older then it’s only big enough for one family. And the couple can only have 2 children if they are the same gender or one is under 12.

I’m sure many readers are more familiar with this Canadian history — or similar situations from other parts of the world — but this story jumped out at me because it involves official definitions of families, cultural domination/discipline, and real problems of health and well-being. This relates to the “no family” theme insofar as it represents a contest over family self-definition.

For families, and…?

Someone should tell President Obama about Unmarried and Single Americans Week, coming up Sept. 19-25.

USA Week doesn’t get much attention, and the third week of September is a crowded one; last year it featured National School Internet Safety Week, National Childcare Week, National Flower Week, Deaf Awareness Week, Women in Construction Week, National Dog Week, National Farm Animals Awareness Week, and National Farm Safety Week.

But maybe this year is a good time for his refresher. Wall Street reform, of all things, brought this out in him. He said of his proposal, “This reform is good for families; it’s good for businesses; it’s good for the entire economy.” That followed up on his early declaration that it was “good for families and … those fair and honest credit providers who play by the rules and can now face a level playing field.”

That was after health care reform was intended to “give families and businesses more control over their health care,” and the stimulus package brought “relief for families and businesses” during tax season.

As the Census Bureau reports, there are about 100 million unmarried adults, and 32 million people living alone; one-in-four households is just a person living alone, up from 17% in 1970. Since 1880, depending on how you slice it, non-family households are the fastest growing type — including people living alone, and groups that are not related by marriage, birth or adoption (some are cohabiting partners or married homogamous couples, still not officially “families,” though that could change).

Source: My analysis of U.S. Census data from IPUMS.

This is just rhetorical, naturally. In fairness, the priorities are not so narrow. For example, the most recent budget sought to assist a long list of good Americans, including:

  • Middle Class Families
  • Military Families
  • Cities and Metropolitan Areas
  • The LGBT Community
  • Every Child
  • Rural America
  • Our Nation’s Seniors
  • All Americans
  • America’s Workers

That includes everyone good except the poor and minorities, who have no one else to vote for, so they can be expected to read between the lines (e.g., “cities”).

And maybe the president’s focus is understandable, as his corporate critics have always called his policies “bad for families,” as in, “The Administration’s tax plan puts the economic burden on hard-working Americans and their families.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if more of the burden fell on people who don’t work as hard?