Marriage and gender inequality in 124 countries

Countries with higher levels of marriage have higher levels of gender inequality. This isn’t a major discovery, but I don’t remember seeing this illustrated before, so I decided to do it. Plus I’m trying to improve my Stata graphing.

I used data from this U.N. report on marriage rates from 2008, restricted to those countries that had data from 2000 or later. To show marriage rates I used the percentage of women ages 30-34 that are currently married. This is thus a combination of marriage prevalence and marriage timing, which is something like the amount of marriage in the country. I got gender inequality from the U.N. Development Programme’s Human Development Report for 2015. The gender inequality index combines the maternal mortality ratio, the adolescent birth rate, the representation of women in the national parliament, the gender gap in secondary education, and the gender gap in labor market participation.

Here is the result. I labeled countries with 49 million population or more in red; a few interesting outliers are also labeled. The line is quadratic, unweighted for population (click to enlarge).

You can see the USA sliding right down that curve toward gender nirvana (not that I’m making a simplistic causal argument).

Note that India and China together are about 36% of the world’s population. They both have nearly universal marriage by age 30-34, but women in China get married about four years later on average. That’s an important part of why China has lower gender inequality (it goes along with more educational access, higher employment levels, politics, history, etc.). China is a major outlier among universal-marriage countries, while India is right on the curve.

Any cross-national comparison has to handle this issue. China is 139-times bigger than Sweden. One way to address it is to weight the points by their relative population sizes. If you do that it actually doesn’t change the result much, except for China, which in this cases changes everything because in addition to being huge they broke the relationship between marriage and gender inequality. Here is the comparison. Now the dots are scaled for population, and the gray line is fit to all the countries except China, while the red line includes China (click to enlarge).

My conclusion is that the gray line is the basic story — more marriage, more gender inequality — with China as an important exception, but that’s up for interpretation.

I put the data and the code for making the charts in this directory. Feel free to copy and crib, etc.

Marriage promotion snake oil tour

W. Bradford Wilcox is in Oklahoma today, lecturing on the benefits of marriage promotion for an anti-abortion activist group. His speech was previewed in an op-ed in the Oklahoman. (It’s fitting that this comes up the day after my post about promoting your research — I never said your research was good.)

Just briefly, here are two of the claims, with the QBD™ (QuickBradDebunk).

He wrote:

“Strong Families, Prosperous States,” a report I recently coauthored, found that states with more families headed by married parents enjoyed significantly higher levels of economic growth, family median income, and less child poverty, compared with states with fewer married-parent families. Indeed, if Oklahoma enjoyed its 1980-levels of married parenthood, its per capita GDP would be 2.5 percent higher, its median family income would be 5.6 percent higher, and its child poverty rate would be 8.5 percent lower.

Indeed. I wrote about that deeply ridiculous report in this post last fall. This just adds a wrinkle. Even if that research were reasonable, which it definitely isn’t, this kind of statement is completely misleading. It’s fine to illustrate a regression coefficient with a statement about the magnitude of the coefficient, as in, “for every year of history, net of other factors, the marriage rate declined X%.” But when you’re describing a trend over time it is not reasonable to say that rolling back a single variable would actually create that effect. Nothing really works that way, and any statement isolating a regression coefficient like that needs to make explicit that it is a counterfactual illustration of an effect size, not an actual statement about what “would” happen.

More extremely fraudulent, however, is this one:

The state should continue supporting the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The initiative is one of the bright spots on the state’s family landscape, as its programs have been shown to increase the quality and stability of family life among lower-income Sooner families. Indeed, one study found that OMI was responsible for a 3-percentage-point increase in the share of Sooner children living with two parents.

Indeed. Thorough research on this marriage promotion program puts the lie to this exaggeration. Yes, some of the local results from this program showed very small relationship improvements to program participants. These results did not include increases in marriage, which is what most people think of when a “marriage scholar” (from the headline of the piece) refers to “quality and stability of family life.” And readers can be excused for thinking he was talking about marriage if they read the next sentence, which refers to an increase in “the share of Sooner children living with two parents.”

That last claim is unsourced, but I think it might come from the study that I debunked here. They found that states with higher marriage promotion funding, in some years, had a higher proportion of children living with two parents. Wow. Except when they removed Washington, D.C. the effect was gone. I’m not kidding about this; it’s all in the post. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that is where he gets the claim that marriage promotion worked in Oklahoma. (Read all about Oklahoma’s marriage promotion program in Melanie Heath’s excellent book, One Marriage Under God.)

In any event, this certainly doesn’t reflect what actually happened in Oklahoma, which is that the proportion of families with children headed by married couples continued to fall throughout the marriage promotion period, actually declining faster than the national average. Here are the trends, using data from the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org.

wbwok-fig2

Wilcox may have some legalistic defense of this claim. But he knows that it is not true, and that it will be misunderstood and misused by his credulous audience. In fact, based on the template of this op-ed, Wilcox could literally go to every state and tell them that marriage promotion increased the rate at which children live with two parents, because every state had greater-than-zero funding. Even as marriage has declined in every state. Regression!

Such a tour would not be unprecedented in America, of course. The original snake oil salesmen took something that was actually good — the fatty oils used by Chinese immigrants — and turned it into a bogus miracle cure peddled by American hucksters to gullible consumers. This is the modern bureaucratic update to that hoax, funded with more than a billion dollars of welfare money and peddled through think tanks and academic journals.

Marriage promotion does not die, it is undead, requiring none of the material sustenance upon which mortal movements rely (such as facts or evidence of effectiveness). Lakshmi Gandhi’s piece on snake oil is fitting:

playwright Eugene O’Neill referred to snake oil in his 1956 play The Iceman Cometh, when a character suggested that a rival was “standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there’s nothing like snake oil for a bad burn.”

Book review: One Marriage Under God

The following are notes for my remarks at an author-meets-critics session at the Social Science History Association yesterday in Baltimore. The book is One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America, by Melanie Heath.

  

The book is well researched, elegantly argued, easily read, and deeply thought-provoking. I highly recommend it.In the study, Heath analyzes many aspects of the marriage promotion movement, including marriage classes and training and organizing, using participant observation, and interviews and focus groups, in Oklahoma.

I have forgotten that it was from this book that I learned that the welfare reform law of 1996 begins with the sentence, “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” This explains so much about why marriage promotion and welfare reform are one project, how futile they both are, and how reactionary, in my opinion. Heath makes this very clear when she describes the use of welfare money to teach marriage education to white, middle-class couples, ultimately probably widening the “marriage gap between lower and middle-class families.”

I usually criticize marriage promotion for spending poor peoples money on convincing them to get married, but it’s actually often spent helping middle-class people with their marriages altogether. But that makes perfect sense: welfare, just like welfare reform, is made to build up the normative white middle-class family. Thus, when, as Heath observes, poor single mothers resented their useless workshops on the importance of marriage, the program was actually serving its purpose.

Instead of a safety net, in the United States we have marriage – but we have less and less of it. That means it is a privilege and a necessity, and excluding people from it is a form of inequality.

And driving people toward marriage is what we substitute for welfare – how we give people a choice between conformity and destitution for them and their children – and justify that forced choice with Christian morality. 

The passages describing the presence of same-sex couples in marriage education classes are excruciating and extremely revealing. And yet she discovers that even the conservatives in these situations recognize the lesbian couples “have needs too” — a reality that necessitated additional boundary work to protect the core concept at hand. The lesbians literally had to play the roles of heterosexuals in class exercises.

Marriage promotion uses marriage to bolster the gender difference and its hierarchy simultaneously. And it elevates marriage through the contrast with welfare dependency which it sees as “an assault on freedom and responsible citizenship.” Both positions reinforce the gender hierarchy. And this helps to answer why the marriage promotion movement has never embraced same-sex marriage rights (despite a halfhearted and ultimately unsuccessful rearguard effort by David Blankenhorn and a few other washed up marriage promoters).

She presciently includes the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in the research. This is entirely fitting because these two movements have been united from the start — but that connection blossomed in the years since she wrote this book (published in 2012). We see this in the political history and the interlocking organizational leadership networks between marriage promotion and the movement against marriage equality: David Blankenhorn, Maggie Gallagher, Brad Wilcox, Mark Regnerus, the National Marriage Project, the National Organization for Marriage, the Institute for American Values, the Heritage Foundation, The National Fatherhood Initiative, the Family Research Council. (This movement, incidentally, and especially its research and public relations arms, formed the context in which the Council on Contemporary Families, of which I am now a board member, was organized.) Add William Galston, also Ron Haskins, Marco Rubio, now and the GOP debate over the larger child tax credit (and debate over its refundability).

Heath puts it well when she writes of their “shared ideology that relies on an ideal heterosexual family as a way to manage and organize the diverse and often contradictory threads of market fundamentalism, religion, and morality.”
An important original contribution of this book is Heath’s description of the nationalist and patriotic underpinnings of the marriage promotion movement, which I had not fully appreciated (something also seen in the marriage promotion efforts among American Indians in Oklahoma and the so-called Native American Healthy Marriage Initiative.) Fighting same-sex marriage, and fighting the culture of poverty, are both efforts to shore up the family bulwark of American citizenship.

Marriage promotion, as embodied in the trainings and educational materials that she studies, was built on the program to enhance inherent differences between men and women, which are of course also the pillars upon which opposition to marriage equality stands. And a basis for Christian morality and traditional nostalgic American patriotism — as well as capitalism, or more properly market fundamentalism, because this marriage structure stands in opposition to dependence on the welfare state and in support of the family wage and the patriarchal family economy.

She writes: “this punitive individualism, and the lack of an alternative narrative in the American ethos, enables coalitions of various stripes (conservative Christians, economic conservatives, and centrist liberals) to join together in promoting marriage. In this way marriage ideology connects Americas market fundamentalist corporate culture with moral/religious traditions.”

Marriage promotion — true to the long history of the American welfare system — becomes an inequality reproduction machine, serving race, gender and sexuality divides, and building the ideological supports for widening economic inequality. In the end they don’t increase the amount of marriage, or decrease the amount of poverty, and that does not mean they have failed.

One Marriage Under God belongs in the pantheon of classic historical work on marriage in the United States, including works by Nancy Cott and Stephanie Coontz, as well as Gwendolyn Mink, Linda Gordon, and Ruth Sidel — just off the top of my head. Now that marriage promotion has been demonstrated to be a failure on its own formal terms by the extensive and well-funded and well-conducted studies paid for by the welfare program, and now that the Supreme Court has effectively ended the movement against marriage equality, the book is thankfully more historical then it was just three years ago. But, as a reading of those historical works I just mentioned clearly shows, this thing just will not die. So this book remains essential.

Marriage matters

A critical post describes me this way: “progressives, like sociologist Philip Cohen, who seek to minimize or deny the importance of family structure.” It’s not an accurate way to frame this debate. The question is much more about goals. If your goal is reducing child poverty, for example, we know how to do that, more or less — something like giving their parents money. But the ostensible goal of the marriage promotion people is increasing marriage because they believe there are things that come from marriage that are both good and not producible through any other means. I say ostensible because, given the obvious futility of all marriage promotion policies, one must suspect other motives as well. (Some of those motives are religious, of course, but I set those aside for now).

No doubt there are some things that only marriage can truly provide to children under present conditions. But that doesn’t imply a particular policy goal, much less a specific approach. I have a few problems with assuming we need more marriage.

What’s wrong with that?

Demographic barriers. First, not everyone can be married, or have married parents, no matter what we do with policy. So we need to figure out how to minimize the harms associated with not being married anyway. The steeper the penalty for non-marriage (what most people call the benefits of marriage) the less we are responding to the needs of people who suffer not only the losses that flow from non-marriage, but also the deficits that cause non-marriage.

This is one thing that’s so powerful about Chinese history for me — as told by Lee and Wang — in which marriage was absolutely essential for social success and also mathematically denied to a large portion of the population (because of female infanticide and polygyny). In that case you’d find a very strong benefit to marriage — in a system of marriage that exacted tremendous costs. If we have a strong marriage benefit (that is, non-marriage penalty) we have the same situation as feudal China. The demography of inequality means lots of people can’t be married. Here are the sex ratios for non-Hispanic Blacks and Whites by age (this is the whole U.S. population, not just single people, or people who aren’t in prison):

black white sex ratio.xlsx

This is just an example of a demographic dead end for marriage promoters. What’s the plan? The plan is that some large portion of poor and/or Black women — because of circumstances beyond their control — should not have children. (In their heart of hearts, they believe they shouldn’t have sex at all, but that’s not spoken in polite circles.) Life is hard. Try going to church instead.

Marriage is bad, too. Second, marriage also causes harms. This should be obvious, but I guess in a society where people are so ready to believe that racial discrimination isn’t a problem anymore or that women have actually overturned patriarchy, we have to keep pointing that out. The married-couple family is still an extremely dangerous place for a lot of people — mostly women and children — whose abuse and exploitation is made more difficult to root out the more we make marriage an exalted status and indicator of social competence. It’s not an accident that marital rape was protected by law for all those centuries — the men who did it were (are) engaged in the successful performance of admirable patriarchal roles.

Outside of violent rape and abuse, there are also lots of people who aren’t happy in their marriages, or who don’t want to be married at all. In 1960, 94% of women were married before reaching age 40. Now that number is 78%. You know if 94% of people were married a lot of them weren’t happy. So, what’s the right number, marriage promoters? Is 78% participation in your favorite institution too low? To the people who aren’t happy in marriage, or don’t want to be married, the marriage promoters offer two choices: be celibate, or shame on you. (Actually, there is a third choice: date night!) For people who want to have children, too, their offer is to punish your children by withholding a child tax credit.

Signification. Third, the more we support marriage through politics, policy, and “the culture,” the more we increase its value as a conformity signifier, the more we constrain people’s family options — and that exacerbates the non-marriage penalty, which starts to look like other penalties people dole out for non-conformity, like gender non-conformity for example, or employer discrimination in favor of married men.

Bologna. Fourth — and less important, given the first three — of course there is no evidence that policy can increase marriage in any meaningful way, making the whole exercise deeply cynical. It’s largely a conversation between people validating the importance of marriage in their own social (and political and religious) circles, rather than a serious attempt to reverse the course of modern demographic evolution.

Marriage, advantage

I have been dealing with the paradox of marriage advantages for many years. Here’s a little greatest-hits history on this argument, with links. (I’m assembling this material for a book project anyway).

In a 2001 review of Linda Waite et al.’s edited volume, The Ties That Bind, I wrote, in reference to a chapter by Paula England, who influenced me fundamentally:

England paraphrases a quip about another tie that binds — capitalism — when she says, “The only thing worse than being dominated by a husband is not being dominated by a husband.” Given that women in the United States still have children, and are still largely responsible for their care, and given that men still dominate economically, married mothers and their children are advantaged.

So, what to do? Here’s me on Huffington Post in 2009:

…when a condition … yields benefits compared to being in some other condition — that also means it contributes to inequality. That’s because not everyone gets to experience it. If children of married couples are more likely to finish high school than those who grow up with single mothers, for example, then there is inequality between those two groups. One policy approach to that inequality is to make the condition more common — for example, encourage or coerce people to marry (or discourage people from having children when single). Another approach is to improve outcomes for people in the disadvantaged group. For example, because resource scarcity is a big part of the problem for single-parent families, we could support a public school system that educates all children effectively, or provide income support to poor families.

I carried on that argument in 2011, writing:

It’s obvious empirically that adults and children in married-couple families, on average, are doing better on many measures than those not in such families. The logical problem is when people conclude from this pattern that the obvious response is to “strengthen marriage and family life.” But, why not try to reduce that disparity instead? This is the logical equivalent of the Republican mantra that “We don’t have a revenue problem in Washington; we have a spending problem.” That’s only true if you’re doing one-handed math.

I made the case more formally in this 2014 chapter, responding to a paper by Sara McLanahan:

Cross-sectional comparisons show that children of married parents are less likely to suffer material deprivation. To reduce hardships for children, therefore, some analysts advocate policies that would increase marriage rates. I argue that alternative approaches offer more chance of success: increasing education levels and reducing the penalty for single parenthood.

And I concluded:

The rise of women’s independence, along with the decline in marriage and fertility, are interrelated parts of modern social development. And the overall consequence of these trends must be deemed positive – as life expectancies have increased, absolute poverty has decreased, and gender inequality has receded. The delay in age at marriage and the extension of divorce rights have no doubt prevented or ended many unhappy or unsafe marriages, even as they have carried risks. But the advocates for marriage offer no attempt to specify the ideal marriage rate. How are we to know that the decline in marriage has gone too far? The unwavering advocacy for more marriage, in the face of its continued inefficacy and impracticality, dissolves into ideology and distracts from the important challenges we face in attempting to improve the quality of life for poor families and their children.

Finally, I also addressed the contribution of marriage trends to economic inequality:

Falling marriage does contribute to rising inequality in the USA, because of how it’s manifesting: increasing selectivity in marriage, so that richer people are getting and staying married more; and increasing social class endogamy, so that there are more two-high-income families lording over more one-low-income families. And all of that is exacerbated by widening underlying inequality, with high-end incomes pulling away from low-end incomes, relatively unchecked by income redistribution.

One obvious solution is to take money away from married high-income people and give it to single low-income people. With all the benefits that married people get — many of them through no special effort of their own, but rather as a result of their social status at birth, race, health, good looks, legal perks, or lucky breaks — it seems reasonable to tax marriage, like a windfall profits tax, or an inheritance tax, or a progressive income tax. But, if you’re squeamish about taxing something “good” like marriage, then just taxing wealth a little more would accomplish much the same thing. This elegant solution would decrease inequality, increase well-being for poor people, and equalize life chances for children (who are the future, I believe). In other words, it’s out of the question.

Far from minimizing or denying the importance of family structure, I have written about it extensively — and argued we should find ways to reduce it.  On the other hand, marriage promotion as an approach to poverty and inequality is both completely ineffective at achieving its goals and harmful in other ways.

Regnerus has the callous disregard for poor single mothers and their children, but doesn’t get policy

Taking questions onstage at the World Congress of Families, Mark Regnerus reportedly was asked whether he would support cutting welfare benefits to single mothers to encourage them to marry. The question is not on the video, but part of his answer is. I transcribe it below, but here’s the tape:

Regnerus said:

… lay of the land in terms of the attempts to stimulate marriage, how difficult that is – your policy, which is sort of associated with the idea of the marriage penalty for people who are on social welfare and not married to the father of their children. It’s possible, right? It’s one of those things where – my skepticism tends to – how do people act in certain situations – what should we expect of people. In that situation, it creates this entity where we have to identify who’s in the household, how often are they in the household, the relationship, etcetera. Your policy is not a bad one in terms of moving people toward marriage – we want to do that. Whether it will work – who knows? And, I’m totally not a policy analyst so I’m going to stop right there.

His trademark verbal incoherence makes this hard to follow, but it appears his only concern with such a policy is the problem of household-member surveillance. His callous disregard for poor single mothers is apparent — he’s not concerned with the principle of coercing people into marriage, or even with violation of rights associated with verifying household comings and goings. He’s just not sure it’s feasible.

The weird thing is he’s got it backwards. If you want to deny benefits to single mothers, why do you care if they have a boyfriend in the house? That’s the problem the government has when it tries to only give benefits to single mothers — when its afraid they’re concealing a man who is supporting them.

The policy of denying benefits to people who are single — but giving benefits to people who are married — is what Brad Wilcox and Marco Rubio are trying to accomplish with their convoluted and badly calibrated child tax credit reform (see this description by Matt Bruenig). Maybe Regnerus wants to do that, but also find a way to punish single mothers who are carrying on outside of marriage, but it’s hard to see how that’s part of the policy.

But then again, I’m not a policy analyst so I’m going to stop right there. If you think I’m not getting it, please enlighten me.

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.

Groups of people with more income are richer, Wilcox credulity edition

momoney

I’m having a hard time believing the latest Brad Wilcox marriage-promotion fake research event is as dumb as I think it is, but I think it really is. I don’t use such a judgmental word lightly, but rather with a heavy heart, because it means it’s time to waste another hour debunking him.

The new thing is a report published by the American Enterprise Institute and “launched” at an event they hosted (droning-strike video here). The report is called, “Strong Families, Prosperous States” (PDF). The news coverage was light, which is a good sign for our news media, with credulous reports showing up in the Washington Post wonkblog and the Deseret News (though with Ross Douthat on the panel, expect more ripples sooner or later).

The basic finding is that people with more money are richer. But Wilcox (with co-authors anti-gay activist Joseph Price and Robert Lerman) describe it like this:

Higher levels of marriage, and especially higher levels of married-parent families, are strongly associated with more economic growth, more economic mobility, less child poverty, and higher median family income at the state level in the United States.

Their analysis, using state data over time, calculates the relationship between the change in marriage rates and the change in income per capita, poverty rates, and family income (mobility is done differently, using a single cross section, and I’m setting that aside for now). Basically, all this would be true if the only difference between states with lots of marriage and states with less marriage is that the former had more high income families — which of course they would, because married-couple families have higher incomes. So, rich people are richer.

To show how dumb this is, I illustrate it using fictional states made up of real families, drawn from the 2013 American Community Survey (data from IPUMS.org). I took all the married-couple and single-parent families with children, and created four states: Heavcox, where everyone is married; Hellcox, where no one is married; and two states in between, Lowersham (86% married) and Highersham (40% married). The families were assigned to states randomly (with replacement, so some families are in more than one state).

Here are the four states, with their scores on the measures used by Wilcox:

fakestates

Heavcox has the lowest poverty, the highest median family income, and the highest per capita income (which means increase in marriage would lead to higher growth in per capita income).

The point is this has nothing to do with states, it’s composition: married-couple families more income, so their states do, too. The report includes a lot of statistical controls, but none that affect this basic pattern (for example, racial composition, average education level, and crime and tax rates). This is mostly because the units used for income and poverty are families. I’m not taking the time to do this, but I am pretty sure it would work if you randomly assigned individuals to families as well, that is, if the difference between married couples and single people was literally just the number of adults in the household. And with per capita income, more married-couple families means more high-income individuals, so higher income states. (Of course, there are interesting reasons married couples are richer, but they don’t have to do with states: they have more high-income earners, because high earners are more likely to get and stay married, and to a much lesser extent, because marriage helps people earn more.)

There is a funny note in the report, which says:

While these comparisons are based on median family income, we find similar gaps when we look at median household income or median household income adjusted for household size.

The adjustment for household size would help a little, but it still wouldn’t change the basic pattern, since married couple families have more earners, not just more people. But I completely distrust “we find similar…” if the numbers aren’t reported, since we know Wilcox lies a lot (frankly, even taking un-replicated numbers from one of his reports is dicey — I wouldn’t want to build a life raft out of it — but that’s the risk we take).

So, sure: “states show especially positive economic outcomes when a larger majority of their families are headed by married parents.” This is not news.

This is another case of think-tank public relations hype successfully masquerading as research, with journalists and funders as the intended audience. The American Enterprise Institute, which has a legal obligation to waste money, wants media mentions; reporters need easy stories expertly told and packaged for public consumption (unlike most real research); and political partisans want to click on and share things that support their assumptions. It is understandable that some honest reporters and editors fall for this stuff (and again, I’m appreciative of the many who didn’t). Washington Post reporter Jim Tankersley may have been trying to boost the legitimacy of the new report when he wrote this:

There is a story gaining steam among some academics that suggests the institution of marriage — particularly marriage for parents of young children — could play an important role in strengthening the American economy. It is a story about growth and poverty, about responsibility and work ethic.

But there is no evidence for the “gaining steam” thing in the story, except the existence of an American Enterprise Institute PR event.

Some reporters really try to check these stories out a little before running with them. But it’s hard for non-experts to do that, especially quickly. For example, Tankersley responded to a tweet I tweeted saying the report “appears to control for some of the factors you have raised flags about in the past.” Which is true, but this just shows the effectiveness of the PR, not the quality of the research. Which all means that as much as I don’t like the system we use to manage peer review, it’s still a good idea. There is nothing in this report that couldn’t have waited a few months for a real peer review before presenting it to the public.

If I’m wrong about this for some reason, and you can show my why — really show me, not just suggest other work I could do to check out your suspicions — I’ll be glad to admit it.

Aside: but why not?

You may be thinking, “sure, but isn’t it still the case that married couples are richer, so more people getting married would be good, right?” The first problem with that is that there is no known way to generate that outcome: the government’s marriage promotion has not worked at all, and I have seen no approach to trying that doesn’t impose religion or other values on people or shame them for their circumstances.

The second problem (which I wrote about a little here) is that the next marriage won’t bring the same benefits as the average existing marriage. If economics is one reason people don’t get married — and it is — then the economics of the currently-not-married will not be as beneficial as those experienced by the people who were in better shape to get married in the first place.

Why it’s rotten to tell someone they’re poor because of when they had their kids

The “success sequence” is an idea from Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution. They want to balance government investment and “personal responsibility” to reduce poverty. By personal responsibility, they mean adherence to what they call “the three norms”: complete high school, work full time, wait until you’re 21 and married to have children. If you do that — and smile while doing it — they’re willing to spot you a little welfare and some education.

I’ll describe it, and some criticism of the idea, then show a little data analysis.

Haskins and Sawhill claim to have analyzed data to show that when you follow all three of these norms, you have a 98% chance of not being poor. This is how they illustrate it (from this slideshow):

success-sequence-slideMatt Bruenig at Demos has an important post explaining how misleading — and wrong — this is. There are three main problems, briefly:

  1. The high school degree and full-time job is doing almost all of the work. With those two hurdles complete, you’re already down under 4% poverty. So the marriage stuff is mostly moralizing for political purposes.
  2. The data they used does not include the information necessary to see whether people were married when they had their children — it doesn’t have marital history. So they didn’t even do the analysis they said they did.
  3. Family complications mess this up badly. In particular, if a person (say, a man), has children with a partner and never lives with them, he shows up as having met the “norms” because the data don’t show him having any children — it’s a household survey, so absent parents aren’t parents in the data.

So if someone gives you the “success sequence” thing, just remember, the analysis is baloney, and the bottom line is decent full-time jobs are what keep people out of poverty (by the official poverty measure, of course).

Analysis

Anyway, I can go a little further using the American Community Survey, which includes data on the year of each person’s most recent marriage, and the number of times they’ve been married. So, limiting the data to first-time married parents, I can check the age of their oldest child and see whether it was born before they were married, and before the parent was age 21. Some of the above problems still apply, but this is something. And it enables me to underscore Bruenig’s point that step three of the success sequence is not pulling its weight.

(Note this analysis is just about the timing of births for people who are currently married. Single parents of course have higher poverty rates that you can’t attribute to the timing of their births without more information than the ACS has.)

Using the 2013 ACS provided by IPUMS, I took all married parents, living in their own households, age 18 or older, married for the first time, with a child under 18 in the household. Then I used the job norm (self or spouse full-time employed), the education norm (high school complete), and the parent norm in two parts (child born after marriage, child born after age 21), as well as other variables, to see their relative contribution to not being poor. The other variables were additional education (BA degree), race/ethnicity, age, sex, disability, and nativity

This figure shows the marginal effects. That is, how much does the chance of being in poverty change with each of these conditions, holding all the others constant at their means? Click to enlarge:

success sequence acs 2013.xlsx

If the oldest child in the family was born before the year of the parents’ marriage, the chance of being in poverty is increased by 0.4%. If the child was born before the parent was 21, the chance goes up by 0.6%. This seems reasonable to me, given the potential hardships associated with single and early parenthood. But compare: Not having a high school diploma increases the chance of poverty by 2.2%, and neither spouse having a full-time job increases the chance by 6.4%.

Remember, these are all effects holding constant everything else in the model. If you just look at the difference between those who fulfill the parenting “norm” and those who don’t, it’s much bigger. Among people with a full-time job in the family and a high school degree, the poverty rate is 2.8% for people whose oldest present child was born after they were married and 21, versus 9.1% for the people who let us all down on the childbearing norm. But that big difference is mostly because of education and race/ethnicity and disability, etc.

In short, this exposes how rotten it is to tell someone they are poor because of when they had their kids. A decent job and some education would mean a lot more than your sermon.

Code

Here is the IPUMS codebook for my download, and the Stata .do file for the analysis.

No, you should get married in your late 40s (just kidding)

Please don’t give (or take) stupid advice from analyses like this.

Since yesterday, Nick Wolfinger and Brad Wilcox have gotten their marriage age analysis into the Washington Post Wonkblog (“The best age to get married if you don’t want to get divorced”) and Slate (“The Goldilocks Theory of Marriage”). The marriage-promotion point of this is: don’t delay marriage. The credulous blogosphere can’t resist the clickbait, but the basis for this is very weak.

Yesterday I complained about Wolfinger pumping up the figure he first posted (left) into the one on the right:

wolfbothToday I spent a few minutes analyzing the American Community Survey (ACS) to check this out. Wolfinger has not shared his code, data, models, or tables, so it’s hard to know what he really did. However, he lists a number of variables he says he controlled for using the National Survey of Family Growth: “sex, race, family structure of origin, age at the time of the survey, education, religious tradition, religious attendance, and sexual history, as well as the size of the metropolitan area.”

The ACS seems better for this. It’s very big, so I can analyze just the one-year incidence of divorce (did you get divorced in the last year?), according to the age at which people married. I don’t have family structure of origin, religion, or sexual history, but he says those don’t influence the age-at-marriage effect much. He did not control for duration of marriage, which is messed up in his data anyway because of the age limits in the NSFG.

So, in my model I used women in their first marriages only, and controlled for marriage duration, education, race, Hispanic ethnicity, and nativity/citizenship. This is similar to models I used in this (shock) peer-reviewed paper. Here are the predicted probabilities of divorce, in one year, holding those control variables constant.

agemar-divorce

Yes, there is a little bump up for the late 30s compared with the early 30s, but it’s very small.

Closer analysis (added to the post 7/19), generated from a model with age-at-marriage–x–marital duration interactions, shows that the late-30s bump is concentrated in the first five years of marriage:

newheatmap

This doesn’t much undermine the “conventional wisdom” that early marriage increases the risk of divorce. Of course, this should not be the basis for advice to people who are, say, dating a person they’re thinking of marrying and hoping to minimize chance of divorce.

If you want to give advice to, say, a 15-year-old woman, however, the bottom line is still: Get a bachelor’s degree. You’ll likely earn more, marry later, and have fewer kids. If you or your spouse decide to get divorced after all that, it won’t hurt that you’re more independent. For what it’s worth, here are the education effects from this same model:

educ-div

(The codebook for my IPUMS data extraction is here, my Stata code is here.)

Anyway, it’s disappointing to see this in the Wonkblog piece:

But the important thing, for Wolfinger, is that “we do know beyond a shadow of a doubt that people who marry in their thirties are now at greater risk of divorce than are people who wed in their late twenties. This is a new development.”

That’s just not true. I wouldn’t swear by this quick model I did today. But I would swear that it’s too early to change the “conventional wisdom” based only on a blog post on a Brad-Wilcox-branded site.

Aside

One interesting issue is the problem of age at marriage and education. They are clearly endogenous — that is, they influence each other. Women delay marriage to get more education, they stop their education when they have kids, they go back to school when they get divorced — or think they might get divorced. And so on. And, for the regression models, there are no highly-educated people getting married at really young ages, because they haven’t finished school yet. On the other hand, though, there are lots of less-educated people getting married for the first time at older ages. Using the same ACS data, here are two looks at the women who just married for the first time, by age and education.

First, the total number per year:

age-ed-mar-count

Then, the percent distribution of that same data:

age-ed-mar-distInteresting thing here is that college graduates are only the majority of women getting married for the first time in the age range 27-33. Before and after that most women have less than a BA when they marry for the first time. This is also complicated because the things that select people into early marriage are sometimes but not always different from those that select people into higher education. Whew.

It really may not be reasonable to try to isolate the age-at-marriage effect after all.

The latest get-married-young thing tells you all you need to know

Just a quick note for people wondering about this new thing by Nicholas Wolfinger on Brad Wilcox’s blog. He says it used to be (before 1995) that getting married young increased the odds of divorce. Since then, however, he says getting married either before or after age 32 raises the odds of divorce.

Why is that? His explanation — in his very own words, from his very own post: “my money is on a selection effect.” In other words, do not follow the advice in the headline, which is: “Want to Avoid Divorce? Wait to Get Married, But Not Too Long.” Because if the mechanism is selection, then changing your behavior to ride that curve will not work.

I’m not getting into the methods, which are not revealed, despite a link for “more information” — there is no paper, no tables, no code or data. However, something is off, and the post is off-gassing a discernible essence of Wilcox’s influence. In the new blog post, they show this graph:

wolfinger1Wow, that’s a pretty big boomerang effect. If it weren’t a selection effect, it might really be relevant for personal decision-making. But when you follow the link for “more information” you see this graph:

wolfinger2

The upward swing here is hardly enough to get your marriage promotion lather up. Clearly, something had to be improved from Wolfinger’s post from April and his post for Wilcox’s site in July. That’s the kind of data leadership we expect from this site. (Also, get rid of those dots, which show you the all those people with really low divorce odds at higher ages.)

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