Tag Archives: national marriage project

Marriage promotion and the myth of teen pregnancy

First some context, then some data.

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

From teen births to marriage promotion

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

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

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

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

The myth of teen pregnancy

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s data exercise

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

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

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

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

teenbirth-agemar

teenbirth-pctmar

To summarize:

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

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

teenbirth-logit

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Regnerus responds

Photo by carnagenyc from Creative Commons.

Photo by carnagenyc from Creative Commons.

Note: Corrected May 3 to reflect that these documents are about post-tenure review, not promotion to full professor. The blogger regrets the error, and thanks the tipster.

The news, reported in The Daily Texan, with documents retrieved via public records request, is that, in the face of conflicting views about Mark Regnerus’s promotion to the rank of full professor post-tenure review,  UT’s Dean of Liberal Arts, Randy Diehl, commissioned a report on the scandal by sociologist Marc Musick. The report is an excellent review and summary of the affair, and provides ample evidence for declining the promotion. And for the rest of us, it had the beneficial effect of flushing out Regnerus, who wrote his most detailed response yet to the accusations against him — a response he may or may not have realized would become public. (The new documents are linked in the Texan article; for my coverage, you can start here for a review with links.)

It’s difficult to try to draw a line, as Musick does, apparently at the dean’s request, between ethical misconduct and bad research. It’s really where the two are combined that Regnerus causes trouble. More on the promotion issue later.

Musick was entirely correct when he wrote:

Based on these [media] appearances and his [court] testimony, it is self-evident that Professor Regnerus has used his research in the debate over same-sex marriage in direct contradiction to the statements he made in the NFSS article and response to commentaries. When combined with clear evidence that he colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study, it leads to the appearance that the post-study behavior was an extension of the political work that was happening prior to the study. In light of all of this activity, it appears that the statements he made in the article could certainly be seen as misleading at best and an outright fabrication of his intentions at worst.

This is the heart of the ethics side of the complaint: his bad research was part of a covertly-organized political effort, and he lied about it to cover that up. Regnerus simply asserts this isn’t true, but to believe his self-serving description of his own intentions is to be made a fool of. It’s just not plausible that,

I did not intend to utilize the results for any political or legal purpose, and stated so when I completed work on the manuscript in late February 2012. My interests, from the outset of participation in this project up through December 2012, lay squarely in the social science question that gave rise to the study.

Only God can truly see into the unlit depths of Regnerus’s heart — but the rest of us can be pretty sure he’s lying based on his actions.

Regnerus claims that as he became immersed in the subject he grew convinced that same-sex marriage is a bad policy, and began “to worry about esteeming the systematic severance of children from their biological origins.” But he was part of the “coalition” (his word!) against gay marriage from before the study was even fielded. His email to Brad Wilcox, prior to conducting the study:

I would like, at some point, to get more feedback from Luis [Tellez] and Maggie [Gallagher] about the ‘boundaries’ around this project, not just costs but also their optimal timelines (for the coalition meeting, the data collection, etc.), and their hopes for what emerges from this project, including the early report we discussed in DC.

What pure interest in “the social science question” involves planning an “early report” with the leading activist against gay marriage, Maggie Gallagher?

Lots of research is as poor quality as Regnerus’s. It’s in combination with the rotten ethics that we see the more serious problem — it’s how the research fits in with his diabolical political plans and his reprehensible moral views. That is, the research was not just bad, it was bad in a purposeful direction. That’s not discernible from a reading of the single, (not really) peer-reviewed article.

Cause and effect

The issue of causality is described in the report as one of methods, but I think it’s really an ethical issue.

Regnerus has been having this both ways from the beginning, and it highlights the challenge of (and for) public intellectuals who speak to multiple audiences. In the original paper he wrote, “I would be remiss to claim causation here.” So that is his cover (and he quotes again here). But in presentations to friendly audiences he is much less guarded. As I reported earlier, in a talk he gave at Catholic University:

He first described in some detail the “standard set of controls” he used to test the relationship between having a father or mother who ever (reportedly) had a same-sex romantic relationship and his many negative outcome variables. And then he proceeded to present bivariate relationships as if they were the results of those tests. He didn’t say they were adjusted [for the controls], but everyone thought the results he showed were controlling for everything. For example, to gasps from the crowd, he revealed that 17 percent of “intact bio family” kids had ever received welfare growing up, compared with 70 percent for those whose mother (reportedly) ever had a same-sex romantic relationship. If you don’t realize that this is mostly just a comparison between stable married-couple families and single-mother families, that might seem like a shockingly large effect.

The causal story at that talk was hammered home in two other ways. First, he presented the results as evidence of a “reduced kinship theory,” under which parents care less about their children the less biologically related they are. Second, he said his “best guess” about why he found worse outcomes for children of women who ever had a lesbian relationship than for those whose fathers ever had a gay relationship was that the former group spent more time with their mothers’ lesbian partners. Both of these descriptions are based on a causal interpretation of his findings.

Anyway, on to the political machinations.

Regnerus lies about Brad Wilcox’s lies

Regnerus complains that Musick brings up the “tired ethical complaint” about Brad Wilcox, who, Regnerus claims, “held an honorific position with the Witherspoon Institute.” And he offers this: “In my interactions with him, he never acted with authority, only advice suggestive of his own opinion.” Regnerus no-doubt thinks he is using a clever legalism, as if Wilcox did not have literal signing authority for dispersing Witherspoon funds and therefore did not offer anything beyond “his own opinion.” But it’s clearly wrong.

Just to be clear how ridiculous this hair-splitting is, here is the email exchange that they no-doubt both now regret (which Musick quoted as well). Regnerus writing, Wilcox answering in bold caps:

Tell me if any of these aren’t correct.

  1. We want to run this project through UT’s PRC. I’m presuming 10% overhead is acceptable to Witherspoon. YES
  2. We want a broad coalition comprising several scholars from across the spectrum of opinions… [goes on to discuss individuals]. YES
  3. We want to “repeat” in some ways the DC consultation with the group outlined in #2. … [details of how the planning document will be crafted] YES
  4. This document would in turn be used to approach several research organizations for the purpose of acquiring bids for the data collection project. YES

Did I understand that correctly?

And per your instruction, I should think of this as a planning grant, with somewhere on par of $30-$40k if needed. YES

Regnerus may now say, indignantly, “Professor Wilcox did not — and does not — speak on behalf of Mr. Tellez,” the Witherspoon president, but he certainly understood Wilcox as speaking for Witherspoon in that exchange. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he ask Tellez these organizational questions directly?

In a 2012 blog post on the now-defunct (and deleted, but preserved) Family Scholars blog hosted by the Institute for American Values, Wilcox wrote that he never served as an “officer” of Witherspoon. He was, on the Witherspoon website as preserved by the Internet Archive, listed as “director” of the institute’s Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy from late 2008 to mid-2010. That program still exists on the website, incidentally, but it no longer mentions any director — Wilcox is the only director ever listed in the Internet Archive pages. As of last month, Wilcox’s CV doesn’t mention this position.* (I don’t understand the purpose of an honorific position if you’re not proud of it.)

And then there’s the Wilcox email where he refers to the study as “our dataset.”

Campaign, or coincidence?

Regnerus tells a story of coincidences. For example, Tellez may have (in his words) wanted the research done “before major decisions of the Supreme Court,” but that had nothing to do with Regnerus’s goals, which were to finish his report by January 2012 “for no other reason than I wished to finish it and move on to other projects.” At the time the research was funded, Regnerus says, he did not share Tellez’s political goals. Coincidentally, they both happened to want to project completed in the same time frame. And then, in another coincidence, Regnerus later came around to joining in Tellez’s opinion that same-sex marriage must be stopped. Is this a more plausible story than the simpler one in which Tellez, Wilcox, and Regnerus were all on the same page all along? The evidence for the conspiracy is pretty robust, considering Regnerus, Wilcox, David Blankenhorn, Maggie Gallagher and other anti-gay marriage activists planned the research at a meeting in Washington hosted and paid for by the Heritage Foundation. On the other hand, the evidence for the coincidence is Regnerus’s solemn word. This conspiracy is a theory kind of like evolution is a theory — it’s the only plausible explanation for a known series of events.

In the coincidence story, the survey was delayed, so Regnerus would have to keep working on it beyond January 2012. However, he nevertheless just “decided to give a journal submission a shot” in November 2011 anyway. Not that he was aiming for Tellez’s Supreme Court deadline. Just because. So he “contacted [Social Science Research editor] Professor James Wright to ask if he’d consider reviewing a manuscript on a study like this one,” before the data were even collected. You social scientists out there — have you ever asked a peer-reviewed journal editor if they would consider publishing something “like” what you were working on before you even had the data collected?

In fact, this “give a journal submission a shot” idea came from Wilcox, who in the email mentioned above suggested sending it to SSR because Wright was (the late) “Steve Nock’s good friend” and “also likes Paul Amato,” whom they had secured as a consultant. In the end, Wright would use both Wilcox and Amato as reviewers.

The coincidences Regnerus speaks of also include the meeting he had in August 2011 in Denver with Wilcox, Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family, and Scott Stanley, after which (he wrote to Tellez at the time), “we feel like we have a decent plan moving forward” for “public/media relations for the NFSS project.” In his response to Mucisk, Regnerus now writes, “Denver was a convenient stop on the way back to Austin from the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Las Vegas, and I took the opportunity to meet socially with a few peers.” That includes Stanton, who “lived about an hour’s drive of where we met.” (I’m not sure why you need a “convenient stop” from Las Vegas to Austin, which is a short nonstop flight.)

See, no campaign. Sure, he also arranged for the study to be shared with “some conservative outlets” before publication, attended a “short function hosted by the Heritage Foundation” about the study just before it was published, and “another such function … at the offices of the Institute for American Values.” But he doesn’t even know, “frankly,” “how such groups came to be apprised of the impending study release.”

Then, after describing, literally, how he colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study, Regnerus concludes, “This hardly merits the accusation that I ‘colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study.'”

And oh, sure, on closer inspection (he actually says, “I see now…”) he did use the “media training” document that Heritage provided, which he has falsely testified he “largely ignored,” in his own promotion of the study. In his post on Patheos.com (here), he wrote:

Q: So are gay parents worse than traditional parents?

A: The study is not about parenting per se. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible straight parents. The study is, among other things, about outcome differences between young adults raised in households in which a parent had a same-sex relationship and those raised by their own parents in intact families.

The Heritage talking points (from Musick’s report) included this:

Whether gay parents are worse than traditional parents.The study is not about parenting. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible traditional parents. The study is about outcome difference between young adults raised in a same-sex household and those raised by their own parent in intact families.

Well, he says now, “I very likely did use a few lines” from the document. “So be it.” Nevertheless, “to suggest I received extensive media training — and leaned on it in a comprehensive campaign — is out of touch with my lived reality.” (Who’s a phenomenologist now?) It’s tempting, after reading his response, to assume that whatever Regnerus specifically denies is exactly true.

On the labeling issue

I noticed something new in reviewing material for this post. If you’ve made it this far, bear with me here on this detail.

The infamous Regnerus article was published with the title, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?” In the article he referred to the adult children who reported that their mother ever had a same-sex romantic relationship as “LM” for “lesbian mother,” along with “GF” for “gay father.” In the rebuttal to his critics, published later in 2012, he acknowledged these were the wrong terms:

Concern about the use of the acronyms LM (lesbian mother) and GF (gay father) in the original study is arguably the most reasonable criticism. In hindsight, I wish I would have labeled LMs and GFs as MLRs and FGRs, that is, respondents who report a maternal (or mother’s) lesbian relationship, and respondents who report a paternal (or father’s) gay relationship. While in the original study’s description of the LM and GF categories I carefully and accurately detailed what respondents fit the LM and GF categories, I recognize that the acronyms LM and GF are prone to conflate sexual orientation, which the NFSS did not measure, with same-sex relationship behavior, which it did measure.

But he insisted this was just a question of confusing terms, not an attempt to actually label these parents according to their sexual orientation. He added:

The original study, indeed the entire data collection effort, was always focused on the respondents’ awareness of parental same-sex relationship behavior rather than their own assessment of parental sexual orientation, which may have differed from how their parent would describe it.

This came up in the Mucisk report, and Regnerus responded:

As noted in Professor Musick’s assessment, the problem of locating an optimal acronym here is something to which I have already confessed … It remains a significant regret. And yet the distinction between a woman’s same-sex relationship (to use Professor Musick’s acronym) and a woman’s “lesbian” relationship (as I assert by using the MLR acronym) is no doubt a narrow one. As ought to be obvious, I use the term “lesbian” as an adjective here, not a noun [emphasis added]. It describes a relationship, not a self-identity.

But did Regnerus really intend to use “lesbian” as an adjective? No, he did not. I know this because, in the email exchange between Social Science Research editor James Wright and Brad Wilcox (in which Wilcox lied by omission and which Wright later misrepresented), we can see the original title of the article Regnerus submitted, which is not the title subsequently published. The original title was, “How different are the adult children of lesbian mothers and gay fathers? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Clearly, Regnerus’s original intention was to describe the parents of the people he surveyed as “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” — using nouns referring to the people, not adjectives referring to their romantic relationships. It was not a matter of confusion; it was an attempt to create a false impression of the study’s implications.

Promoting Regnerus

In our department, promotion to full professor requires “an exemplary record in research, teaching, and service” which has made the candidate “widely regarded as a scholar.” However, these terms are not defined, and no quantities of research or citations are included. These things are left vague, and much rides on the interpretation of the experts consulted, who are considered the best judges of academic merit. So, what if a professor brings scandal and disrepute to himself and the institution? What if he expresses views that are morally reprehensible? What if he lies about his work, including in his work?

I don’t envy my colleagues in the excellent department of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin (about this case — I do envy them in other ways). Their directory lists 39 professors, only one of whom is disgraceful in those ways. It’s not a simple matter, denying a tenured professor a promotion (even though this is only post-tenure review, it’s the promotion issue that looms). It’s a personnel decision governed by laws, and it’s wrapped up in the tenure system, which is important for academic freedom.

In the case of Regnerus I’ve already expressed my opinion.

Honest social scientists do not combine these activities: (1) secret meetings with partisan activist groups to raise money and set political agendas for their research; and, (2) omitting mention of those associations later. If Regnerus, Wilcox, Allen, and Price, had included acknowledgements in their publications that described these associations, then they would be just like anyone else who does research on subjects on which they have expressed opinions publicly: potentially legitimate but subject to closer scrutiny (which should include editors not including people from the same group as reviewers). Failure to disclose this in the publication process is dishonesty.

Based on that — more than based on the morally reprehensible views — I would vote against Regnerus’s promotion. But I am not privy to the process at UT, to their reviews and other materials, and I haven’t been asked for my opinion or advice.

* Is it unethical to take academic activities off our academic CV if they make you look bad? It emerged in one of the gay marriage trials that Brigham Young economist Joseph Price, testifying as an expert against gay marriage, took a grant from the Witherspoon Institute off his CV. In this case I don’t see that Wilcox ever had Witherspoon on his CV, but he was listed as a director on their website.

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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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Repeated misinterpretation is not causation

The other day I criticized Brad Wilcox and Bob Lerman for claiming that increasing marriage would reduce inequality. In that post I passed up the chance to reinforce a lesson about misleading claims regarding selection and unobserved factors by members of the right-wing family social science community.

Photo by Jonathan Tellier from Flickr Creative Commons.

Which comes first, social advantages or marriage?
Photo by Jonathan Tellier from Flickr Creative Commons.

Passages like the following have become standard for Wilcox when he makes overblown claims regarding the benefits of marriage. Here is the latest:

Notwithstanding this report’s extensive data analysis, we do not claim that the associations we find among family structure while growing up, marriage as an adult, and economic outcomes are definitively causal. … Even after netting out the effects of many observed differences among individuals, both marriage and economic well-being may be the result of some third factor, such as unobserved differences in personality or character … Moreover, most of the evidence in this report is descriptive and does not derive from a causal model. For all these reasons, this report cannot definitively assert that adolescent family structure and adult marital status have a causal impact on individual and family economic well-being. …  Nevertheless, the evidence is widespread and consistent enough to suggest strong, causal positive roles for being raised in an intact family and for current marriage on a range of important economic outcomes for the average American.

So this is the criteria for evaluating whether selection and omitted variables are a problem — whether the “evidence is widespread and consistent enough”? No. The volume of evidence is irrelevant; what matters is what it means. If people with various kinds of advantages and privileges are more likely to get and stay married, then research that fails to take that into account will always show married people doing better than people who aren’t married. The evidence will be “widespread and consistent,” and that does not mean it means marriage is the cause of their advantages.

I think that repeating this over and over, having been corrected on it many times, qualifies as demagoguery, or the practice of a demagogue, as the OED defines it:

…a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator.

It’s appealing to passions and prejudices, and taking advantage of the credulity of the friendly media — and abusing their status as professional researchers, in Wilcox’s case with academic tenure — in the service of their own ideological and material interests.

I made this argument in a previous post, which demonstrated widespread and consistent evidence for an assertion that is probably not true because of obvious selection bias: Cars improve child health. There is no end to the ways you can demonstrate this pattern (and I controlled for income, to show how far that gets you), but the ubiquity of the evidence does not correspond with the veracity of the claim that the relationship is causal.

Real research addendum

If, unlike Wilcox and Lerman, you want to consider this set of issues seriously, I must say I don’t mean to imply that there is no causal effect of marriage on anything. But real research that rigorously takes selection into account usually finds the remaining (probable) effects of marriage are small, if still theoretically important. With earnings, for example, a substantial part of men’s marriage effect is due to selection — that is, men who are either already earning more or who are headed for higher earnings are more likely to get married. For example, this recent study by Christopher Dougherty finds that men’s earnings start rising on average more than five years before marriage. You could attribute this to the cultural power of marriage if you think it shows men getting their act together and earning more because they want or plan to get married, but there’s no evidence for that over the interpretation that marriage is a windfall that follows from other advantages — such as physical or mental traits or health, or social advantages such as rich networks of job and relationship connections (none of which is measured directly in the kinds of data we have for these purposes). Alexandra Killewald and Margaret Gough report a similar pattern, although it’s not the focus of their paper. Killewald, in another good piece, does a lot of selection checking for the positive effect of married fatherhood on men’s earnings, before coming down on the side of  a causal story. But her effect, although important, is not anywhere near large enough to lift poor people out of poverty or substantially reduce income inequality in the unlikely event that marriage increased among low-income parents. That’s a different discussion. As I argued the other day, even if marriage is good for married people, those who aren’t married are very unlikely to get the same benefit from marrying that we observe among the married population. They’re different people with different (mostly fewer) assets to capitalize on in marriage.

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Turns out marriage and income inequality go pretty well together

Diatribe first, then critique.

Brad Wilcox and Bob Lerman have a new report arguing, among other things:

Had marriage rates not declined substantially among parents, many more families would have attained middle-class incomes, and the inequality across families would have increased at a slower rate.

It’s well established that falling marriage rates are contributing to family income inequality. However, increasing inequality is not an inevitable result of low marriage rates. In general, among rich countries, higher marriage rates are associated with higher levels of income inequality. The USA is a clear outlier here:

marriage-inequality2

It’s possible marriage increases income inequality in general. It’s also possible that people don’t get married as much when they’re not worried about inequality. Regardless, this shows high marriage rates are quite compatible with high 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.

A second, less-obvious (but more-often mentioned) solution is more marriage. Low-income single people could become high-income married people. Or, failing that (which they would) they could settle for becoming low-income married people. Besides the fact that efforts to promote marriage have been a complete failure, would this even make poor single people and their children better off?

The family science right-wing establishment says Yes. To the poor singles, they say: “See how well married people are doing? Get married and you’ll be like them (also: you won’t get raped so much, you sluts.)” To their rich donors and political allies, they say, “Make them earn their benefits by demonstrating their moral fiber and manning up.” The welfare reform attempted this, and successfully forced many single mothers into the labor force in the cause of character development  — but it failed in its goal of marrying them off.

So more marriage is the new agenda — and the family right has a plan that leads inexorably to success (for them): either by successfully raising marriage rates among the poor (extremely unlikely), or by justifying the continued denial of basic welfare to the poor and shoring up the political case against economic redistribution (extremely likely).

A few notes on the first part of their report

Question: Why should we think the unmarried people would get the same benefits from marriage that currently married people do? If marriage is becoming increasingly selective, then you can’t assume the benefits observed among actually married people would be reaped by those who have been left out (or opted out) of the increasingly stringent marriage selection process. They may not have the assets that lead to marriage benefits — skills of many kinds, wealth, social networks, and so on.

Wilcox and Lerman say family income would have risen more — and there would be less inequality — if more people were married, because married couple incomes rose faster than average. They show this:

willerfaminc

Setting aside the completely misleading use of an area chart, and the gruesome y-axis truncation, this shows that married-parent families have had faster than average income growth. One obvious reason for this is women’s rising labor force participation, at least into the 1990s. That has a big effect on income at the median, which is the line this is showing for each group (though the area form makes it look like it’s some kind of distribution). Rising income at the median would reduce income inequality. The fact that single-parent families are dragging down the average contributes to growing inequality and a stagnant overall median.

But the top is where most inequality is being generated. Looking at the top will help us see not just growing inequality, but also why getting poor people to get married won’t help them as much as Wilcox and Lerman think it would. Let’s add the 90th and 10th percentiles to the married parent income trends. My figure shows that the married parent family’s 90th percentile’s income has risen 39% since 1979, while the median has risen 14%. But the 10th percentile’s income has fallen 12%.

married couple ineq.xlsx

So, if poor single people finally get with it and start getting married, which married parents are they going to look like?

The chart shows dramatically increasing inequality among married-couple families. Pouring more married couples into the bottom of the distribution doesn’t seem likely to fix that. And, as Jordan Weissman pointed out, the family structure story has nothing to do with the huge rise in incomes in the top 1% and .1%, which are central to the inequality story.

Till now I’ve skirted some thorny technical issues to make a comparison comparable to Wilcox/Lerman’s data. But assessments of family income inequality are tricky. Marrying two low earners creates one family household with twice the income. That shows up as a rise in incomes per family, but what is the real gain? They get economies of scale, but most descriptions (like Wilcox/Lerman’s) don’t take that into account. And the children might increase their consumption from greater access to the second income, but that’s hidden within the family black box.

To see how changes in family income distributions affect children, it’s useful to use a family size adjustment. I like one in here that counts kids as seven-tenths of an adult, and scales the family income by .65. (So you just divide family income by this: [(adults+(.70*kids)).^65].) Now you can track children’s cash on hand much better. I also prefer to use household rather than family income and composition, because the Census definition of families is narrow. In the charts so far, for example, parents’ cohabiting partners’ income is not included.

So here is the inequality trend for children — using the Gini index for needs-adjusted household income (code here) — by parents’ marital status:

kid-gini-1980-2012.xlsx

This shows that the increase in family inequality has been much more dramatic for married-couple families than single-parent families. That’s those high-income couples pulling away from the middle and the bottom. On the other hand, inequality has been and remains higher for single-parent families. Note that the inequality for all children is not just the average of the two other lines, because it also includes the inequality between married-couple and single-parent families.

So moving people from single to married would have reduce inequality more in 1980 than now, but just on composition it might still help if it boosted cash per kid through access and efficiency. Whether that benefit would outweigh the costs is not clear. If people not married yet aren’t just like the people who are — they may have lower skills and resources of various kinds, for example — marriage might not facilitate those transfers. Plus, it’s only good if the people want to be married.

Anyway, point is, married-couple families are doing pretty well at increased income inequality all by themselves.

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My rejection of the National Marriage Project’s “Before ‘I Do'”

All day today, “The Decisive Marriage” has topped the New York Times most-emailed list. The piece is a Well Blog post, written by Tara Parker-Pope, which reports on a report published by the National Marriage Project and written by Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley, “Before ‘I Do': What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?”

I have frequently criticized the National Marriage Project, run by Bradford Wilcox (posts listed under this tag), and I ignore their work when I can. But this report is getting a lot of attention now and several people have asked my opinion. Since the research in the report has not been subject to peer review, and the Pope piece does not include any expert commentary from non-authors, I figured I’d structure this post like the peer review report I would dash off if I had been asked to review the piece (it’s a little different because I have access to the author and funding information, and I wouldn’t include links or graphics, but this is more or less how it would go if I were asked to review it).

Before “I Do”

This paper reports results from an original data collection which sampled 1,294 people in 2007/08, and then followed an unknown number of them for five years. The present paper reports on the marriage quality of 418 of the individuals who reported marrying over the period (ages 18-40). The authors provide no information on sample attrition or how this was handled in the analysis, or the determinants of marriage within the sample. Although they claim (without evidence) that the sample was “reasonably representative of unmarried adults,” they note it is 65% female, so it’s obviously not representative. More importantly, the analysis sample is only those who married, which is highly select. Neither sexual orientation of the respondents, nor gender composition of the couples described is reported.

The outcome variable in the study is a reasonable measure of “marital quality” based on a four-item reduced-form version of the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (originally developed by Graham Spanier), which includes these items:

  • How often do you discuss or have you considered divorce, separation, or terminating your relationship?
  • In general, how often do you think that things between you and your partner are going well?
  • Do you confide in your mate?
  • Please circle the dot which best describes the degree of happiness, all things considered, of your relationship.

The authors provide no details on the coding of these items, but say the scale ranges from 0 to 21, and their sample included people who scored from 0 to 21. However, the mean was 16.5 and the standard deviation was 3.7, indicating a strong skew toward high scores. Inexplicably, for the presentation of results the authors dichotomize the dependent variable into those they classify as “higher quality,” the 40% of respondents who scored (19-21), versus everyone else (0-18). To defend this decision, the authors offer this non-explanation, which means exactly nothing:

This cut point was selected by inspection of the distribution. While it is somewhat arbitrary, we reasoned that these people are not just doing “above average” in their marriages, but are doing quite well.

The average marriage duration is not reported, but the maximum possible is 5 years, so we are talking about marriage quality very early in these marriages.

The main presentation of findings consists of bar graphs misleadingly labeled “Percent in Higher-Quality Marriages, by…” various independent variables. These are misleading because, according to the notes to these figures, “These percentages are adjusted for race/ethnicity, years of education, personal income, religiousness, and frequency of attendance at religious services.” Here is one:

stanleygraph

The method for arriving at these “adjusted” percentages is not given. This apparently confused Parker-Pope, who reported them as unadjusted percentages, like this:

People who lived with another person before marrying also reported a lower-quality relationship. In that group, 35 percent had higher-quality marriages. Among those who had not lived with another romantic partner before marriage, 42 percent had higher-quality marriages.

The statistical significance of this difference is not reported. However, if this were a simple difference of proportions, the difference would not be statistically significant at conventional levels (with a sample of 418, 39% of whom lived with someone else before, the test for difference of proportions for .42 and .35 yields a z-score of 1.43, p=.15). The full report includes an appendix which says they used multilevel modeling, but the form of the regression is not specified. The regression table provided includes no fit statistics or variance components so the efficacy of the model cannot be evaluated.

Regression says: Adding 100 people to the wedding party 5 times would not equal the effect on marital quality of not being Black.

Regression says: Adding 100 people to the wedding party 5 times would not equal the effect on marital quality of not being Black.

Much is made here (and in the Pope article about these findings) about the wedding-size effect. That is, among married couples, those who reported bigger weddings had higher average marriage quality. The mean wedding size was 117. In the regression model, each additional wedding guest was associated with an increase in marriage quality (on the 0-21 scale) of .005. That is, if this were a real effect, adding 100 wedding guests would increase marital quality by half a point, or less than 1/7 of a standard deviation. For comparison, in the model, the negative effect of being Black (-2.69) is more than 5-times greater than the effect of a 100-guest swing in wedding attendance. (The issue of effect size did not enter into Pope’s description of the results.)

The possibility of nonlinear effects of wedding size or other variables is not discussed.

Are the results plausible?

It is definitely possible that, for example, less complicated relationship histories, or larger weddings, do contribute to marital happiness early in the marriage. The authors speculate, based on psychological research from the 1970s, that the “desire for consistency” means “having more witnesses at a wedding may actually strengthen marital quality.”

Sure. The much bigger issue, however, is two kinds of selection. The first, which they address — very poorly — concerns spurious effects. Thus, the simplest explanation is that (holding income constant) people with larger weddings simply had better relationships to begin with. Or, because personal income (not couple income — and note only one person from each couple was interviewed) is at best a very noisy indicator of resources available to couples, big weddings may simply proxy for wealthier families.

Or, about the finding that living with someone else prior to the current relationship is associated with poorer marriage quality, it may simply be that people who have trouble in relationships are more likely to have both lived with someone else and have poor quality marriages later. Cherlin et al. have reported, for example, that women with a history of sexual abuse are more likely to be in transitory relationships, including serial cohabiting relationships, so a history of abuse could account for some of these results. And so on.

The authors address this philosophically, which is all they can do given their data:

One obvious objection to this study is that it may be capturing what social scientists call “selection effects” rather than a causal relationship between our independent variables and the outcome at hand. That is, this report’s results may reflect the fact that certain types of people are more likely to engage in certain behaviors—such as having a child prior to marriage—that are correlated with experiencing lower odds of marital quality. It could be that these underlying traits or experiences, rather than the behaviors we analyzed, explain the associations reported here. This objection applies to most research that is not based on randomized experiments. We cannot prove causal associations between the personal and couple factors we explore and marital quality.

However, because they have rudimentary demographic controls, and the independent variables chronologically precede the outcome variable, they think they’re on pretty firm ground:

With the help of our research, we hope current and future couples will better understand the factors that appear to contribute to building a healthy, loving marriage in contemporary America.

This is Wilcox’s standard way of nodding to selection before plowing ahead with unjustified conclusions. This is not a reasonable approach, for reasons apparent in today’s New York Times. Tara Parker-Pope does not mention this issue, and her piece will obviously reach many more people than the original report or this post.

They hope people will take their results as relationship advice. In Pope’s piece, Stanley offers exactly the same advice he always gives. If that is to be the case, the best advice by far — based on their models — is to avoid being Black, and to finish high school. Living with both one’s biological parents at age 14 helps, too. In relationship terms, unfortunately, most of the results could just as easily reflect wealth or initial relationship quality rather than relationship decisions, and thus tell us that people who have healthy (and less complicated) relationships before marriage have healthy relationships in the first few years after marriage.

Perhaps more serious, however, for this study design, is the second kind of selection: selection into the sample (by marriage). Anything that affects both the odds of marrying and the quality of marriage is potentially corrupting these results. This is a big, complicated issue, with a whole school of statistical methods attached to it. Unless they attend to that issue this analysis should not be published.

On the funding

The authors state the project was “initially funded” by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, but the report also acknowledges support from the William E. Simon Foundation, a very conservative foundation that in 2012 gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Witherspoon Institute (which funded the notorious Wilcox/Regnerus research on children of same-sex couples), the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and other conservative and Christian activist organizations. Details on funding are not provided.

The National Marriage Project is well-known for publishing only work that supports their agenda of marriage promotion. Some of what they publish may be true, but based on their track record they cannot be trusted as honest brokers of new research.

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James Wright’s recounting of the Regnerus review process wasn’t true

(And Brad Wilcox lied continuously, too.)

It may seem like a footnote to the Regnerus scandal (last summary here), but I think it is worth reporting that we now know Social Science Research editor James Wright apparently lied in his published description of the process by which the Regnerus paper was published.

In the “Introductory Remarks” that Wright published in the November 2012 issue of SSR, he described the sequence of events leading up to the paper’s publication, writing in part (with false portion highlighted):

The [Loren] Marks paper was submitted to SSR on October 3, 2011, and had already been accepted for publication (subject to some pretty significant revisions) when the Regnerus paper was submitted on February 1, 2012. Like most journals, SSR often tries to co-publish topically linked papers … and given the obvious topical similarity of these two papers, publishing them at the same time seemed sensible (assuming, as goes without saying, that both fared well in peer review). The email sent to prospective reviewers of the Regnerus paper therefore stated, “I would greatly appreciate the quickest possible turnaround on your review” but was otherwise identical to the form letter sent to all prospective reviewers when requesting reviews.

In this telling, Wright’s motivation for encouraging a quick turnaround was that he wanted to publish the two papers together, and that’s why (“therefore”) he asked the reviewers to expedite their reviews.

But, Straight Grandmother has published the email that Wright sent to reviewer Brad Wilcox, and it does not match Wright’s published description. In that email, Wright wrote:

We have received a manuscript that we think may interest you. We would very much appreciate your reading it and rendering a critique.

We have also learned that a report on this study will be released sometime this coming summer and if the paper is destined to appear in SSR, it would be nice to have the paper accepted (and available online) before the report is released. So I would greatly appreciate the quickest possible turnaround on your review.

Here is the grainy public-records version, for authenticity:

wright-wilcox-reviewer1

Clearly, the highlighted passage in the first quote was not the only passage that made the Regnerus request different. In his “Introductory Remarks,” Wright omitted mention of the summer report deadline. And the email to Wilcox does not mention the goal of publishing the Regnerus and Marks papers together.

Why would Wright change the story, from one about trying to publish the Regnerus paper in time for the summer report (told to Wilcox) to one about trying to publish two topically-related papers together (told to the public)? The answer, I conclude, is that in his published accounting Wright was attempting to distance himself from the appearance (fact) of coordination with Regnerus and his backers (including Wilcox).

Wright’s story of the dog wagging the tail is reversed. Regnerus and Wilcox needed to have the peer-reviewed paper accepted and online before they could release the “report” publicly, because they wanted that legitimacy (this is apparent in the first document dump). Wright’s actions made that strategy successful. (When it appeared, the “report” was just an animated website rehashing the contents of the paper.)

Wilcox lies, too

Brad Wilcox will say this was not a lie, because he thinks he carefully did not lie, but it was a lie, because lying is about deception, not just about uttering words that are literally untrue. Take it from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in which Pope John Paul II wrote:

[Quoting St. Augustine] “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” … To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.

I don’t know this first-hand, but I’m told God does not give partial credit for lies of omission. In his response to Wright’s reviewer request, Wilcox’s entire reply was this:

Dear Jim:

I’m happy to do this. Just want to let you know that I serve on the advisory board for this project — as does Kelly Raley and others on the SSR board. Ok?

Brad

You could call this a head-fake disclaimer. What is the relevance of the advisory board? It is certainly not the most important fact about Brad’s involvement with the study. We probably don’t know all that he did, but we do know that Brad coordinated the fundraising for the study, recruited Regnerus to be the lead researcher, advised Regnerus on how to handle co-authorship with Cynthia Osborne, suggested to Regnerus that they send the paper to Wright at SSR, and referred to the research project as “our dataset.”

So, sure, the email exchange contains a disclosure — one that puts Wilcox on the same level of involvement as other fleeting consultants — but it is far from the most important thing to disclose. That’s lying.

Did Wright lie some more?

After Brad’s response to the reviewer request, they exchange two more emails, which read, in their entirety:

Wright: Understood.

Wilcox: thanks.

So why, in his email to Inside Higher Ed, did Wright say this?

Amato and Wilcox mentioned their prior involvement with the Regnerus study in response to my initial reviewing request.  I asked, as I always do, whether this involvement precluded their writing an objective review. Both said no and so both were asked to proceed.

Perhaps there was a followup exchange in which Wright wrote to Brad, “Oops, forgot to ask, as I always do: Will this involvement preclude you writing an objective review?” But if there wasn’t, then Wright lied again. One can’t help suspecting that Wright did not expect his actual email exchange to be published.

In Darren Sherkat’s report on the journal’s review process, incidentally, he wrote:

Two of the reviewers indicated that they had a potential conflict of interest related to consulting on the Regnerus paper but both averred that this consulting relationship would not preclude an objective, critical assessment.

If this is supposed to be a description of the Wright-Wilcox exchange Straight Grandmother has published, then it also appears not to be true — Wilcox didn’t tell that particular lie. I don’t know the source of Sherkat’s information on that point, but it might well just be Wright’s say-so.

The shifting boilerplate

I don’t know the content of all of Wright’s requests to reviewers, or what he “always” asks, but I have some circumstantial evidence. A review request that Wright sent to someone I know the same month as the Regnerus paper is identical to the one Straight Grandmother published to Wilcox, except for the part about the summer report and the quick turnaround. So that appears to have been a form letter (the typos match as well). In that letter, Wright says SSR has single-blind reviews because:

…we feel it is important to give our reviewers an opportunity to be forthcoming about potential bias prior to rendering a critique or decline to review for fear of compromising professional ties with the authors.

It doesn’t ask them whether anything “precluded their writing an objective review.” However, the boilerplate seems to have changed. The last review request I received, in early 2013, included a passage that is not in the email he sent to Wilcox or my informant:

Agreeing to review a paper for this or any journal is simultaneously an affirmation  that you harbor no conflicts of interest or past or current relationships with the author(s) that would preclude you from writing an honest, objective critique.  If this is not the case, our assumption is that you will decline to do the review.

So I guess Wright might say that he “always” asks this now, but it does not appear that he asked it of Wilcox (at least in the documents we have). Maybe he’s improving his practice. Maybe he’s covering his bases.

So, some of you may still be reviewing for James Wright at Social Science Research, or sending your papers to him. My question is, Why?

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