Tag Archives: marriage

African American marital status by age, Du Bois replication edition

At the 1900 Paris Exposition, sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois presented some the work of his students. In The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, Aldon Morris writes:

Du Bois’s meticulousness as a teacher is apparent in the charts and graphs that he prepared with his students. For example, as part of his gold medal-winning exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition, Du Bois and his students produced detailed hand-drawn artistically colored graphs and charts that depicted the journey of black Georgians from slavery to freedom.

Some of collection is shown in this post at the Public Domain Review (shared by Tressie McMillan Cottom yesterday); the full collection is online at the Library of Congress (LOC).

The one that caught my eye was this, showing marital status (“conjugal condition”) by age and sex for the Black population. I can’t find the source details in the LOC record, so I don’t know if it’s Georgia or national, but I presume it’s from tabulations of 1890 decennial census or earlier:


It’s artistic and meticulous and clearly informative, beautiful. So I tried to make a 2015 update to complement it. I used data from the 2015 American Community Survey via IPUMS.org, and did it a little differently.* Most importantly, I added two more conjugal conditions, cohabiting and separated/divorced. Second, I used five-year age groupings all the way up, instead of ten. Third, I detailed the age groups up to age 85. Here’s what I got:

du bois marstat replication.xlsx

Some very big differences: Much smaller proportions of African Americans married now. Also, much later marriage. In the 1900 figure more than 30% of men and 60% of women have been married by age 25; those numbers are 5-6% now. I don’t know how they counted separated/divorced people in 1900, but those numbers are high now at 31% for women and 24% for men at age 60-64. Widowhood is later now, as 42% of women were widowed before age 65 in 1900, compared with only 13% now (of course, that’s off a lower marriage rate, and remarried people are just counted as married). And of course cohabitation, which the chart doesn’t show for 1900. Note I included people in same-sex as well as different-sex couples.

So, thanks for indulging me. I hope you don’t think it’s frivolous. I just love staring at the old charts, and going through the (very different) steps of replicating it was really satisfying. (I also just love that in another 100 years someone might look back on this and say, “Wait, which one was Earth again?”)

Note: If you want to compare them side-by-side, here’s a go at that. The age ranges don’t line up perfectly but you can get the idea (click to enlarge):

* SAS code, ACS data, images, and the spreadsheet used for this post are shared as an Open Science Framework project, here.


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Two examples of why “Millennials” is wrong

When you make up “generation” labels for arbitrary groups based on year of birth, and start attributing personality traits, behaviors, and experiences to them as if they are an actual group, you add more noise than light to our understanding of social trends.

According to generation-guru Pew Research, “millennials” are born during the years 1981-1997. A Pew essay explaining the generations carefully explains that the divisions are arbitrary, and then proceeds to analyze data according to these divisions as if are already real. (In fact, in the one place the essay talks about differences within generations, with regard to political attitudes, it’s clear that there is no political consistency within them, as they have to differentiate between “early” and “late” members of each “generation.”)

Amazingly, despite countless media reports on these “generations,” especially millennials, in a 2015 Pew survey only 40% of people who are supposed to be millennials could pick the name out of a lineup — that is, asked, “These are some commonly used names for generations. Which of these, if any, do you consider yourself to be?”, and then given the generation names (silent, baby boom, X, millennial), 40% of people born after 1980 picked “millennial.”

“What do they know?” You’re saying. “Millennials.

Two examples

The generational labels we’re currently saddled with create false divisions between groups that aren’t really groups, and then obscure important variation within the groups that are arbitrarily lumped together. Here is just one example: the employment experience of young men around the 2009 recession.

In this figure, I’ve taken three birth cohorts: men born four years apart in 1983, 1987, and 1991 — all “millennials” by the Pew definition. Using data from the 2001-2015 American Community Surveys via IPUMS.org, the figure shows their employment rates by age, with 2009 marked for each, coming at age 26, 22, and 18 respectively.


Each group took a big hit, but their recoveries look pretty different, with the earlier cohort not recovered as of 2015, while the youngest 1991 group bounced up to surpass the employment rates of the 1987s by age 24. Timing matters. I reckon the year they hit that great recession matters more in their lives than the arbitrary lumping of them all together compared with some other older “generations.”

Next, marriage rates. Here I use the Current Population Survey and analyze the percentage of young adults married by year of birth for people ages 18-29. This is from a regression that controls for year of age and sex, so it can be interpreted as marriage rates for young adults (click to enlarge).


From the beginning of the Baby Boom generation to those born through 1987 (who turned 29 in 2016, the last year of CPS data), the marriage rate fell from 57% to 21%, or 36 percentage points. Most of that change, 22 points, occurred within the Baby Boom. The marriage experience of the “early” and “late” Baby Boomers is not comparable at all. The subsequent “generations” are also marked by continuously falling marriage rates, with no clear demarcation between the groups. (There is probably some fancy math someone could do to confirm that, with regard to marriage experience, group membership by these arbitrary criteria doesn’t tell you more than any other arbitrary grouping would.)

Anyway, there are lots of fascinating and important ways that birth cohort — or other cohort identifiers — matter in people’s lives. And we could learn more about them if we looked at the data before imposing the categories.


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Poverty, marriage, and single mother update

With the annual Census report on poverty out, here are two quick updates.

First, updating this post, the share of all poverty (using official rates) found in single-mother families remains lower than it was from 1974 to 2000. Since 1995, as the poverty rate has gone up and down between 10 and 15 percent, the share of poor people in single-mother families has fallen. As of 2015, 34% of poor people are found in single-mother families.


Marriage has declined, and single motherhood has increased, but that has not produced a poverty population more dominated by single-mother families. Of course these families are more likely to be poor than married-couple families, but they’re not the main poverty story.

Second, updating this post a little, it’s important to keep two major trends in the back of your mind when thinking about social change. The first is that marriage has declined precipitously since 1960. It’s unremitting decline is one of the major social facts of our time. The other trend to keep in mind is that poverty rates fell a lot after the 1960s, but since then have bounced around at an atrocious 10-15%. Now try to keep them both in mind at once: marriage falls, poverty goes up and down. This year’s update puts those together (sorry people who hate this kind of figure), as change in the percentage of women married, and change in the percentage of the population poor.


For a recent op-ed on poverty and marriage, here’s the unpaywalled version of my essay in the Washington Post‘s Post Everything.

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Interview: Independence, uncertainty, defamilialization


My photo from Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/Fet9Dc

I had an hour-long discussion about the decline of marriage on WYPR, Baltimore public radio, a couple weeks ago. You can listen to it here. I transcribed a short section that summarizes some of the points I find myself making in different contexts. This is a light edit (including taking out a couple things I disagree with myself on).


Q: Tell us more about some of the factors that are at work here. Some people say, well, back in the day my grandmother of course got married because she wasn’t going to have much of a job anyway, but now women have great jobs, so, that’s why they’re not getting married. True or false?

A: That is probably the biggest factor. Not just employment, but really independence. For women especially but for young adults overall. And that is, increased educational opportunities, increased employment opportunities, and the extended young adulthood, or what some people call extended adolescence. Just going to college into your 20s, and delaying that entry into marriage.

I’m not sure that if people are marrying less or marrying later we should equate this with a decline in respect or the importance of marriage. In some ways marriage is more important now that it’s more often a choice. That is people elevate it in their minds or in the culture because – when everybody had to be married, and it was virtually universal around 1960, it wasn’t something that that people personally chose. And so, yes it was important in the sense that everyone was doing it, but now it’s reached the point where people are much more likely to say: This marriage is not good, it’s not working, it’s not what I imagine a marriage should be, therefore we’re going to divorce. Or: We have a vision for marriage which is exalted, and we want to have our marriage take place when we have arrived, and we’re ready to own a house or a decent place to live, we have good jobs, to provide something for our children – and therefore because of that high view of marriage, we’re going to delay marriage. And so that may end up reducing the numbers of married people also, but not because people don’t value marriage.


One way to think about the high divorce rate – which people are aware of – is it’s a kind of uncertainty that hangs over people. But it’s only one kind. In many ways life is less predictable and more uncertain than it was a few decades ago. And that just makes it difficult for a person to make long-term plans and commitments. We see this in the economic sphere, definitely, where people change careers and jobs more often than they did in the past. In housing, where they may change where they live more often. In a variety of ways our lives are less predictable. And when you don’t know what the future holds in one arena it’s very hard to make a commitment in another. You wouldn’t want to pick your job and make a lifetime commitment to it before you know what your college major is going to be. And in the same way, it’s difficult to make a commitment in marriage before you know what career you’re going to have, or how long you’re going to spend in school. So the uncertainty in one realm translates into cautiousness in others.

[Here I recommended All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister and Going Solo by Eric Klinenberg.]

There are different kinds of freedom in play here, and they’re somewhat contradictory. If you have a long-term commitment, that gives you one kind of freedom, for example the freedom to experiment, to make changes in your lifestyle, to change jobs, to take time off from work. Or things that you can do with the security of knowing that the other person is there to back you up. On the other hand, of course, the freedom of being single is a different kind of freedom, is the freedom to not have the set of burdens and obligations that do come from marriage or any kind of long-term commitment. So I do think it’s possible to consider the pros and cons that go in both ways, and it does get back to that idea of uncertainty in life, and the idea of tying oneself down to a long-term commitment in the absence of predictability in all the other aspects of life just seems increasingly disjointed to people. It doesn’t resonate with a lot of people.

The economic argument for marriage has always been that – like contracts, in the economy in general – when you make a commitment, it increases predictability, and you can make long-term plans and investments. For example, you can take a year off to invest in some training, and not worry that you’re going to end up losing income in the long run. And then you also have the economies of scale, two people sharing one refrigerator and one car is more efficient. And then there also are effects of marriage on people’s behavior. The fact that people are relying on you may make people, especially men, behave more responsibly. That may not have to happen within marriage, but the idea of having people depend on you may make people, for example, focus on their career advancement more than other kinds of ambitions.


So it’s a challenge for our economy and our welfare state to think about: how can we ensure the wellbeing of people who do not have the two-person marriage – if we can’t assume people have that to back them up, economically speaking, and especially their children. But we’ve been going in that direction for a long time. The introduction of Social Security, retirement for older people, the public education system, we’ve been making investments in people to make them less reliant for their survival on their families for a long time, and in the long run that’s an important part of modern society. There’s a downside and an upside to that. The upside is people can act according to their own ambitions and desires individually, with more freedom than they could in the past. The downside is the expense for state institutions of caring for them and their children. It’s a complicated set of tradeoffs, and I think the important thing to realize is we can’t build our policies around the assumption that everybody and their parents are going to be married forever. And if we do that we’re going to leave a lot of people out, and put a lot of people at risk for real hardship.


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Explain to me again how marriage is the problem here

This is one of those things you share with all your friends on social media.


Black married parents are 2.4-times more likely to be in poverty, are 2.1-times more likely to be unemployed, and have one-ninth the median net worth compared with White married parents. So explain to me again how marriage is the problem here.


The other day I picked on someone’s fact meme, and wondered what makes these things work, without offering a constructive alternative. I can’t answer the question I asked in that post (how old are the fathers of teen mothers’ children?), but I can answer some other questions about families and Black-White inequality. So that’s what I did.

Feel free to take these facts (or any others) and make something better.


Here are my sources:

Poverty: 2014 American Community Survey from IPUMS.org. It’s Black and White, non-Hispanic, householders who are married and have their own children in the household. The poverty rates were 5% for White married parents and 11.9% for Black married parents. The poverty variable goes from 0 to 501, with 0-99 being below the poverty line, so you specify the recode like this: poverty(r:0-99 “poor”; 100-501 “not poor”). Here’s how you fill out the boxes in the online analysis tool:


Unemployment: Again, 2014 American Community Survey from IPUMS.org. It’s Black and White, non-Hispanic, householders who are married and have their own children in the household. For this one you limit it to people in the labor force (empstat(1-2)) to get the unemployment rate. I did it for men and women combined, getting unemployment rates of 3.1% for White married parents and 6.6% for Black married parents. The numbers are higher for women (3.7% versus 7.3%) but the Black/White ratio is a little worse for men (2.6% versus 5.8%). Here’s how:


Median net worth: I used the Survey of Consumer Finances from 2013, available here. These are also non-Hispanic Black and White parents living with children. The median net worths were $150,500 for Whites and $16,000 for Blacks (Hispanics, incidentally, have $18,750, and the rest are just coded “other”). This data set combines married people with those who are “living with partner,” so this comparison includes cohabitors. (I don’t know how that affects the results, but I’m sure there’s still lots of inequality.) I put my STATA code in an Open Science Framework project here, so feel free to play with it yourself.


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US policy fails at reducing child poverty because it aims to fix the poor

If we want to help kids, it’s time to focus on money, not marriage.

[This piece was originally published by the Washington Post at Post Everything.]

From the first federal social welfare program for Civil War widows to Social Security and the 1960s War on Poverty, government support for poor families in the United States has attempted to enforce a moral hierarchy based on marriage: Widows got pensions they were considered to have earned, for example, while single mothers got shame and stigma for their moral misdeeds.

Since the 1960s, as marriage rates have fallen and women’s employment opportunities have improved, fewer and fewer women rely on husbands for their material needs. Now, the majority of children no longer depend primarily on the income of a married father. And yet, our policies to alleviate poverty still remain focused on correcting the behavior of poor people – especially their marital behavior – rather than addressing poverty itself.

The stated goal of the 1996 welfare reform law, for instance, was not to alleviate poverty but to encourage marriage and reduce single parenthood. The problem was seen as poor character rather than poor income, and the solution was imagined as a matter of replacing the dependency of so-called “deadbeat” parents on the state with dependency on a spouse. Those who insisted on remaining unmarried were singled out for special censure: In the words of one architect of the reform effort, Ron Haskins, “mothers on welfare, even those with young children, should be encouraged, cajoled, and, when necessary, forced to work.”   Today, many policymakers still want to impose conditions on families receiving food stamps and housing support, and as of 2015, marriage-promotion programs aimed at reducing poverty through matrimony had cost the federal government nearly a billion dollars.

One wonders if the money could have been better spent. There are about 6 million poor families with children in the United States — which means nearly 1 in 5 families with children in the wealthiest nation on the planet are living in poverty. My analysis of the latest federal data shows that, on average, these families’ income — including tax credits and all sources of welfare — is about $9,000 below the poverty line. That means ensuring no children grow up in poor households would cost $57 billion a year. (To put that in perspective, that’s how much money we’d get if Apple brought back the $200 billion it has stashed overseas, and paid just 29 percent tax on it – it’s a big problem, but it’s small compared to the wealth of our society.)

We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. We don’t try to address poverty directly, or alleviate it; we simply try to change the way poor people behave, especially poor parents. Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.

Policy that addresses poverty by punishing the poor for their perceived misdeeds plays on some popular misunderstandings, especially about marriage and parenting. Many non-poor people mistakenly believe that our lax attitude toward marriage is behind the child poverty problem. That’s why a Heritage Foundation claim that marriage reduces the chance of living in poverty by 82 percent has been a staple on the Republican campaign trail this season, and welfare money has been diverted from alleviating poverty to promoting marriage among the poor.

Yes, the children of single parents face steeper odds of success than their fellow citizens whose parents are happily married. Many single parents – the vast majority of whom are women – experience chronic shortages of money, time and social support. Their children are less likely to be closely supervised, to be well prepared for kindergarten, to graduate high school, and to make it through young adulthood free from entanglements with the criminal justice system. The intuitive case for more marriage is easy to see.

How then, as the share of children born to unmarried mothers has risen from just 1-in-20 in 1960 to 8-in-20 today, is it possible that child poverty has fallen, educational attainment has risen, and (at least since the 1990s) crime rates have fallen dramatically There are two answers.

First, single parenthood doesn’t just cause these social ailments, it also reflects them. Some of these problems are merely the consequence of whatever caused their parents to be single in the first place: poverty, illness, incarceration, weak relationship skills, and so on. In other words, successful people are more likely to raise successful children and to have successful marriages. Research on marriage among poor Americans clearly shows that the majority want to be married, but they aren’t for a variety of reasons related to their poverty. Faced with poor prospects in a marriage partner, some women reason, “I can do bad by myself,” as reported in the book “Promises I Can Keep,” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Some couples place marriage on a pedestal, and plan to postpone it until they are financially stable. As one young man with a pregnant girlfriend put it, “I’d rather get engaged for two years, save money, get a house, make sure … the baby’s got a bedroom.” For too many, however, that moment never arrives.

Poverty clearly lowers the chance of a successful marriage, even as being single may make it harder to escape poverty. This pattern is the subject of a long-running debate among social scientists. Although we can’t agree on the exact breakdown of cause and effect, any reasonable researcher will concede it runs both ways.

But the second answer is perhaps more important for today’s poverty debates. It is that the number of single-parent families doesn’t drive the poverty rate – rather, it mostly helps determine which families and children will be poor, not how many will be. How many people live in poverty is largely the outcome of our policy choices, about jobs and wages, and support for poor families. Akey study compared poverty rates and family structure in 18 countries, finding that the United States had the highest rate of poverty among single-mother families – more than 40 percent, compared with 5 or 10 percent in the Nordic countries. No country had as large a difference in poverty rates between single mothers and the rest of the population as the United States  – that’s our unique penalty for single parenthood.

So how could we actually do it? A new report from the Century Foundation – by the respected poverty scholars Irwin Garfinkel, David Harris, Jane Waldfogel and Christopher Wimer – lays out some of the options. They take two approaches, expanding the current child tax credit (CTC), or joining much of the rich world in using a child allowance that gives families with children cash without conditions.

Our current tax policy (principally the CTC and the Earned Income Tax Credit) reduces child poverty to the shameful 17 percent it is from the catastrophic 24 percent it would be otherwise. The problem with these credits is that they only help people with jobs, leaving those who can’t work – which is most of the poorest families – without assistance. They mostly aren’t working because they don’t have valuable skills, have health problems, or can’t manage a job (or jobs) while caring for their families. Yet you need a job to claim the CTC, on the cruel logic that the government doesn’t want to “disincentivize” work. The current CTC costs about $50 billion per year but does almost nothing to help the very poor, because coercing or cajoling them into getting a job is useless. So we have 3.4 million children living in “deep poverty,” in families with incomes less than half of what the government says they need (again, after accounting for all government benefits).

On the other hand, a universal child allowance could help everyone, and it might be more popular since middle-class voters would get a check, too. Although you end up giving non-poor people money they don’t really need (some of which you could tax back), this is better than the tax credits because it more efficiently reaches the poorest families. Using a child allowance, the report says we could cut child poverty in half, and reduce deep poverty by two-thirds – for about $200 billion per year. That seems like a lot – it is, after all, about one-eighth of what the Pentagon has spent on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq* – but wouldn’t you sleep better at night knowing your poorer neighbors were sleeping better at night?
What about those pro-marriage policies? In short, they have failed; despite more than a billion dollars, marriage promotion programs have produced no increase in marriage. Furthermore, just as our tax policy doesn’t help people who can’t work, marriage doesn’t help people who can’t marry workers capable of supporting them and their children. A child allowance would provide an income floor for those who aren’t married (they’ve been widowed or divorced, had abusive partners, have no one to marry – or, more rarely, don’t want to get married). And it would do so without coercing them into marriage or shaming them for being single, because all parents would get it, married or not.

Our social policy – especially in the post-1996 welfare reform era – says a spouse’s income is a good way to pay for children, and a job is a good way to pay for children, but government support is not. And the people behind our policy feel this so strongly that, rather than shape welfare policy to provide for the needs of children, they have crafted programs instead to pressure parents into either getting a job or getting married. And when neither of those is possible – or they are practically so undesirable that they may as well be impossible – then the suffering of the parent and her children is the cost of teaching that lesson to everyone else.

We know enough now to see that this approach doesn’t work: It doesn’t increase compliance with social norms on marriage and employment, and it doesn’t stop the scourge of child poverty. We can do better.

* Note: In the original I mistakenly described this as the annual Pentagon spending in that region. I have notified the Post of the error, which I regret.


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