Especially if they’re Black: A shortage of men for poor women to marry

One thing a lot of liberals and conservatives can agree on: not talking about race.

[If you don’t have time for the text, just skip to the figure.]

Liberals are happy when conservatives talk about inequality, which they’re doing a lot more these days. And when they debate marriage as a way to “cure” poverty, neither talks about race. For example, Annie Lowrey writes in the the NYT Magazine:

With Democrats and Republicans pitted against one another in a vicious election-year battle over how to alleviate poverty, marriage is the policy solution du jour.

First, Lowrie makes the now universal mistake in interpreting the famous Chetty et al. result:

In a new study, the economist Raj Chetty and his co-authors found that, in terms of income mobility, nothing matters more for a low-income child than the family structures she sees in her community — not neighborhood segregation, school quality or a host of other factors.

Traditionally in America, when you say “a host of other factors,” that includes race. But the Chetty et al. paper is nearly unique in its avoidance of race, partly because race isn’t specified in tax records. So “nothing matters more” is at best untested, and at worst completely wrong, since race isn’t in the model. (My argument on this is here).

To those of us old enough to remember, or have read stuff from, the 1980s, not including race in this conversation is bizarre. Of course, it is not crazy to talk about poverty as an issue. In that article, Kristi Williams is right when she says:

It isn’t that having a lasting and successful marriage is a cure for living in poverty. Living in poverty is a barrier to having a lasting and successful marriage.

But the article doesn’t address the hard demographic reality that the things that make marriage less available or attractive to poor women — Lowrey lists “globalization, the decline of labor unions, technological change and other tidal economic forces” — have done it much more for Black women, even among the poor. In addition to even worse job prospects, for Black men you need to add incarceration, mortality, and intermarriage rates much higher for men than for women.

Here’s a simple way to see this. Adapting the old formula from William Julius Wilson, I counted up the number of employed, non-married men per non-married woman (employed or not) in the age range 25-34, separately for Blacks and Whites, and by education, for the 50 biggest metropolitan areas (one not shown because of data shortage, one outlier excluded). With intermarriage rates so low for Black women, and the tendency not to marry men without jobs, this is a reasonable approximation of the marriage market for Black women, though it understates the number of men available to White women.

This is the result:

blog-mmpi

Dots in the green areas show relative surpluses of men. Dots under the red line show better markets for White women than for Black women. It takes a minute to figure out. If your jaw dropped, you got it. With or without college degrees Black women face a shortage of “mariageable” men in every single market except five (Portland OR, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Providence, which was the outlier not shown). For college graduates Black women are under 75 men per 100 women in all but two markets, non-graduates are under 75 in 40 out of 48.

White women’s market is better than Black women’s in all but six (those five plus Sacramento). In most cases White women graduates have a surplus of men from which to choose.

Poverty is one thing. Race is another. They overlap, but on some questions they can’t be combined. Marriage is one of those issues. So, when you talk about the shortage of men to marry, I recommend remembering race.

Note: After I made this graph, Joanna Pepin and I decided to write a paper together on this. That is still in the pipeline, and I was going to save this for when it’s ready. But there will be plenty more.

Marriage promotion: That’s some fine print

In a (paywalled) article in the journal Family Relations, Alan Hawkins, Paul Amato, and Andrea Kinghorn, attempt to show that $600 million in marriage promotion money (taken from the welfare program!) has had beneficial effects at the population level. A couple quick comments on the article (see also previous posts on marriage promotion).

After a literature review that is a model of selective and skewed reading of previous research (worth reading just for that), they use state marriage promotion funding levels* in a year- and state-fixed effects model to predict the percentage of the population that is married, divorced, children living with two parents, one parent, nonmarital births, poverty and near-poverty, each in separate models with no control variables, for the years 2000-2010 using the American Community Survey.

To find beneficial effects — no easy task, apparently — they first arbitrarily divided the years into two periods. Here is the rationale for that:

We hypothesized that any HMI [Healthy Marriage Initiative] effects were weaker (or nonexistent) early in the decade (when funding levels were uniformly low) and stronger in the second half of the decade (when funding levels were at their peak).

This doesn’t make sense to me. If funding levels were low and there was no effect in the early period, and then funding levels rose and effects emerged in the later period, then the model for all years should show that funding had an effect. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this passes the smell test.

Then they report their beneficial effects, which are significant if you allow them p<.10 as a cutoff, which is kosher under house rules because they had directional hypotheses.

However, then they admit their effects are only significant because they included Washington, DC. That city had per capita funding levels about 9-times the mean (“about $22” versus “about $2.50”), and had an improving family well-being profile during the period (how much of an outlier DC is on the dependent variables they didn’t discuss, and I don’t have time to show it now, but I reckon it’s pretty extreme, too). To deal with this extreme outlier, they first cut the independent variable in half for DC, bringing it down to about 4.4-times the mean and a third higher then the next most-extreme state, Oklahoma (itself pretty extreme). That change alone cut the number of significant effects down from six to three.

coupdegrace

Then, in the tragic coup de grâce of their own paper, they remove DC from the analysis, and nothing is left. They don’t quite see it that way, however:

But with the District of Columbia excluded from the data (right panel of Table 3), all of the results were reduced to nonsignificance. Once again, most of the regression coefficients in this final analysis were comparable to those in Table 2 (right panel) in direction and magnitude, but they were rendered nonsignificant by a further increase in the size of the standard errors.

Really. What is “comparable in direction and magnitude” mean, exactly? I give you (for free!) the two tables. First, the full model:

tab2

Then, the models with DC rescaled or removed (they’re talking about the comparison between the right-hand panel in both tables):

tab3

Some of the coefficients actually grew in the direction they want with DC gone. But two moved drastically away from the direction of their preferred outcome: the two-parent coefficient is 44% smaller, the poor/near-poor coefficient fell 78%.

Some outlier! As they helpfully explain, “The lack of significance can be explained by the larger standard errors.” In the first adjustment, rescaling DC, all the standard errors at least doubled. And all of the standard errors are at least three-times larger with DC gone. I’m not a medical doctor, but I think it’s fair to say that when removing one case triples your standard errors, your regression model is not feeling well.

One other comment on DC. Any outlier that extreme is a serious problem for regression analysis, obviously. But there is a substantive issue here as well. They feebly attempt to turn the DC results in their favor, by talking about is unique conditions. But what they don’t do is consider the implications of DC’s unique change over this time for their analysis. And that’s what matters in a year- and state-fixed effects model. How did DC change independently of marriage promotion funds? Most importantly, 8% of the population during 2006-2010 was new to town each year. That’s four-times the national average of in-migration in that period. This churning is of course a problem for their analysis, which is trying to measure cumulative effects of program spending in that place — hard to do when so many people moved there after the spending occurred. But it’s also not random churning: the DC population went from 57% Black to 52% Black in just five years. DC is changing, and it’s not because of marriage promotion programs.

Finally, their own attempt at a self-serving conclusion is the most damning:

Despite the limitations, the current study is the most extensive and rigorous investigation to date of the implications of government-supported HMIs for family change at the population level.

Ouch. Oh well. Anyway, please keep giving the programs money, and us money for studying them**:

In sum, the evidence from a variety of studies with different approaches targeting different populations suggests a potential for positive demographic change resulting from funding of [Marriage and Relationship Education] programs, but considerable uncertainty still remains. Given this uncertainty, more research is needed to determine whether these programs are accomplishing their goals and worthy of continued support.

*The link to their data source is broken. They say they got other data by calling around.

**The lead author, Alan Hawkins, has received about $120,000 in funding from various marriage promotion sources.

Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood: Time for some results

Many sociologists say that more marriage — or, to avoid the implication that they support bad marriages, more “healthy marriage” — would reduce poverty and improve the lives of poor children.

Who says sociologists have no impact? Partly relying on the work of these researchers, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars — from the welfare budget — for the Healthy Marriage Initiative and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative.

Has it worked? It’s too easy to simply point out that marriage rates for young adults without college educations have fallen at an accelerating pace since these programs began. What about the solid, scientific program evaluation data that really looks at the hundreds of millions spent and rigorously tests its impact on program participants?

I’m not an expert on the Government Accountability Office, but this 2008 report doesn’t look good. It uses a lot of phrases like “lacks mechanisms to identify and target grantees that are not in compliance,” and “currently lacks uniform performance indicators and a computerized management information system.”

Still, its promise for future research is optimistic:

HHS has established a rigorous research agenda to gauge the long-term impact of healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood activities on diverse, low-income populations. … Studies such as these often are difficult and take time to complete, but are considered the best method for assessing program impact. Results from these studies will not be available until after fiscal year 2010.

2010 review concluded the jury was “still out” on whether marriage and relationship classes can actually help poor couples. But the fiscal year 2010 ended in September 2010, I think, so this rigorous research must now be in the pipeline. As of this writing I don’t see any here on the Fatherhood site, but I found some on the Healthy Marriage site.

Building Strong Families

The major report is an eight-city study of more than 5,100 couples in Building Strong Families (BSF). They used an “intent to treat” research design in which half of the unmarried (or married-after-pregnancy) new-parent couples who applied for the support program were given services while the other half were not. The experimental group got things like relationship skills education, a family support coordinator and referrals to supportive services. The participants were an at-risk bunch — half African American, two-thirds not high school graduates, half with a child from a prior relationship, average couple earnings about $20,000. After about 15 months, they followed up.

This is the main finding: Nothing.

There is an individual program report from Oklahoma’s Family Expectations program, one of the BSF sites, which found couples were no more likely to be married or living together 15 months later — but they were a little more likely to be still be in a romantic relationship. On the other hand, the BSF report shows that there were negative effects of the Baltimore program site. There, program couples were less likely to be romantically involved, less supportive and affectionate, had more assaults, worse co-parenting relationships, and lower levels of father involvement.

I would like to see a third group in the studies, in which the program applicants are given a good job but no marriage support services.

My initial assessment: waste of money, pending future research.*

*There may well be more research out there on this I’m not aware of. Feel free to offer references or suggestions for followup in the comments.