Tag Archives: marriage

Let’s raise the legal age of marriage in Maryland

Today I sent the following letter to the Maryland House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on these bills tomorrow. Under current law in Maryland, marriage is permitted as young as age 15 with parental consent and evidence of pregnancy or childbirth, and age 16-17 with one or the other, and these exceptions are granted by county clerks rather than judges. By my calculations, from 2008 to 2017, based on the American Community Survey, the annual marriage rate for girls ages 15-16 was 5 per 1000 in Maryland, behind only Hawaii, Nevada, and West Virginia. HB 855 would raise the age at marriage to 18, while HB 1147 would establish an emancipated minor status, requiring review by a judge, under which 17-year-olds could marry. For more on the effort to end child marriage in the U.S., visit the Tahirih Justice Center site.


March 6, 2019

To the House Judiciary Committee:

I write in support of Maryland House Bill 855, concerning age requirements for marriage; and House Bill 1147, concerning the emancipation of minors.

My relevant background

  • I am a Professor of Sociology, and family demographer, at the University of Maryland, College Park, where I have been on the faculty since 2012. I also earned my PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1999, and I live in Silver Spring.
  • I have written two books and many peer-reviewed articles on family sociology, including on topics related to marriage and divorce, family structure, gender inequality, health and disability, infant mortality, adoption, race and ethnicity, and the division of labor.
  • I have served as a consultant to the U.S. Census Bureau on the measurement of family structure, and testified before Congress on gender discrimination.

My support of the bills

In general, the rise of the age at marriage and childbearing in U.S. have been positive developments for women and children, allowing mothers to devote more years of early adulthood to education and career development, which is beneficial to both adults and their children.

Very early marriage in particular is detrimental to women’s opportunity to finish high school. More urgently, research and service work shows that very early marriage is usually unwanted, coerced, or forced. Very young women should not be expected to protect themselves legally or socially from such impositions, which are usually from older men and dominant family members. Very early marriage often follows statutory rape or other sexual assault, compounding rather than mitigating the harms of these crimes against children. Rather than protect a young woman, very early marriage instead provides protection from scrutiny for her abuser(s), and makes state intervention on her behalf all the more difficult to accomplish in the following years. The privacy and discretion we bestow upon families has benefits, of course, but it also makes the family a dangerous place for the victims of abuse.

Research, including my own, unequivocally shows that very early marriage leads to the highest rates of divorce. I have written several papers on divorce rates in the United States (see references). For illustration, here I used the same method of analysis, and present only the relationship between age at marriage and incidence of divorce. As you can see from the figure, divorce rates are highest by far – estimated at 2.5% per year – for women who married before age 18. This is about twice as high as divorce rates for those who marry in their 30s, for example. (These estimates hold constant other factors; data and code are available here.) The evidence is very strong.

predicted odds of divorce by aam

I only reluctantly support increasing state restrictions on women’s freedom with regard to family choices, but in the case of marriage before adulthood I see the restriction as a protection from the exploitative behavior of others, rather than an imposition on young women’s rights.

At present in Maryland, exceptions allowing marriage before age 18 – based on pregnancy and/or parental consent – are granted without adequate legal review. Together, HB 855 and HB 1147 would set the minimum age at marriage in Maryland to 18, with an exception only for court emancipated minors of age 17. This would improve the state’s protection of young women from unwanted, coerced, forced, or ill-advised marriages without unduly restricting the freedom to marry for younger women (age 17), who may be emancipated by a court after a direct application and careful review of circumstances.

I urge your support for these bills. I would be happy to provide further information or testimony at your request.

Sincerely,

Philip N. Cohen

References

Cohen, Philip N. 2015. “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008-2011. Population Research and Policy Review 33(5):615-628.

Cohen, Philip N. 2018. “The Coming Divorce Decline.” SocArXiv. November 14. https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/h2sk6. To be presented at the Population Association of America meetings, 2019.

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Appearance on Fox News Channel explained

Recently I was invited to be interviewed by Fox News Channel for “a series of stories about changing demographics and how they’re impacting politics, policy, and our culture.” Specifically, the producer said they wanted to interview me about “your recent research on millennials and marriage and divorce rates.”

This raised the recurring question faced by responsible academics: Should I appear on Fox News? For those of us who love attention, it’s hard to say no, but I did consider saying no. I figured the segment would be a right-slanted take, but also hoped that since it was for a news program, rather than an opinion program, it might be moored to reality, and I thought I might have a chance to interject something useful, or at least true. (This differs from my previous appearance, with Tucker Carlson.) Whether to differentiate at all between news and opinion on FNC is an interesting question in itself.

So I did it, and it aired yesterday. Since I lent it legitimacy I should also correct the errors they made. Comments below the video:

Here are some comments and corrections. First, the beginning is just a fear-of-change narrative:

“As we head into 2019 you may look back and think about how much has changed, not just in the past year, but in your life. And it’s not just you. America’s population, our culture, it is all changing.”

It’s setting viewers up for doom, where change is ominous out of control, the audience tearing down that precedes the build up of the authoritarian leader. Anyway, that’s to be expected, along with the boilerplate right-wing statements about marriage, women, welfare, and single mothers, which I won’t detail here.

They never did ask me about my research on marriage and divorce, but we did talk about fertility. So then he says:

“The US is facing a demographic crisis that JFK could not have imagined: A fertility rate of 1.8 percent. That means the US is not producing enough to sustain its population.”

Don’t ask what JFK has to do with this. But the fertility rate is not “1.8 percent,” it’s 1.8 projected births per woman, and it’s not a demographic crisis.

In the interview, I tried to focus on inequality and insecurity in every answer, figuring that was the angle they might let into the piece. This is what they ended up using:

“The reasons behind these demographic changes are complicated. [Philip Cohen:] One of the reasons people have fewer children is because they’re unsure about the future. They’re unsure about the costs of raising those children, especially the costs of education. And the student loan debt is a huge crisis that everybody knows about.”

I’m happy with this, a true statement, not distorted or taken out of context. The chyron they put below me is bad, however: “Lower U.S. Fertility Rates Creating Society Upheaval.” “Upheaval” is a strong word, but in any event the causality is reversed: social instability is driving lower U.S. fertility rates. Whatever effects falling fertility will have on society, they’re not here yet anyway.

Then immigration:

“The US is compensating for lower fertility rates with another demographic change: an increased reliance on immigration.”

The US doesn’t exactly have a policy of responding to falling fertility by welcoming immigrants. But it’s true that immigration is buttressing the US from the potential effects of slower population growth. In the last 25 years the immigrant share of the labor force has increased from 12 percent to 19 percent. That is pretty clearly the solution — if we need one — to falling population growth. But this quote from Victor Davis Hanson, Hoover Institution is ridiculous:

“In the case of the right, they want people to work more cheaply than native-born citizens. And on the left they want a further argument, or an agenda for big government.”

It’s true the right wants immigrants to help keep labor costs down. The idea that the left wants immigrants to bolster the argument for big government is just idiotic. This is creating a narrative where the system/swamp/Washington is destroying the culture.

Finally, the conclusion brings it back to fear of change:

“These demographic changes help to partly explain the resurgence of socialism in the United States. A Gallup poll from August found that young adult Americans are more positive about socialism – 51 percent – than they are about capitalism – 45 percent. That’s a 12-point swing in only two years.”

I have no idea how you connect “these demographic changes” to the (excellent) rise in positive perceptions about socialism. But the 12-point change in two years was only in young adults’ (age 18-29) attitudes toward capitalism. During that time their attitude toward socialism declined as well, so the gap went from -2 to +6, or an eight-point swing. Here’s the trend from Gallup:

capsoc

In conclusion, I got to say something I wanted to say, and it added something to the piece they wouldn’t otherwise have included. Whether that makes it worth participating in this I can’t say.

The segment above was the first of three. I discuss the other two here.

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Equal-education and wife-more-education married couples don’t have sex less often

In my review of Mark Regnerus’s book, Cheap Sex, I wrote: “The book is an extended rant on the theme, ‘Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?’ wrapped in a misogynist theory about sexual exchange masquerading as economics, and motivated by the author’s misogynist religious and political views.”

Someone just reposted an old book-rehash essay of Regnerus’s called, “The Death of Eros.” In it he links to my post documenting the decline in sexual frequency among married couples in the General Social Survey. In marriage, Regnerus writes, “equality is the enemy of eros,” before selectively characterizing some research about the relationship between housework and sex. (Here’s a recent analysis finding egalitarian couples don’t have sex less.)

But I realized I never looked at sexual frequency in married couples by the relative education of the spouses, which is available in the GSS. So here’s a quick take: Married man-woman couples in which the wife has equal or more education don’t have sex less frequently.

I modeled sexual frequency (an interval scale from “not at all” = 0 to “4+ times per week” = 6 as a function of age, age-squared, respondent education, respondent sex, decade, and relative education (wife has lower degree, wife has same degree, wife has higher degree). The result is in this figure. Note the means are between 3 (“2-3 times per month”) and 4 (“weekly”). Stata code for GSS below.

death of eros

OK, that’s it. Here’s the code (I prettied the figure a little by hand afterwards):

*keep married people
keep if marital==1

* with non-missing own and spouse education
keep if spdeg<4 & degree<4
recode age (18/29=18) (30/39=30) (40/49=40) (50/59=50) (60/109=60), gen(agecat)
recode year (1970/1979=1970) (1980/1989=1980) (1990/1999=1990) (2000/2008=2000) (2010/2016=2010), gen(decade)
gen erosdead = spdeg>degree
gen equal=spdeg==degree

gen eros=0
replace eros=1 if spdeg<degree & sex==1
replace eros=2 if spdeg==degree
replace eros=3 if spdeg>degree & sex==1

replace eros=1 if spdeg>degree & sex==2
replace eros=3 if spdeg<degree & sex==2

label define de 1 "wife less"
label define de 2 "equal", add
label define de 3 "wife more", add
label values eros de

reg sexfreq i.sex i.agecat i.decade i.degree i.eros [weight=wtssall]
reg sexfreq i.sex c.age##c.age i.degree i.eros##i.decade [weight=wtssall]
margins i.eros##i.decade
marginsplot, recast(bar) by(decade)

Note: On 25 Dec 2018 I fixed a coding error and replaced the figure; the results are the same.

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Wives’ share of couple income update

This is an update of previous reports with some new analysis at the end.

In my book Enduring Bonds I showed the distribution of income within different-sex married couples from 1970 to 2014. Here is the updated trend to 2017:

dimc1

The change from 2014 is a modest continuation. Here’s the detail from 2017, with the couples reporting exactly-even incomes broken out in the middle:

dimc2

In 2017, for different-sex couples with wife age 18-64:

  • 26% of wives earn more than their husbands (up from 15% in 1990 and 7% in 1970).
  • The average wife-who-earns-more takes home 69% of the couple’s earnings. The average for higher-earning husbands is 79%.
  • It is 8.3-times more common for a husband to earn all the money than a wife (18.7% versus 2.3%).

In the book I offer the following summary:

Actually, this triplet pattern fits a lot of trends regarding gender inequality: yes, lots of change, but most of it decades ago, and not quite as fundamental as it looks.

New breakdown

At the request of Stephanie Coontz, I ran the 2017 numbers by income bracket (and including all ages).  I broke the couples into the bottom 10% (under $27,000), the 10-25th percentile (to $47,000), the 25th-5th (to $80,000), the 50th-75th (to $130,000), the 75th-90th (to $202,000), and the top 10% ($202,000+). Here is the income distribution within couples for each income bracket, with a few points labeled for clarity:

dimc3

A key point here is that although wives rarely earn the dominant share of income, most couples rely on the wife’s income to maintain their standard of living. For example, a couple at the median, $80,000, would have to drastically alter their lifestyle without the 40-49% share contributed by the wife’s income. Breadwinning in its 1950s connotation is is distracting from this contemporary reality, and we should probably drop the term.

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Decadally-biased marriage recall in the American Community Survey

Do people forget when they got married?

In demography, there is a well-known phenomenon known as age-heaping, in which people round off their ages, or misremember them, and report them as numbers ending in 0 or 5. We have a measure, known as Whipple’s index, that estimates the extent to which this is occurring in a given dataset. To calculate this you take the number of people between ages 23 and 62 (inclusive), and compare it to five-times the number of those whose ages end in 0 or 5 (25, 30 … 60), so there are five-times as many total years as 0 and 5 years.

If the ratio of 0/5s to the total is less than 105, that’s “highly accurate” by the United Nations standard, a ratio 105 to 110 is “fairly accurate,” and in the range 110 to 125 age data should be considered “approximate.”

I previously showed that the American Community Survey’s (ACS) public use file has a Whipple index of 104, which is not so good for a major government survey in a rich country. The heaping in ACS apparently came from people who didn’t respond to email or mail questionnaires and had to be interviewed by Census Bureau staff by phone or in person. I’m not sure what you can do about that.

What about marriage?

The ACS has a great data on marriage and marital events, which I have used to analyze divorce trends, among other things. Key to the analysis of divorce patterns is the question, “When was this person last married?” (YRMARR) Recorded as a year date, this allows the analyst to take into account the duration of marriage preceding divorce or widowhood, the birth of children, and so on. It’s very important and useful information.

Unfortunately, it may also have an accuracy problem.

I used the ACS public use files made available by IPUMS.org, combining all years 2008-2017, the years they have included the variable YRMARR. The figure shows the number of people reported to have last married in each year from 1936 to 2015. The decadal years are highlighted in black. (The dropoff at the end is because I included surveys earlier than those years.)

year married in 2016.xlsx

Yikes! That looks like some decadal marriage year heaping. Note I didn’t highlight the years ending in 5, because those didn’t seem to be heaped upon.

To describe this phenomenon, I hereby invent the Decadally-Biased Marriage Recall index, or DBMR. This is 10-times the number of people married in years ending in 0, divided by the number of people married in all years (starting with a 6-year and ending with a 5-year). The ratio is multiplied by 100 to make it comparable to the Whipple index.

The DBMR for this figure (years 1936-2015) is 110.8. So there are 1.108-times as many people in those decadal years as you would expect from a continuous year function.

Maybe people really do get married more in decadal years. I was surprised to see a large heap at 2000, which is very recent so you might think there was good recall for those weddings. Maybe people got married that year because of the millennium hoopla. When you end the series at 1995, however, the DBMR is still 110.6. So maybe some people who would have gotten married at the end of 1999 waited till New Years day or something, or rushed to marry on New Year’s Eve 2000, but that’s not the issue.

Maybe this has to do with who is answering the survey. Do you know what year your parents got married? If you answered the survey for your household, and someone else lives with you, you might round off. This is worth pursuing. I restricted the sample to just those who were householders (the person in whose name the home is owned or rented), and still got a DBMR of 110.7. But that might not be the best test.

Another possibility is that people who started living together before they were married — which is most Americans these days — don’t answer YRMARR with their legal marriage date, but some rounded-off cohabitation date. I don’t know how to test that.

Anyway, something to think about.

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Breaking Millennial divorce drop news explained

[With updates as new stories come in.]


Millennials are fun to disparage.

Phones and selfies are all that they cherish.

And what’s par for the course, they have ruined divorce.

‘Cuz Millennials hang on to their ______.

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, 9/29/18

The divorce paper I posted two weeks ago, “The Coming Divorce Decline,” suddenly took off in the media the other day (blog post | paper | data and code). I’ve now written an op-ed about the findings for The Hill, including this:

I am ambivalent about these trends. Divorce is often painful and difficult, and most people want to avoid it. The vast majority of Americans aspire to a lifelong marriage (or equivalent relationship). So even if it’s a falling slice of the population, I’m not complaining that they’re happy. Still, in an increasingly unequal society and a winner-take-all economy, two-degree couples with lasting marriages may be a buffer for the select few, but they aren’t a solution to our wider problems.

Here’s my media scrapbook, with some comment about open science process at the end.

The story was first reported by Ben Steverman at Bloomberg, who took the time to read the paper, interview me at some length, send the paper to Susan Brown (a key expert on divorce trends) for comment, and produce figures from the data I provided. I was glad that his conclusion focused on the inequality angle from my interpretation:

“One of the reasons for the decline is that the married population is getting older and more highly educated,” Cohen said. Fewer people are getting married, and those who do are the sort of people who are least likely to get divorced, he said. “Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing.”

Many poorer and less educated Americans are opting not to get married at all. They’re living together, and often raising kids together, but deciding not to tie the knot. And studies have shown these cohabiting relationships are less stable than they used to be.

Fewer divorces, therefore, aren’t only bad news for matrimonial lawyers but a sign of America’s widening chasm of inequality. Marriage is becoming a more durable, but far more exclusive, institution.

The Bloomberg headline was, “Millennials Are Causing the U.S. Divorce Rate to Plummet.” Which proved irresistible on social media. I didn’t use the terms “millennials” (which I oppose), or “plummet,” but they don’t fundamentally misrepresent the findings.

Naturally, though, the Bloomberg headline led to other people misrepresenting the paper, like Buzzfeed, which wrote, “Well, according to a new study, millennials are now also ‘killing’ divorce.” Neither I nor Bloomberg said anyone was “killing” divorce; that was just a Twitter joke someone made, but Buzzfeed was too metameta to pick up on that. On the other hand, never complain about a Buzzfeed link, and they did link to the paper itself (generating about 800 clicks in a few days).

Then Fox 5 in New York did a Skype interview with me, and hit the bar scene to talk over the results (additional footage courtesy of my daughter, because nowadays you provide your own b-roll):

The next day Today did the story, with additional information and reporting from Bowling Green’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, and Pew.

The Maryland news office saw the buzz and did their own story, which helped push it out.

An article in Atlantic featured an interview with Andrew Cherlin putting the trends in historical context. Rachelle Hampton in Slate tied the divorce trend to a Brookings report showing marriage is increasingly tied to higher education. On KPCC, AirTalk hosted a discussion with Megan Sweeney and Steven Martin. On Wisconsin Public Radio, Stephanie Coontz widened the discussion to put changes in marriage and divorce in historical perspective.

Rush Limbaugh read from the Bloomberg article, and was just outraged: “Now, who but deranged people would look at it this way?”

How anybody thinks like this… You have to work to be this illogical. I don’t know where this kind of thing comes from, that a plummeting divorce rate is a bad sign for America in the left’s crazy world of inequality and social justice and their quest to make everybody the same. So that’s just an example of the… Folks, that is not… That kind of analysis — and this is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. This is not stable. That kind of thinking is not… It’s just not normal. Yet there it is, and it’s out there, and it’s be widely reported by the Drive-By Media, probably applauded and supported by others. So where is this coming from? Where is all of this indecency coming from? Why? Why is it so taking over the American left?

The Limbaugh statement might have been behind this voicemail I received from someone who thinks I’m trying to “promote chaos” to “upend the social order”:

I had a much more reasonable discussion about marriage, divorce, and inequality in this interview with Lauren Gilger in KJZZ (Phoenix public radio).

The Chicago Tribune editorial board used the news to urge parents not to rush their children toward marriage:

This waiting trend may disturb older folks who followed a more traditional (rockier?) path and may be secretly, or not so secretly, wondering if there’s something wrong with their progeny. There isn’t. Remember: Unlike previous generations, many younger people have a ready supply of candidates at their fingertips in the era of Tinder and other dating apps. They can just keep swiping right. Our advice for parents impatient to marry off a son or daughter? Relax. The older they get, the less likely you’ll be stuck paying for the wedding.

The Catholic News Agency got an expert to chime in, “If only we could convince maybe more of them to enter into marriage, we’d be doing really well.”

I don’t know how TV or local news work, but somehow this is on a lot of TV stations. Here’s a selection.

Fox Business Network did a pretty thorough job.

Some local stations added their own reporting, like this one in Las Vegas:

And this one in Buffalo:

And this one in Boise, which brought in a therapist who says young people aren’t waiting as long to start couples therapy.

Jeff Waldorf on TYT Nation did an extended commentary, blaming capitalism:


Open science process

Two things about my process here might concern some people.

The first is promoting research that hasn’t been peer reviewed. USA Today was the only report I saw that specifically mentioned the study is not peer reviewed:

The study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, has been submitted for presentation at the 2019 Population Association of America meeting, an annual conference for demographers and sociologists to present research.

But, when Steverman interviewed me I emphasized to him that it was not peer-reviewed and urged him to consult other researchers before doing the story — he told me he had already sent it to Susan Brown. Having a good reporter consult a top expert who’s read the paper is as good a quality peer review as you often get. I don’t know everything Brown told him, but the quote he used apparently showed her endorsement of the main findings:

“The change among young people is particularly striking,” Susan Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, said of Cohen’s results. “The characteristics of young married couples today signal a sustained decline [in divorce rates] in the coming years.”

For the story to be clear enough to become a news event, the research often has to be pretty simple. That’s the case here: what I’m doing is looking at an easily-identified trend and providing my interpretation of it. If this has to be peer-reviewed, then almost anything an academic says should be. Of course, I provided the publicly verifiable data and code, and there are a lot of people with the skills to check this if it concerned them.

On the other hand, there is a lot of research that is impossible to verify that gets reported. Prominent examples include the Alice Goffman ethnographic book and the Raj Chetty et al. analysis of confidential IRS data. These were big news events, but whether they were peer reviewed or not was irrelevant because the peer reviewers had no way to know if the studies were right. My conclusion is that sharing research is the right thing to do, and sharing it with as much supporting material as you can is the responsible way to do it.

The second concern is over the fact that I posted it while it was being considered for inclusion in the Population Association of America meetings. This is similar to posting a paper that is under review at a journal. Conference papers are not reviewed blind, however, so it’s not a problem of disclosing my identity, but maybe generating public pressure on the conference organizers to accept the paper. This happens in many forms with all kinds of open science. I think we need to see hiding research as a very costly choice, one that needs to be carefully justified — rather than the reverse. Putting this in the open is the best way to approach accountability. Now the work of the conference organizers, whose names are listed in the call for papers, can be judged fairly. And my behavior toward the organizers if they reject it can also be scrutinized and criticized.

Although I would love to have the paper in the conference, in this case I don’t need this paper to be accepted by PAA, as it has already gotten way more attention than I ever expected. PAA organizers have a tough job and often have to reject a lot of papers for reasons of thematic fit as well as quality. I won’t complain or hold any grudges if it gets rejected. There’s a lot of really good demography out there, and this paper is pretty rudimentary.

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