Tag Archives: marriage

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

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

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

Blankenhorn’s lost long decade

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

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

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

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

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

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

iav finances.xlsx

Toward a new treatise

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

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

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

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

Agenda, rewarmed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dress that umbrage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is our executive summary:

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

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

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

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

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A few ways Isabel Sawhill is wrong on single mothers

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Mikey G. Ottawa

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Mikey G. Ottawa

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

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

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

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

At least three things wrong here:

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

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

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

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Cherlin interview, with my unsolicited responses

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

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

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

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

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

how are kids doing these days.xlsx

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

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

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

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

college completion trends.xlsx

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

college graduation rates OECD.xls

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Fewer births and divorces, more violence: how the recession affected the American family

I wrote this for The Conversation. Read the original here.

Observers may be quick to declare social trends “good” or “bad” for families, but such conclusions are rarely justified. What’s good for one family – or group of families – may be bad for another. And within families, interests do not always align. Divorce is “bad” for a family in the sense of breaking it apart, but it may be beneficial, or even essential, for one or both partners or their children.

This kind of ambiguity makes it difficult to assess what kind of impact the recent recession and its aftermath had on families. But for researchers, at least, it offers a lot of job security – so many questions, so much going on. In any case, here’s where we stand so far.

The effect of the Great Recession on family trends in the United States has been dramatic with regard to birth rates and divorce, and has been strongly suggestive of family violence, but less clear for marriage and cohabitation.

Marriage rates declined, and cohabitation rates increased, but these trends were already underway, and the recession didn’t alter them much. When trends don’t change direction it’s difficult to identify an effect of a shock this broad. However, with both birth rates and divorce, clear patterns emerged.

Birth rates: a sharp drop
The most dramatic impact was on birth rates, which dropped precipitously, especially for young women, as a result of the economic crisis. How do we know? First, the timing of the fertility decline is very suggestive. After increasing steadily from the beginning of 2002 until late 2007, birth rates dropped sharply. (The decline has since slowed for some groups after 2010, but the US still saw record-low birth rates for teenagers and women ages 20-24 as late as 2012.)

Second, the decline in fertility was steeper in states with greater increases in unemployment. Although we don’t have the data to determine which couple did or did not have a child in response to economic changes, this pattern supports the idea that financial concerns convinced some people to not have a child.

That interpretation is supported by the third trend: the fertility drop was more pronounced among younger women – and there was no drop at all among women over 40. That may mean the fertility decline represents births postponed by families that intend to have children later – an option older women may not have – which fits previous research on economic shocks.

It seems likely that people who are on the fence about having a baby can be swayed by perceived financial hardship or uncertainty. From research on 27 European countries, we know that people with troubled family financial situations are more likely to say they are unsure whether they will meet their stated childbearing goals – that is, economic uncertainty doesn’t change their familial aims but may increase uncertainty in whether they will be met.

However, some births delayed inevitably become births foregone. Based on the effect of unemployment on birth rates in earlier periods, it appears a substantial number of young women who postponed births will end up never having children. By one estimate, women who were in their early 20s during the Great Recession are projected to have some 400,000 fewer lifetime births and an additional 1.5% of them will never have a birth.

Divorce rates: a counter-intuitive reaction
In the case of divorce, the pattern is counter-intuitive. Although economic hardship and insecurity adds stress to relationships and increases the risk of divorce, the overall divorce rate usually drops when unemployment rates rise.

Researchers believe that, like births, people postpone divorces during economic crises because of the costs of divorcing – not just legal fees, but also housing transitions (which were especially difficult in the Great Recession) and employment disruptions.

My own research found that there was a sharp drop in the divorce rate in 2009 that can reasonably be attributed to the recession. But, as we suspect will be the case with births, there appears to have been a divorce-rate rebound in the years that followed.
Domestic violence: a spike along with joblessness
Family violence has become much less common since the 1990s. The reasons are not entirely clear, but they certainly include the overall drop in violent crime, improved response from social service and non-governmental organizations, and improvements in women’s relative economic status. However, when the recession hit there was a spike in intimate-partner violence, coinciding with the sharp rise in men’s unemployment rates (I show the trends here).

As with the other trends, it’s hard to make a case based on timing alone, but the evidence is fairly strong that the economic shock increased family stress and violence. For example, one study showed that mothers were more likely to report spanking their children in the months when consumer confidence fell. Another study found a jump in abusive head trauma cases during the recession in several regions. And there have been many anecdotal and journalist accounts of increases in family violence, emerging as early as 2009. Are these direct results of the economic stress or mere correlation? It’s hard to say for sure.

The ultimate impact of these trends on American families will likely take years to emerge. The recession may have affected the pattern of marriage in ways we don’t yet understand – how couples selected each other, who got married and who didn’t – and may create measurable group of marriages that are marked for future effects as yet unforeseen. Like the young adults who entered the labor market during the period of high unemployment and whose career trajectories will be forever altered unfavorably, how these families bear the scars cannot be predicted. Time will tell.

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Marriage rates among people with disabilities (save the data edition)

Cross posted on the Families as They Really Are blog.

Disability is a very broad concept, representing a wide array of conditions that are not easily captured in a simple demographic survey. However, disabilities are very prevalent, especially in an aging society, and the people who experience disabilities differ in important ways from those who do not. Previously I reported — in a preliminary way — that people with disabilities are much more likely to divorce than those without. Here I present some numbers on marriage rates.

This isn’t the kind of thorough, probing analysis this subject requires. But I have two reasons to do it now. First is that I hope to motivate other people to pursue this issue in greater depth. And second, I want to highlight the importance of the data I’m using — the American Community Survey (ACS) — because it might be not available for much longer. These questions have been slated for demolition by the U.S. Census Bureau on cost-saving grounds. I put details about this issue — and how to register your opinion with the federal government — at the end of the post.

Disabilities

The ACS asks five disability questions (I put the shorthand label after each):

  1. Is this person deaf or does he/she have serious difficulty hearing? (Hearing)
  2. Is this person blind or does he/she have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses? (Vision)
  3. Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does this person have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions? (Cognitive)
  4. Does this person have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs? (Ambulatory)
  5. Does this person have difficulty dressing or bathing? (Independent living)

These aren’t perfect questions, but they cover a lot of ground, and the ACS — which involves about 3 million households — can’t get into too much detail.

One great thing about having these questions on the giant ACS is you can use the data to get all the way down to the local level, or into small race/ethnic groups. And with the marital events questions, you can combine disability information and marriage information.

First-marriage rates

Using marital events (did you get married in the last year), marital history (how many times have you been married), detailed race and ethnicity breakdowns, and the disability questions above, I produced the following figure. This uses the combined 2008-2012 ACS data because these are small groups, but even with five years of data these groups get quite small. There are about 90,000 non-Hispanic Whites with a cognitive disability in my sample, but only 356 people who are both White and American Indian with a hearing disability (the smallest group I included). This sample is people ages 18-49 who have never been married (or just got married).

disab-marriage-rates

The overall first-marriage rate for people ages 18-49 is 71.8 per 1,000. For people with disabilities it’s 41.1 (shown by the blue line). So that’s much lower than for the general population. But there is a very wide variation across these groups, from 15.5 per thousand for Blacks with disabilities in independent living all the way up to above the national average for Whites and White/American Indians with hearing disabilities. (For every condition, Blacks with disabilities have the lowest marriage rates.)

I don’t draw any conclusions here, except that this is an important subject and I hope more people will study it. Also, we need data like this.

In previous posts demonstrating the value of this data source, I wrote about:

Whether you are a researcher or some other member of the concerned public, I hope you will consider dropping the government a line about this before the end of the year.

The information about the planned cuts to the American Community Survey is here: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/10/31/2014-25912/proposed-information-collection-comment-request-the-american-community-survey-content-review-results:

Direct all written comments to Jennifer Jessup, Departmental Paperwork Clearance Officer, Department of Commerce, Room 6616, 14th and Constitution Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20230 (or via the Internet at jjessup@doc.gov).

Comments will be accepted until December 30.

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Policy, politics, and promoting education versus marriage

Here are three ideas I disagree with:

1. Most people aren’t smart enough to make going to college worth it.

Maybe the best-known purveyor of this idea is Charles Murray, who argued in his 2008 book Real Education (offshore bootlegged copy here) that the “consensus intellectual benchmark” for understanding real college-level material is an IQ of 115, which by definition is only 16% of the population — but probably only 10% are really, truly smart enough (and efforts to improve education at lower levels to prepare more people for college are futile, so don’t even think about spending more on education, because so many people are “born lazy“).

2. We’ve done so much for poor people, it’s time for them to do something for themselves.

This is clearly related to idea #1, insofar as the government spends billions of dollars educating people for college — and subsidizing the colleges they attend — who could instead just work hard and enjoy life in a job requiring less education. But it extends to all kinds of social welfare and anti-poverty programs, as illustrated by the exasperated people in the policy establishment from Brookings to Heritage.

3. Poor women should get married before they have children.

This idea is pervasive, as I’ve discussed many times under the single mothers tag, in response to people blaming single mothers for rising inequality, poverty, low upward mobility, and crime.

One response

Here I offer one response to these three ideas combined. It is possible to increase access to college education, which would increase stability and opportunity for poor people and their children.

In demography, there is a long-running debate over whether there is a biological limit to human longevity, and whether and how fast we may be approaching it. Regardless of the ultimate answer, so far it’s clear that projections based on an inevitable tapering off of increases in life expectancy have repeatedly proved wrong (here’s a review and a recent paper). The same might be said of college education. Here is the trend in 25-34 year-old U.S. civilians with at least a BA degree, from Census numbers:

college completion trends.xlsx

There was more talk about hitting the limits of college access 10 years ago, but even then it was increasing rapidly among women. Yes, we can and should improve college education. But I see nothing here to suggest a ceiling approaching. Still, people keep assuming that expanding education isn’t feasible.

For example, while Murray holds forth on the intelligence limitations among the poor, his colleague Brad Wilcox argues for a cultural press on those with less than a college degree:

They can go down the road of not having marriage as the keystone to their family formation, family life, or we can hold the line, if you will, and try to figure out creative strategies for strengthening marriage in this particular middle demographic in the United States.

In addition to upscaling their deficient values, however, couldn’t we also move them out of the less-than-college category altogether? Not so fast, says Wilcox in a recent interview:

On the education front, the U.S. spends a ton of money and devotes unparalleled attention to college. But the reality is that only one-third of adults, even today, will get a college degree, a B.A. or B.S. We can do a lot better in both funding and focusing on vocational education and apprenticeship training.

Really, America, be reasonable: Our “ton of money” is “unparalleled.” Don’t set your sights too high. Who do you think you are, anyway, Poland (college graduation rate: 53%), Ireland (46%), or Portugal (41%)? From OECD numbers:

college graduation rates OECD.xls

I know expanding college access (the real kind, not the for-profit kind) suggests expanding a broken financial aid system, and the economic returns aren’t guaranteed, but for my purposes it’s not just about getting a better job. People who go to college — and those who know they are going to go to college before they do — usually delay having children, not because some moralizing think tank tells them it’s wrong, but because they’re trying to rationally sequence their lives. Of course, married couples have relatively low poverty rates, but even for parents who aren’t married, higher education sure helps. From the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org:

H8.xlsx

Trying to get more poor people to get married is both offensive and useless. But increasing access to higher education is both uplifting and useful. The choice between early birth with low education and later birth with higher education is not hard to make, but unless it’s feasible — with a readily apparent, practical, path toward completion — there is no choice to make.

The increase in college education has already helped keep child poverty levels from rising as marriage rates have fallen. Among women old enough to have finished college (ages 22-44) the percentage of babies born to mothers with college degrees (married or not) has increased from 23% in 1990 to 35% in 2010. From the Current Population Survey via IPUMS.org:

H8.xlsx

Promoting marriage among the poor is a moralizing salve for the self-esteem — and anti-tax self-interest — of pious elites, with zero proven success in helping anybody poor. Promoting access to higher education is good policy and good politics.

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