Tag Archives: marriage

Demographic Intelligence, low bar edition

U.S. marriage rates are falling generally, so that’s the real news. And it’s important. In fact, one classic projection has the rate hitting zero at 2042. But the news shenanigans are in the prediction business.

I first wrote here about Demographic Intelligence, a profit-making venture founded by Brad Wilcox (full file). They prey on companies’ ignorance about demography and the news media’s desire to stay ahead of the story, making ridiculous claims like “99% accuracy” in their forecasts. Here’s an update.

In a Washington Post Wonkblog entry meaninglessly titled, “Why parents should stop hoping their kids will get married,” we read:

“Millennials are such a big generation, we’re going to have more people of prime marriage age in the next five years than we’ve had at any time in U.S. history. For that alone, we’d expect an uptick in marriage rates,” said Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence.

Setting aside the knowledge-sucking obsession with generational marketing terms, let’s just hold the president of a company with “demographic” in the title to a slightly-higher-than-complete-nonsense standard of demographic intelligence. The median age at marriage is now 28 (combining men and women). At that age there were 4.3 million people in 2013. That is actually the highest number of people ever at the median age at marriage. For example, in 1900, when the median age at marriage was 24, there were only 1.5 million people that age. Wow!

However, intelligent demographer Sturgeon said “for that alone, we’d expect an uptick in marriage rates.” And marriage rates are based on population size. that 4.3 million people at age 28 in 2013 was only 1.35% of the population, while the 1.5 million people at age 24 in 1900 was 1.96% of the population. In fact, the pattern is the opposite of what Sturgeon said: we have never had fewer people — proportionately — in the prime marrying age. Double wow!

Here is the population distribution by age from 1900 to 2013, from the IPUMS.org online table maker (try it, it’s easy!). The color coding helpfully shows where the number is above average (red) versus below average (blue). I’ve highlighted the five-year age interval that contains the median marriage age for each decade:

Microsoft PowerPoint - uspop-age-dist-marriage-age.pptx

That the marriage rate is falling — Sturgeon’s expert prediction (see below) is that it will reach an all-time low in 2016 (as it has in 16 of the last 33 years) — is in large part driven by this age composition trend.

How accurate is that forecast?

Demographic Intelligence boasts “99% accuracy” in its wedding forecasts. And these forecasts, they say, are very useful:

This unique forecast is especially valuable as the federal marriage statistics are usually released 12 to 24 months after the date to which they apply, making official data of limited usefulness to the wedding industry. Our forecast is available 24 months before weddings happen, thereby offering a tremendous value to companies that focus on weddings and ancillary businesses.

Now, I’m all in favor of wasting the wedding industry’s money, but I don’t like deceiving the public. So I have to tell you: for every year from 2001 to 2012, if you had simply used last year’s marriage rate to predict this year’s, you would have averaged 98.3% accuracy. That is the deer-in-headlights method of forecasting. In fact, the deer-in-the-headlights forecast for 2012 — that is, assuming no change from 2011 — yields an astonishing accuracy of 99.87% (see below). Not bad! I’ll sell that to you for just 98% of what Demographic Intelligence is charging (except you’re already paying for my services, so you’re welcome).

Of course, demographers like projections, and I’m no exception. It is frustrating that official marriage statistics lag “real time” so much more than other important statistics, such as the unemployment rate or the number of named storms per season. That’s why in 2013 I announced a marriage forecast contest to predict the 2012 marriage rate, and provided some trends in key variables for you to experiment with (in a spreadsheet here): Google searches for wedding invitations, bridal showers, and wedding gifts; the unemployment rate, the Index of Consumer Sentiment, and the number of women ages 20-39:

There was so little interest in my contest (go figure), that I never got around to updating the results. So here goes. We now know from official statistics that there were 2,131,000 marriages in 2012, which, for a population of 313,914,040, yields a marriage-per-1000 rate of 6.788, down from 6.797 in 2011. Using different combinations of these variables, I generated projections using linear regressions. As I noted, the no-change performed very well, at 99.87% accuracy. But the winning model was actually the one that used the Google search trends only, which predicted 2,133,647 weddings, an astonishing 99.88% accurate. If Google is not using their data to get filthy rich — oh wait.

Anyway, in this exercise I’m just predicting the next year in the series — it gets a little trickier if you want to go four years out. And demographic projections are a serious science. But this prediction business is just wasting money and confusing people.

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Marriage promotion and the myth of teen pregnancy

First some context, then some data.

Ruth Graham has a story in the Boston Globe about how liberals and conservatives — researchers as well as policy advocates — are starting to agree that marriage is good and policy should promote it. I’m quoted, but apparently as an example of what Andrew Cherlin refers to as someone standing at “a line some liberal sociologists won’t cross, that line of accepting marriage as the best arrangement.” This is part of a spate of stories in which journalists look for a new consensus on marriage. Previous entries include David Leonhardt in the New York Times saying liberals are wrong in attributing the decline of marriage to economics alone, and Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post reporting that Isabel Sawhill has given up on “trying to revive marriage.” The narrow consensus in policy terms involves a few things, like increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit and reducing marriage penalties in some parts of the safety net, along with trying to improve conditions at the low end of the labor market (see this Center for American Progress report for the liberal side of these policies).

From teen births to marriage promotion

The idea of a cultural revival of marriage has been the futile bleat of the family right for decades, most recently retooled by David Blankenhorn. And in recent years these ideologues have taken to using as an example the supposed success of the cultural intervention to reduce teen pregnancy, to show how we might increase marriage and reduce nonmarital birth rates. This has been a common refrain from Brad Wilcox, quoted here by Graham:

As evidence of his optimism, Wilcox points to teen pregnancy, which has dropped by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s. “Most people assumed you couldn’t do much around something related to sex and pregnancy and parenthood,” he said. “Then a consensus emerged across right and left, and that consensus was supported by public policy and social norms. … We were able to move the dial.”

I think that interpretation is not just wrong, it’s the opposite of right, as I’ll explain below.

I don’t know of any evidence that cultural intervention affected teen birth rates. Cultural intervention effects are different from cultural effects — of course cultural change is part of the trend in marriage and birth timing, but the commonly cited paper showing an apparent effect of 16 and Pregnant on teen births, for example, is not evidence that the campaign to reduce teen pregnancy was successful. There was a campaign to end teen pregnancy, and teen pregnancy declined. I think the trend might have happened for the same set of reasons the campaign happened — the same reasons for the decline in marriage and the shift toward later marriage. The campaign was one expression of shifting norms toward women’s independence, educational investment, and delayed family formation.

The myth of teen pregnancy

I’ve been trying to say this for a while, and it doesn’t seem to be taking. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not giving up yet. So here goes again.

If you had never heard of teen pregnancy, you would see the decline in births among teenagers as what it is: part of the general historic trend toward later births and later marriage. I tried to show this in a previous post. I’ll repeat that, and then give you the new data.

First, I showed that teen birth trends simply follow the overall trend toward later births. Few births at young ages, more at older ages:

It doesn’t look like anything special happening with teens. To show that a different way, I juxtaposed teen birth rates with the tendency of older women (25-34) to have births relative to younger women (20-24). This showed that teen births are less common where older births are more common:

In other words, teen births follow general trends toward older births.

Today’s data exercise

Here’s a more rigorous (deeper dive!) into the same question. I show here that teenage women are less likely to have a birth if they live in place with higher age at marriage, and if they live in a place with lower marriage rates. That is, lower teen births go along with the main historical trend: delayed and declining marriage.

So if you think declining teen births are an example of how a policy for “cultural” intervention can reverse the historical tide, you’re not just wrong, you’re the opposite of right. The campaign to reduce teen births succeeded in doing what was happening already. This is not a model for marriage promotion.

Here’s what I did. I used the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, distributed by IPUMS.org. For 283 metropolitan areas, accounting for 73% of all U.S. 15-19 year-old women, I calculated the odds of a teenage woman reporting a birth in the previous year, as a function of: (a) the median age of women who married in that area in the previous year, and (b) the proportion of women ages 18-54 that are currently married in that area. I adjusted these odds for age, race/ethnicity, and nativity (foreign born). I didn’t adjust for things that are co-determined with births among teens, such as marital status, education, and living arrangements (in other words there is plenty of room to dive deeper). All effects were statistically significant when entered simultaneously in a logistic regression model, with robust standard errors for metro area clustering.*

The figures show probabilities of having a birth in the last year, adjusted for those factors, with 95% confidence intervals:

teenbirth-agemar

teenbirth-pctmar

To summarize:

  • Teen births are a myth. There are just births to people ages 13 to 19.
  • Teen births have fallen as people increasingly delay childbearing and marriage. Falling teen births are simply part of the historical trend on marriage: rising age at marriage, declining marriage rates.
  • The campaign to prevent teen births coincided with the trends already underway. Any suggestion that this could be a model for promoting marriage — that is, a policy that goes against the historical tide on marriage — is hokum.
  • There remains no evidence at all to support any policy intervention to promote marriage.

* Well, the age at marriage effect is on significant at p=.054 (two-tailed), but my hypothesis is directional — and that cluster adjustment is brutal! Anyway, happy to share code and output, just email me. Here’s the regression table:

teenbirth-logit

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Who’s your marriage market?

Richard Florida and the CityLab crew have produced some maps showing the relative size of the single male and female populations in metro areas across the country. They run the maps by age group — here’s the one for all single men and women ages 18-64:

180278ee4It mostly shows larger single female surpluses in the South and Northeast, and male surpluses in the West and upper Midwest.

The maps are interesting, but marriage markets aren’t as simple as gender. For example, among White, Black, and Hispanic newlyweds, 87% married someone in the same race/ethnic group, and 77% married someone on the same side of the BA/no-BA education divide. (I previously showed some figures on the relative number of “marriageable” Black and White men, by education, here.)

Just to underscore that point, here are the match rates in more detail. To make this I counted the matches by race/ethnicity (Black, White, Hispanic), education (BA/no-BA), and age (within 5 years) of people who were married in the previous 12 months, in the American Community Survey 2010-2012 (from IPUMS.org).

Here are the match rates, broken down by sex and race/ethnicity:

who they married 2010-2012.xlsxThis shows:

  • Altogether, half the newlyweds match their spouses on all three characteristics, and Whites are most likely to match.
  • Blacks are least likely to match on age.
  • Black women are more likely to match on race than Black men.
  • Hispanics are most likely to match on education (mostly without BAs).

Of course, lots of people don’t match on these traits — maybe even especially those adventurous types who pick up and move when they see a map like this. But whether you’re a matcher or not, before you plan your marriage-seeking move you need to know what you’re looking for (and what’s looking for you).

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The marriage movement has failed (long live the marriage movement), Blankenhorn edition

I don’t know David Blankenhorn, so I can’t really judge whether he’s still a hypocritical opportunist or he’s really transformed into a half-evolved pseudo-moderate. But it doesn’t matter; his movement has failed. Even if he manages to get his fundraising sea-legs back under him again, nothing substantive will come of it.

I will get to the new Blankenhorn treatise in Washington Monthly. (They retitled his essay from the pompous, “Marriage Opportunity: The Moment for National Action” — as it appears on his website — to the more topical but deeply ridiculous, “Can Gay Wedlock Break Political Gridlock?“) But first, at the risk of contributing to Blankenhorn Declaration Fatigue, I start with a little background. You can skip right to the part about the new essay, or, after reading the background, just stop reading because it doesn’t matter what he says anymore. Or read the whole thing.

Blankenhorn’s lost long decade

Blankenhorn likes to collect signatories for statements of bold blandness, conservative feel-goodism dressed up as high-minded Moments of Clarity and Reason under the mantle of his Institute for American Values (IAV). The 2000 pamphlet, “The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles,” declared “something new: a grassroots movement to strengthen marriage,” which embraced the notion that “a healthy marriage culture benefits every citizen in the United States” (including, oddly, “gay or straight” Americans, whose right to marry Blankenhorn spent the next decade or so viciously opposing), and pledged to “turn the tide on marriage” in the 2000s. In the decade that followed, the decline in marriage rates accelerated in every state except North Dakota (here color-coded by common political convention):

The “marriage movement” has been a disastrous failure — in terms of its stated goals — as I discuss below. For Blankenhorn, the nadir was his 2010 humiliation by Federal Judge Vaughn Walker in California’s Proposition 8 case (Perry v. Schwarzenegger). The would-be intellectual leader of a cultural revival, and the author of several books, was disqualified as an expert in the losing cause, having provided, “inadmissible opinion testimony that should be given essentially no weight.” Under scrutiny, it was clear his expertise was limited to making moral proclamations.

At the time of his Proposition 8 disqualification, Blankenhorn and then-ally Maggie Gallagher were also part of the team assembled by the Heritage Foundation to motivate a research program showing the harms caused to children by same-sex couples, described here. Along with Brad Wilcox, Joe Price, and David Allen — who all contributed research — they launched what became the discredited Regnerus study. As with the general goal of “turning the tide on marriage,” this too was a spectacular failure, as the research was discounted or dismissed by one court after another.

But achieving one’s stated goals is not the measure of success in right-wing foundation land, where billionaires heat their tax shelters with burning cash and millionaires exchange bloated salaries in the service of ideological reproduction. The bottom line is always the same — protect the wealth of the very rich, and distract the public. The social issues are mostly details — marriage, thrift, religion, guns, and so on — although occasionally inflamed by a confused crusader for one random cause or another. And of course, at whatever effective tax rate they’re avoiding, the money they’re burning is yours.

Anyway, fortunately for Blankenhorn (and his staff, including his wife, Raina) the United States had a devastating financial collapse in 2008. Early funding from Templeton positioned him to take advantage of the crisis, leveraging the disaster to waste something like $9 million of right-wing foundation money on the issue of “thrift.” (These details are from my non-expert analysis of the foundations’ tax-exempt IRS 990 forms.) To distract Americans from the crimes of the rich, foundations like Templeton and Bradley decided to pollute the public square with the idea that what we really need to fix is Americans’ culture of personal saving. The reforms IAV proposed included promoting small loans, opposing gambling, and teaching children good behavior — and of course marriage. As far as I can tell, the result was some books and pamphlets. (You no-doubt missed their 2012 pamphlet, “An American Declaration on Government and Gambling,” produced by IAV on behalf of a failing organization run by right-wing church types called Stop Predatory Gambling, whose board includes Barrett Duke; they were shellacked in the Massachusetts anti-gaming ballot measure last November.)

In the thrift era, times were good: funding from Bradley and Templeton brought David and Raina’s combined IAV salaries to a peak above $400,000. When those grants ran out, they took a 25% pay cut (along with Barbara Defoe Whitehead, who was demoted from “Director of Thrift” to just “Director” as her pay was cut from $110,000 to $82,000):

iav finances.xlsx

Toward a new treatise

After the California humiliation, Blankenhorn — with his (then) deputy, Elizabeth Marquardt* — attempted a soft pivot on gay marriage. In 2012 they spoke out against a ballot measure in North Carolina that would have banned same-sex civil unions as well as marriage, saying it went “too far” in the direction of bigotry, instead of merely barring gays and lesbians from equal status in marriage (in keeping with his string of losses, voters approved the measure 61% to 39%, but it was later found unconstitutional). That led to yet another declaration, this one called “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage,” launched with 75 signatories in early 2013. They called marriage “society’s most pro-child institution” — versus unspecific contenders. (Presumably because they were still billing Templeton for the thrift work, they also called “marriage and thrift,” “the two great engines of the
American middle class since the nation’s founding.”) They wrote:

The new conversation does not presuppose or require agreement on gay marriage, but it does ask a new question. The current question is: “Should gays marry?” The new question is: “Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage?”

With the Regnerus scandal, creeping court decisions for marriage equality, and shifts in public opinion in favor of gay marriage, the family right was unraveling. Maggie Gallagher, who claims to have co-written the 2000 Statement of Principles, was furious. Not only had Blankenhorn dropped opposition to gay marriage, he had stopped referring to the gender of spouses in his descriptions of how awesome marriage is.

Unlike Blankenhorn, Gallagher and her National Organization for Marriage have a track record of political victories with American voters — that these measures that turn out to be unconstitutional merely fuels their outrage. Whether Blankenhorn is successful in his attempt to outflank his former comrades — to rejuvenate his flagging income stream — remains to be seen. Whether he will be successful in changing “the culture” is obvious.

Agenda, rewarmed

The Washington Monthly piece is bylined David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Jonathan Rauch, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. I’m treating it like a Blankenhorn production, but correct me if I’m wrong. (Galston and Rauch are at Brookings, Whitehead works at IAV; the full list of Marriage Opportunity Council members is here.)

The new headline makes it about gay marriage, but that’s really a cheap political and rhetorical device, a little taunting for those marriage equality advocates who were always afraid the movement would lead to marriage promotion. I’ll get back to that.

Recall that, in 2000, the story of marriage decline was mostly about cultural change, caused by:

…increases in intimacy expectations, greater social approval of alternatives to marriage, the greater economic independence of women, “no-fault” divorce reform, the rise in social insurance programs that make individuals less dependent on families, the expansion of market and consumer mores into family life, and lesser social supports and pressures to get and stay married from family, friends, professionals, churches, business, and government.

The problem then was young people “translating attitudes into action” and rushing into cohabitation. Now, they say, we need to “reduc[e] legal, social, and economic barriers to marriage.” In 2000 there was no mention of barriers, it was all cultural decay.

The attempt at progressive coöptation comes in the admission that “for millions of middle- and lower-class Americans, marriage is increasingly beyond reach.” In the face of barriers, they embrace “marriage opportunity” as the concept that “can help give birth to a new pro-marriage coalition that transcends the old divisions.”

as it becomes increasingly clear that aspirations to family formation are being stymied by wage stagnation and disappointing job prospects among working-class and less-educated men, conservatives are coming to realize that they need to be concerned about economic and labor market bottlenecks that reduce men’s employability, damage their marriageability, and help drive the cycle of family decline. To be sure, important non-economic factors are also at work. But the increasingly dire situation of less-skilled men in the marriage market and in the labor market implies that no amount of moral suasion can, by itself, restore a marriage culture among the less privileged. Improving the economic prospects of the less educated, especially men, is vital.

Despite the bologna sprinkles, this concession is a testament to the effectiveness of the political agitation around economic inequality after the shock of the economic crisis. The reason this seems unlikely to generate a truly unifying coalition is that they revert straight back to the story of declining marriage causing social collapse. The decline of marriage is:

creating more fractured and difficult family lives, more economic insecurity for single parents, less social mobility for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, more childhood stress, and a fraying of our common culture.

But none of these need to be consequences of declining marriage. Under a decent welfare state, which equalized resources, mitigated risks, and created shared responsibility for children’s well-being — in other words, created conditions more like those rich single parents can achieve today — such dire consequences would be prevented. The lesson of economic hardship and insecurity undermining marriage isn’t that we need to fix those things so that people can be married — it’s that we need to fix those things so that people can move through the stages of their lives with a sense of confidence and self efficacy.

Blankenhorn has not shaken his old scaremongering and Moynihan-esque sky-is-fallingism about marriage. For children, single parenthood is “trapping them in a multigenerational cycle of poverty or family instability”; for adults, singledom is sapping their productivity; for communities, low marriage rates are “depriving them of role models and support networks.” Then there’s the pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo that got Blankenhorn’s testimony thrown out of the California case, unfalsifiable pronouncements that amount to, “marriage is super special!”

Marriage draws its strength from broadly shared assumptions and values. Its unmatched power to bind families together, over time and through hardship, stems from its standing as a social norm, not just a legal status. It needs the social legitimacy and broad cultural buy-in that come, in America, from being a realistic aspiration of the many, not just a privilege of the few.

You lost me at the idea that there is a thing called “marriage” that has a level of “strength.” At, “the two-parent married family [is] a touchstone of America’s economic and moral vitality,” sociological readers may be scratching their heads and mumbling, “Parsons…?” This kind of polemic — not current academic research — is why we still teach “functionalism” in introductory sociology courses.

Like a state-of-the-union speech, this essay has nods to the important political donors and constituencies it hopes to appease. For the marriage promotion community — many of whom are still getting their bills paid by repossessed welfare money — they offer this bit of polite nonsense:

…notwithstanding the valuable and encouraging work of many leaders, there are currently few (if any) major policy or program interventions that have been clearly demonstrated by independent evaluations to be effective over time in areas such as improving marriage rates and improving marital quality and stability. This fact is not surprising, given both the complexity of the challenge and the still-early stage of the national policy response, and it should certainly not discourage us. But it should cause us to favor an approach to reform that is experimental, non-doctrinaire, and sensitive to emerging evidence and unfamiliar ideas.

No. The research is clear: they wasted more than a billion dollars of single mothers’ welfare money for nothing.

The policy suggestions that follow are a combination of platitudes and existing ideas that are all good or not good independent of their effect on marriage, so there is no need to review them here.

Dress that umbrage

The “grassroots movement to strengthen marriage,” which Blankenhorn claimed credit for in 2000, has failed. Demographically the results are in. Politically, too. Gay marriage won as the gays-are-bad-for-kids research was discredited and exposed as a conspiracy of bigots. (It’s no wonder Blankenhorn whines, “it is not necessary for anyone to recant old positions, confess sins, or re-litigate old debates.”) Blankenhorn and his allies kicked millions of poor families off welfare in the name of marriage promotion — that drove women to work, but did nothing for marriage. They tried slashing sex education and promoting virginity pledges, with no results. Even the Catholic Church is backpedaling on divorce.

This drubbing by the forces of history leaves Blankenhorn et al. struggling to conceal the bitter and defensive underbelly to their upbeat populism. To dress their umbrage in magnanimity, they offer a smarmy, conditional embrace to gays and lesbians — one they think also puts progressives generally in a bind:

Liberals fighting for social justice and economic opportunity are now called by the logic of their values to help extend the advantages of marriage to low- and middle-income couples who seek it for themselves, much as they fought to help gay Americans attain the right to marry. … Gays and lesbians who are winning marriage for themselves can also help to lead the nation as a whole to a new embrace of marriage’s promise.

Two things about this. First, guess what? Gay men and lesbians are not a political party. Some are “pro-marriage” and some aren’t — even though almost all support the right to marriage. Some will join the marriage movement that once shunned and demonized them, and some will be progressive. Second, when have “liberals fighting for social justice and economic opportunity” ever opposed “extend[ing] the advantages of marriage to low- and middle-income couples who seek it for themselves”? What “logic of their values” requires a change on this issue?

I would like to extend to poor people the advantages of not being poor. As I wrote here:

Reducing the hardships associated with single parenthood is not a complicated proposition. The failure of basic needs provision for poor families is so stark that virtually any intervention seems likely to improve their wellbeing. Among single-mother families, more than one-in-three report each of food hardship, healthcare hardship, and bill-paying hardship in the previous year. Poor families, especially those with a single parent, need more money, which may come from a (better-paying) job, an income subsidy, or in-kind support such as food support.

In the absence of providing the obvious — and uncomplicated — support necessary for poor families to rise to a level of subsistence and security adequate to establish a basic command over their own futures, political or cultural intervention on the marriage front is deeply patronizing and morally offensive. Despite a welcome recognition of existing economic constraints, Blankenhorn’s “new pro-marriage coalition that transcends the old divisions” ultimately extends the existing practice of shaming poor people for not being married to also shame progressives for not joining in that festival of moral disapprobation.

* Marquardt has left IAV and now works at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Maybe her stronger opposition to gay marriage (expressed here) was part of their breakup, or maybe she was downsized. Her new bio says she previously worked “at a centrist think tank” (but should add: “which she thought was too centrist”).

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50 years after the Moynihan report: Hell in a hand basket?

Update, March 14, 2015: In response to a column by Nicholas Kristof, Heidi Hartmann and I published this letter in the New York Times, based on our report.

I had the great pleasure of working with Heidi Hartmann, Jeffrey Hayes, and Chandra Childers — from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) — on a briefing paper marking the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. The report is published jointly by the Council on Contemporary Families and IWPR, as part of a symposium called Moynihan+50. Our report is here, the full symposium (PDF) is here.

(This isn’t the first time the Moynihan Report has been revisited, of course. Here’s the transcript of a 1992 hearing that featured Senator Moynihan — and a brilliant statement by Stephanie Coontz — before Pat Schroeder.)

Here is our executive summary:

Moynihan’s Half Century: Have We Gone to Hell in a Hand Basket?

In The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, published in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously argued that the fundamental obstacle to racial equality was the instability of Black families, and especially the prevalence of single-mother families. That same year, he predicted that the spread of single-parent families would result not only in rising poverty and inequality but also in soaring rates of crime and violence. Half a century later, we report that the changes in family structure that concerned him have continued, becoming widespread among Whites as well, but that they do not explain recent trends in poverty and inequality. In fact, a number of the social ills Moynihan assumed would accompany these changes have actually decreased.

  • Even as single-parent families have become more prevalent in all race/ethnic groups, especially among Black families, poverty rates have fallen, partly because of effective welfare programs, and partly because of increased education and job opportunities (especially for women). In 1967 more than 60 percent of single-mother families were poor. Today, according to new, adjusted poverty calculations, that poverty rate has been almost halved, falling to 35 percent.
  • During the period of greatest change in family structure, educational levels rose for Black children and young adults. Today, almost 90 percent of Black young adults are high school graduates, compared with only about 50 percent in the 1960s; Black college completion rates have doubled, from less than 10 to almost 20 percent.
  • Since 1994 juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent for Blacks and Whites alike, even though marriage rates have continued to fall and the proportion of children born out of wedlock has reached 40 percent.
  • Although it is true that single-parent families are more likely to be poor than two-parent ones, we show that fluctuations in poverty rates since the 1990s cannot be explained by changes in family structure.
  • Marriage is no protection against racial inequality. Black and Latino children in married-couple families are, respectively, three- and four-times more likely to be poor than White children in such families.

One of the legacies of the Moynihan Report has been to focus attention on changing family structure, rather than on other factors that are more amenable to policy intervention. While marriage promotion programs have proven ineffective, evidence suggests that increasing employment opportunities and wage levels, anti-discrimination policies, and social safety nets have considerable potential to reduce poverty, increase economic and educational opportunity, and decrease racial inequality.

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A few ways Isabel Sawhill is wrong on single mothers

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Mikey G. Ottawa

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Mikey G. Ottawa

Writing for the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report – which I will comment more on soon – Isabel Sawhill offers a summary of Moynihan’s prescience. Here’s an excerpt:

…the trends [Moynihan] identified have not gone away. Indeed, they have “trickled up” to encompass not just a much larger fraction of the African American community but a large swath of the white community as well. Still, the racial gaps remain large. The proportion of black children born outside marriage was 72 percent in 2012, while the white proportion was 36 percent.

The effects on children of the increase in single parents is no longer much debated. They do less well in school, are less likely to graduate, and are more likely to be involved in crime, teen pregnancy, and other behaviors that make it harder to succeed in life. Not every child raised by a single parent will suffer from the experience, but, on average, a lone parent has fewer resources—both time and money—with which to raise a child. Poverty rates for single-parent families are five times those for married-parent families. The growth of such families since 1970 has increased the overall child poverty rate by about 5 percentage points (from 20 to 25 percent).

Rates of social mobility are also lower for these families. Harvard researcher Raj Chetty and his colleagues find that the incidence of single parenthood in a community is one of the most powerful predictors of geographic differences in social mobility in the United States. And our research at the Brookings Institution also shows that social mobility is much higher for the children of continuously married parents than for those who grow up with discontinuously married or never-married.

At least three things wrong here:

1. This is a very common logical sequence followed by those who say that the decline of marriage (or rise of single parenthood) is the major social welfare problem we face today. They point to the rise of single parenthood. Then they say that children of single parents are doing worse on a variety of indicators. What they don’t say is that while single parenthood has, in fact, skyrocketed, most of the problems they’re concerned with have gotten better, not worse. While single motherhood has been rising, education is up, poverty is down, life expectancy is up, and (since the 1990s) crime is way, way down – for Blacks as well as Whites. The proportion of Black children living with single mothers has almost doubled since the 1960s, but the Black poverty rate is less than it was in 1974.

2. It is one thing to observe that children of single parents do worse in some ways than children of married parents. But Sawhill knows, and should tell you, that studies seeking to identify the direction of causality in that relationship are plagued by unresolved problems of selection bias. We know for sure the effects of single parenthood on children are dwarfed by other social trends.

3. That use of Chetty is completely wrong, a meme started by Brad Wilcox and fueled by credulous reporters. Notice the pivot in Sawhill’s text. First it’s, “Rates of social mobility are also lower for these families.” Then, “Harvard researcher Raj Chetty and his colleagues find that the incidence of single parenthood in a community…” As if the second (the one that mentions Harvard) is related to the first. It’s not. The Chetty paper did not study single-parent families. What they did was look at rates of single parenthood in communities, and use them to predict social mobility. But – and Sawhill would know this matters if she had read the beginning of her own piece, which mentioned the big racial disparity in single parenthood – the paper did not control for race! Please, before spreading this claim, or retweeting (without necessarily endorsing) the supposed experts who do, read this. Because you know what really affects social mobility in the U.S.? Race.

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Cherlin interview, with my unsolicited responses

Lois Collins at the Deseret News has published a very nice interview with Andrew Cherlin around the release of his new book, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. Cherlin is a fellow member of the Council on Contemporary Families, and he is a committed truth-teller. I don’t have my whole review of his book yet, but I surely recommend it, although I disagree with him on some things.

Here are three excerpts from the interview, with unsolicited responses from me. I really don’t have a fundamental beef here, and the parts I’m not quoting are the parts I agree with more. But I think these bits are important, too.

DN: What happens to kids when their family life isn’t stable?

Cherlin: We know that kids who experience family instability tend to have more behavior problems and act out at school and at home. That’s especially true for boys. Having unstable family life seems to be more problematic for boys than for girls and more problematic in the emotional domains than in the acquisition of knowledge. So the trends we see matter for kids because unstable family life increases the risk of behavior problems and therefore decreases the rate of graduating from high school.

I understand that unstable family life is a risk factor for the problems he’s discussing. However, we have to keep it in perspective — how bad are the problems, what are their other causes, and what can we do about them? In this quote especially, he mentions decreasing high school graduation rates. But we know that high school graduation rates are much higher now than they were in the 1950s, when family life was much more stable. Here are the trends:

how are kids doing these days.xlsx

There was a period of stagnation for several decades, but since 2001 high school graduation rates are climbing again. This is at the same time that family instability has increased more or less continuously. So whatever the increased risks associated with that, at the aggregate level at least we have been able to overcome that effect. Solving problems like failure to graduate high school can come from reducing risk factors — like family instability — or by overcoming them through other efforts. The need to consider the costs and benefits of both approaches.

DN: What do we do about it? We’re not going to get everybody to go to college.

Cherlin: No, we’re not going to get everybody to go to college. But we could do a better job of educating people for the jobs that do exist. There still are some jobs in the middle of the labor market, such as in the health care field — I’m thinking of medical technicians or medical records specialists. I think we could do a better job of supporting education and training for people who are not going to get a four-year degree. I think education is a big part of the solution. I don’t think it’s the whole solution by any means, but it could help. I think we need to give up the dream of having a four-year college education for every American and realize that we might be better off training some people for reasonable-skill jobs that still exist in the job market.

I really don’t agree with this, but it’s become a popular thing to say. What about this trend suggests we are at some kind of ceiling?

college completion trends.xlsx

At less than 40%, I see no reason to assume we can’t send more people to college. There are two really bad reasons to think we can’t do more, which I wrote about at some length in this post. The first is that people aren’t smart enough to benefit from real college education. The chief purveyor of this idea is Charles Murray, who thinks we shouldn’t try to educate people beyond high school unless they have an IQ of 115 or higher. The second bad reason is the idea that the government just spends too much on poor people already. One purveyor of this idea is Brad Wilcox, who says, “the U.S. spends a ton of money and devotes unparalleled attention to college. But the reality is that only one-third of adults, even today, will get a college degree, a B.A. or B.S.” That’s just ridiculous — lots of countries send more people through college than the U.S. does:

college graduation rates OECD.xls

 

If young people knew they were going to college, many more of them would wait to have their kids. Which brings me to the last excerpt:

DN: Are there changes to be made on the culture side [to improve family stability]?

Cherlin: I’m not sure we can do things culturally. I think we need to try. I would acknowledge that others feel that, too. What might one do? We could try getting out a cultural message that says to young adults, ‘Don’t have children until you’re sure you’re in a lasting relationship.’ We’d have to make a cultural change in the acceptability of having children outside of marriage. That change has not been entirely positive. Could we have a social messaging campaign that tries to get young adults to postpone childbearing until they’re in a relationship, rather than going ahead and having kids outside of a stable relationship? Whether we can do that successfully, I don’t know, but I really think we ought to try.

This refers indirectly to the recent book by Isabel Sawhill, Generation Unbound, in which she argues for a cultural campaign to discourage childbearing outside of stable, long-term relationships. Of course, we have had non-stop cultural campaigns — formal and informal — pouring shame and stigma on single mothers (and fathers) for at least 30 years. I’m glad Cherlin and Sawhill are in favor of expanding the message beyond marriage to include stable relationships, but I think it amounts to much the same thing.

I have several points of disagreement. The first is over the idea that single people shouldn’t have children. Yes, on average children of single parents have more of some kinds of problems than children of married parents, especially problems related to shortages of money and time. But we also know that many children of single parents do fine — it’s not moon-shot difficult, it’s tough-challenge difficult. Given that, do you really want to tell a 20-year old woman who has no prospect of finishing college and no “stable relationship” that she should just postpone having children? Till when? Most people think having children is one of the most important things they will ever do, it’s a goal in life, it literally gives life meaning (I recommend Children of Men). For those of us with money, power, and privilege to tell poorer people that they should just shelve this fundamental source of purpose and meaning in their lives because it will be difficult and might inconvenience us just rubs me the wrong way.

My second point of disagreement is less visceral and more practical. I don’t see how this is going to work. There is no evidence, especially not with promoting marriage. Sawhill and Wilcox like to point to the campaign to prevent teen pregnancy, but that’s mostly misplaced (as I wrote here): the teen birth rate is mostly down because women are postponing births at all ages — because they have better opportunities, especially for education and careers. So rather than continue to promote the idea of “doing things culturally,” which has a proven record of failure, why not promote higher education, which we know we can do successfully, and which has demonstrated effects on delaying childbearing, increasing family stability, and improving the economy?

If we can promise people access to an affordable college education I would be much more willing to encourage them to delay having their children. That would be useful, practical advice — not empty moralizing.

 

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