Tag Archives: marriage

Update: Adjusted divorce risk, 2008-2014

Quick update to yesterday’s post, which showed this declining refined divorce rate for the years 2008-2014:

On Twitter Kelly Raley suggested this could have to do with increasing education levels among married people. As I’ve reported using these data before, there is a much lower divorce risk for people with BA degrees or higher education.

Yesterday I quickly (but I hope accurately) replicated my basic model from that previous paper, so now I can show the trend as a marginal effect of year holding constant marital duration (from year of marriage), age, education, race/ethnicity, and nativity.*

2014 update

This shows that there has been a decrease in the adjusted odds of divorce from 2008 to 2014. You could interpret this as a continuous decline with a major detour caused by the recession, but that case is weaker than it was yesterday, looking at just the unadjusted trend.

If it turns out that increase in 2010-2012 is related to the recession, it’s not so different from my original view — a recession drop followed by rebound, it’s just that the drop is less and the rebound is more, and took longer, than I thought.  In any event, this should undermine any effort to resuscitate the old idea that the recession caused a decline in divorce by causing families to pull together during troubled times.

This does not contradict the results from Kennedy and Ruggles that show age-adjusted divorce rising between 1980 and 2008, since I’m not trying to compare these ACS trends with the older data sources. For time beyond 2008, they wrote in that paper:

If current trends continue, overall age-standardized divorce rates could level off or even decline over the next few decades. We argue that the leveling of divorce among persons born since 1980 probably reflects the increasing selectivity of marriage.

That would fit the idea of a long-term decline with a stress-induced recession bounce (with real-estate delay).

Alternative interpretations welcome.

* This takes a really long time for Stata to compute on my sad little public-university computer because it’s a non-linear model with 4.8 million cases – so please don’t ask for a lot of different iterations of this figure. I don’t have my code and output cleaned up for sharing, but if you ask me I’ll happily send it to you.


Filed under In the news

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.

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Filed under Research reports

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.


Filed under Me @ work

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.


Filed under In the news

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:


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.


Filed under In the news

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


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:


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.


Filed under Uncategorized

Lifetime chance of marrying for Black and White women

I’m going to Princeton next week to give a talk at the Office of Population Research. It’s a world-class population center, with some of the best trainers and trainees in the business, so I figured I’d polish up a little formal demography for them. (I figure if I run through this really fast they won’t have time to figure any mistakes I made.)

The talk is about Black and White marriage markets, which I’ve written about quite a bit, including when I posted the figure below, showing the extremely low number of local same-race, employed, single men per women Black women experience relative to White women — especially when they have less than a BA degree.

This figure was the basis for a video we made for my book, titled “Why are there so many single Black women?” For years I’ve been supporting the strong (“Wilsonian“) case that low marriage rates for Black women are driven by the shortage of “marriageable” men — living, employed, single, free men. I promised last year that Joanna Pepin and I were working on a paper about this, and we still are. So I’ll present some of this at Princeton.

Predictions off

Five years ago I wrote about the famous 2001 paper by Joshua Goldstein and Catherine Kenney, which made lifetime marriage predictions for cohorts through the Baby Boom, the youngest of whom were only 30 in the 1995 data the paper used. That’s gutsy, predicting lifetime marriage at age 30, so there’s no shame that they missed. They were closer for White women. They predicted that 88.6% of White women born 1960-1964 would eventually marry, and by the age 49-53 (in the 2013 American Community Survey) they were at 90.2%, with another 2.3% likely to marry by my estimates (see below). For Black women they missed by more. For the 1960-1964 cohort, they predicted only 63.8% would ever marry, but 71.3% were already married by 2013, and I’m projecting another 7.5% will marry. (I also wrote about a similar prediction, here.) If they actually get to 79%, that will be very different from the prediction.

Their amazing paper has been cited another 100 times since I wrote about it in 2010, but it doesn’t look like anyone has tried to test or extend their predictions.

Mass incarceration

Interestingly, Goldstein and Kenney undershot Black women’s marriage rates even though incarceration rates continued to rise after they wrote — a trend strongly implicated in the Black-White marriage disparity. This issue has increased salience today, with the release of a powerful new piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic (my old job), which exposes the long reach of mass incarceration into Black families in ways that go way beyond the simple statistics about “available” men. The large ripple effects implied by his analysis — drawing from his own reporting and research by Deva Pager, Bruce Western, and Robert Sampson — suggest that any statistical model attempting to identify the impact of incarceration on family structure is likely to miss a lot of the action. That’s because people who’ve been out of prison for years are still affected by it, as are their relationships, their communities — and their children in the next generation.

Some new projections

I should note that some readers unfamiliar with demographic analysis may find parts of what follows morbidly depressing.

To set up the marriage market analysis I’m doing with Joanna — which isn’t ready to show here yet — I’m going to introduce some marriage projections at the talk. These use a different method than Goldstein and Kenney, because I have a different kind of data. This is a lifetable approach, in which I use first-marriage rates at every age to calculate how many women would get married at least once before they die if they lived 2010 over and over again from birth to death. I can do this because, unlike Goldstein and Kenney in 2001, I now have the American Community Survey (ACS), which asks a giant sample of people if they have married in the previous year, and how many times they’ve been married before, so I can calculate a first-marriage rate at every age. To this I add in death rates — making what we call a multiple-decrement life table — so that there are two ways out of the birth cohort: marriage or death. (Give me marriage or give me death.)

The way this works is you start with 100,00 people, and each year some of them die and some of them get married — according to the rates you have measured at one point in time. For example, in my tables, of 100,000 Black women at the start of year 0, only 98.7% make it to age 15, the first year they can be counted as married in the data. By the time you get down to age 30, there are only 67,922 left, as 2,236 have died and 29,843 have married for the first time. And so on down to the bottom. In the last row of the table, when they are all dead, you calculate how many got married before dying.*

The bottom line: 85.3% of White women, and 78.4% of Black women born and stuck in 2010 forever are projected to marry before they die — a surprisingly small gap. The first figure shows you that basic result:

NHBW life tables 2010.xlsx

Note that my projections of 85.3% of White women and 78.4% of Black women ever marrying are lower than, for example, the roughly 96% of White women and 91% of Black that were actually ever-married at age 85+ in 2010 (reported here), for several reasons. First, I count dead people against the ever-married number (additionally, married people live longer, not necessarily because they’re married). Second, today’s 90+ year-olds mostly got married 70 years ago, when times were different; my estimates are a projection of nowadays.

A very interesting age pattern emerges here, which is relevant to the incarceration and “available men” question. If you look back at the figure, notice that the big difference in marriage opens up early — peaking at 28 points by age 33, before narrowing to 7 points at the end.The big difference in marriage is that White women marry earlier. In fact, as the next figure shows, after age 33 Black women are more likely to marry than are White women. I don’t think I knew that. Here are the number marrying at each age:

NHBW life tables 2010.xlsx

Specifically, although White women are twice as likely to marry in their mid-twenties, of our fictional 100,000 women stuck in 2010, just 15.6% of White women, compared with 36.8% of Black women end up marrying after age 33.

The other way of looking at this — and an answer to a common question about marriage rates — is to see the chances of marrying after a given age if you haven’t married yet. This figure shows, for example, that a White women who lives to age 45 without marrying has a 26% chance of someday marrying, compared with a whopping 49% for Black women.

NHBW life tables 2010.xlsx

It is surprising that Black women, with lower cumulative odds of marrying at every age in the cohort, are so much more likely to marry conditional on getting to their 40s without marrying. Maybe you’ve got a better interpretation of this, but this is mine. Black women are not against marriage, and they are not ineligible for marriage in some way (even though most of these single women are already mothers**). Rather, they have not married earlier because they couldn’t find someone to marry. That’s because of all the Black men who are themselves dead, incarcerated or unemployed (or scarred by those experiences in their past) — or married to someone else. So within their respective marriage markets (which remain very segregated), the 45-year-old single White woman is much more likely to be someone that either doesn’t want to marry or can’t marry for some reason, while the 45-year-old single Black woman is more active and eligible in the marriage market. This fits with the errors in the earlier predictions, which failed to pick up on the upward shift in marriage age for Black women — marriage delayed rather than foregone.

What do you think of that interpretation? If you have a better idea I’ll mention you at Princeton next week.

Note: I found so many mistakes as I was doing this that it seems impossible there are any more. Nevertheless, caveat emptor: This analysis hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, so consider it only as reliable the latest economist’s NBER paper you read about on the front page of the every newspaper and website on earth. (And if you’re a journalist feel free to refer to this as a new working paper.)

* Technical notes: I used death rates from 2010 (found here), and marriage rates from the five-year ACS file for 2008-2012 (which has 2010 as its midpoint), from IPUMS.org. I adjusted the death rates because never-married people are more likely to die than average (I told you this was depressing). I had to use a 2007 estimate of mortality by age and marital status for that (found here), which is not that precise because it was in 10-year increments, which I didn’t bother to smooth because they didn’t have much effect anyway. The details of how to do a multiple-decrement lifetable are nicely described (with a lot of math) by Sam Preston here (though if you really want to replicate this, note one of his formulas is missing a negative sign, so plan to spend an extra few days on it). To help, I’m sharing my spreadsheet here, which has the formulas. (Note that survival in the life table doesn’t refer to being alive, it refers to being both alive and never-married.) The mortality and marriage rates are for non-Hispanic women; the never-married adjustment is for all women. For the marriage rates I used all Black and White women regardless of what other races they also specified (very few are multiple-race when you exclude Hispanics).

** In 2010, 63% of never-married Black women who lived in their households had at least own of their own children living with them.


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