Tag Archives: national marriage project

Who are you gonna marry? That one big assumption marriage promotion gets totally wrong

First preamble, then new analysis.

One critique of the marriage promotion movement is that it ignores the problem of available spouses, especially for Black women. Joanna Pepin and I addressed this with an analysis of marriage markets in this paper. White women ages 20-45, who are more than twice as likely to marry as Black women, live in metro areas with an average of 118 unmarried White men per 100 unmarried White women. Black women, on the other hand, face markets with only 78 single men per 100 single women. This is one reason for the difference in marriage rates; given very low rates of intermarriage, especially for Black women, some women essentially can’t marry.

But surely some people are still passing up potential marriages, or so the marriage promoters would have us believe, and in so doing they undermine their own futures and those of their children. Even if you can get past the sex ratio problem, you still have the issue of the benefits of marriage. Of course married people, and their kids, are better off on average. (There are great methodological lessons to be learned from their big lie use of this fact.) But who gets those benefits? The intellectual water-carriers of the movement, principally Brad Wilcox and his co-authors, always describe the benefits of increasing marriage as if the next marriage to occur will provide the same benefits as the average existing marriage. I wrote about how this wrong in Enduring Bonds:

The idea that the “benefits” of marriage—that is, the observed association between marriage and nonpoverty—would accrue to single mothers if they “simply” married their current partners is bonkers. The notion of a “marriage market” is not perfect, but there is something like a marriage queue that arranges people from most likely to least likely to marry. When you say, “Married people are better off than single people,” a big part of what you’re observing is that, on average, the richer, healthier, better-at-relationships people are at the front of that queue, more likely to marry and then to display what look like the benefits of marriage. Those at the back of the queue, who are more (if not totally) “unmarriageable,” clearly aren’t going to have those highly beneficial marriages if they “simply” marry the closest person.

In fact, I assume this problem has gotten worse as marriage has become more selective, as “it’s increasingly the most well off who are getting and staying married,” and those who aren’t marrying “may not have the assets that lead to marriage benefits: skills, wealth, social networks, and so on.”

Note on race

People who promote marriage don’t like to talk about race, but if it weren’t for race — and racism — they would never have gotten as far as they have in selling their agenda. They use supposedly race-neutral language to talk about fatherhood and a “culture of marriage” and “sustainably escaping poverty,” in ways that are all highly relevant to Black families and racial disparities. If you think the problem of marriage is that poor people are not marrying enough, you should not avoid the fact that you’re talking about race. Black women, especially mothers, are much less likely to be married than most other groups of women, even at the same level of income or education (last I checked Black college graduates were 5-times more likely than White college graduates to be single when they had a baby). So, don’t avoid that this is about race, own it  — the demographic facts and political machinations in this area are all highly interwoven with race. I do this analysis, like the paper Joanna and I did, separately for Black and White women, because that’s the main faultline in this area. The code I share below is adaptable to use with other groups as well.

Data illustration

In this data exercise I try to operationalize something like that marriage market queue, to show that women who are least likely to marry are also least likely to enter an economically beneficial marriage if they did marry. See how you like this, and let me know what you think. Or take the data and code and come up with a different way of doing it.

The logic is to take a sample of never-married women, and women who just got married in the last year, and predict membership in the latter group. This generates a predicted probability of marrying for each woman, and it means I can look at the never-married women and see which among them are more or less likely to marry in a given year. For example, based on the models below, I would estimate that a Black woman under age 25, with less than a BA degree, who had a job with less-than-average earnings, has a 0.4% probability of marrying in one year. On the other hand, if she were age 25+, with a BA degree and above-average earnings, her chance of marrying rises to 3.5% per year. (Round numbers.)*

Next, I look at the husbands of women who married men in the year prior to the survey, and I assign them economic scores on an 11-point scale (this is totally arbitrary): up to four points for education, up to four points for earnings, and up to three points for employment level (weeks and hours worked in the previous year). So, a woman whose husband has a high school education, earned $30,000 last year, and worked full-time, year-round, would have 7 points.

Finally, I show the relationship between the odds of marriage for women who didn’t get married and the economic score of the men they would have married if they did.

There are two descriptive conclusions, which I assumed I would find: (1) women who get married marry men with better economic scores than the women who don’t get married would if they did get married; and, (2) the greater the odds of marriage, the better the economic prospects of the man they would marry. The substantive conclusion from this is that marriage promotion, if it could get more people to marry, would pull from the women on the lower rungs of marriage probability, so those new marriages would be less economically beneficial than the average marriage, and the use of married people’s characteristics to project the benefits of marriage for unmarried people is wrong. Like I said, I already believed this, so this is a way of confirming it or showing the extent to which it fits my expectations. (Or, I could be wrong.)

Here are the details.

I use the 2012-2016 five-year American Community Survey data from IPUMS.org (for larger sample). The sample is women ages 18-44, not living in group quarters, single-race Black or White, non-Hispanic, and US-born. I further limited the sample to those who never married, and those who are married for the first time in the previous 12 months. That condition — just married — is the dependent variable in a model predicting odds of first marriage. (Women with female spouses or partners are excluded, too.) The variables used to predict marriage are age (and its square), education, earnings in the previous year (logged), and having no earnings in the previous year (these women are most likely to marry), disability status, metro area residence, and state dummy variables. It’s a simple model, not trying for statistical efficiency but rather the best prediction of marriage odds. Then I use the same set of variables, limiting the analysis to just-married women, to predict their husbands’ economic scores. The regression models are in a table at the end.**

Figure 1 shows how the prediction models assign marriage probabilities. White women have much higher odds of marrying, and those who married have higher odds than those who didn’t, which is reassuring. In particular, a large proportion of never-married Black women are predicted to have very low odds of marrying (click to enlarge).

f1

Figure 2 shows the distribution of husbands’ economic scores for Black and White women who married and those who didn’t. The women who didn’t marry have lower predicted husband scores, with the model giving them husbands with a mode of about 7.0 for Whites and 6.5 for Blacks (click to enlarge).

f2

Finally, the last figure includes only never-married women. It shows the relationship between predicted marriage probability and predicted husband score, using median splines. So, for example, the average unmarried Black woman has a marriage probability of about 1.7%. Figure 3 shows that her predicted husband would have a median score of about 6.4. So he could be a full-time, full-year worker with a high school education, earning $19,000 per year, which would not be enough to lift her and one child out of poverty. The average never-married White woman has a predicted marriage probability of 5.1%, and her imaginary husband has a score of about 7.4 (e.g., a similar husband, but earning $25,000 per year).

f3

Figure 3 implies  what I thought was obvious at the beginning: the further down the marriage market queue you go, the worse the economic prospects of the men they would marry, if there were men for them to marry (whom they wanted to marry, and who wanted to marry them).

I will now be holding my breath while marriage promotion activists develop a more sensible set of assumptions for their assessment of the benefits of the promoted marriages they assure us they will be able to conjure if only we give them a few billion more dollars.

I’m posting the data and code used on the Open Science Framework, here. Please feel free to work with it and let me know what you come up with!


* This looks pretty similar to what Dohoon Lee did in this paper, including his figures, and since I was on his dissertation committee, and read his paper, which has similar figures, I credit him with this idea — I should have remembered earlier.

** Here are the regression models used to (1) predict marriage, and then (2) predict husband’s economic scores.

marriage models.xlsx

 

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No, early marriage is not more common for college graduates

Update: IFS has taken down the report I critiqued here, and put up a revised report. They have added an editor’s note, which doesn’t mention me or link to this post:

Editor’s Note: This post is an update of a post published on March 14, 2018. The original post looked at marriage trends by education among all adults under age 25. It gave the misimpression that college graduates were more likely to be married young nowadays, compared to non-college graduates.


At the Institute for Family Studies, Director of Research Wendy Wang has a post up with the provocative title, “Early Marriage is Now More Common For College Graduates” (linking to the Internet Archive version).

She opens with this:

Getting married at a young age used to be more common among adults who didn’t go to college. But the pattern has reversed in the past decade or so. In 2016, 9.4% of college graduates ages 18 to 24 have ever been married, which is higher than the share among their peers without a college degree (7.9%), according to my analysis of the most recent Census data.

And then the dramatic conclusion:

“What this finding shows is that even at a young age, college-educated adults today are more likely than their peers without a college degree to be married. And this is new.”

That would be new, and surprising, if it were true, but it’s not.

Here’s the figure that supports the conclusion:

figure1wendyupdate-w640

It shows that 9.4% of college graduates in the age range 18-24 have been married, compared with 7.9% of those who did not graduate from college. (The drop has been faster for non-graduates, but I’m setting aside the time trend for now.) Honestly, I guess you could say, based on this, that young college graduates are more likely than non-graduates to “be married,” but not really.

The problem is there are very very few college graduates in the ages 18-19. The American Community Survey, which they used here, reports only about 12,000 in the whole country, compared with 8.7 million people without college degrees ages 18-19 (this is based on the public use files that IPUMS.org uses; which is what I use in the analysis below). Wow! There are lots and lots of non-college graduates below age 20 (including almost everyone who will one day be a college graduate!), and very few of them are married. So it looks like the marriage rate is low for the group 18-24 overall. Here is the breakdown by age and marital status for the two groups: less than BA education, and BA or higher education — on the same population scale, to help illustrate the point:

ifs1ifs2

If you pool all the years together, you get a higher marriage rate for the college graduates, mostly because there are so few college graduates in the younger ages when hardly anyone is married.

To show the whole thing in terms of marriage rates, here is the marital status for the two groups at every age from 15 (when ACS starts asking about marital status) to 54.

ifs3

Ignoring 19-21, where there are a tiny number of college graduates, you see a much more sensible pattern: college graduates delay marriage longer, but then have higher rates at older ages (starting at age 28), for all the reasons we know marriage is ultimately more common among college graduates. In fact, if you used ages 15-24 (why not?), you get an even bigger difference — with 9.4% of college graduates married and just 5.7% of non-college graduates. Why not? In fact, what about ages 0-24? It would make almost as much sense.

Another way to do this is just to look at 24-year-olds. Since we’re talking about the ever-married status, and mortality is low at these ages, this is a case where the history is implied in the cross-sectional data. At age 24, as the figure shows, 19.9% of non-college graduates have been married, compared with 12.9% of college graduates. Early marriage is not more common for college graduates.

In general, I don’t recommend comparing college graduates and non-graduates, at least in cross-sectional data, below age 25. Lots of people finishing college below age 25 (and increasingly after that age as well). There is also an important issue of endogeneity here, which always makes education and age analysis tricky. Some people (mostly women) don’t finish college because they get married and have children).

Anyway, it looks to me like someone working for a pro-marriage organization saw what seemed like a story implying marriage is good (that’s why college graduates do it, after all), and one that also fits with the do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do criticism of liberals, who are supposedly not promoting marriage among poor people while they themselves love to get married (a critique made by Charles Murray, Brad Wilcox, and others). And, before thinking it through, they published it.

Mistakes happen. Fortunately, I dislike the Institute for Family Studies (see the whole series under this tag), and so I read it and pointed out this problem within a couple hours (first on Twitter, less than two hours after Wang tweeted it). It’s a social media post-publication peer review success story! If they correct it.

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The new Wilcox thing is complete bologna and/or just dishonest

Update: after Wilcox updated his report with the complete data, I now conclude the report is just dishonest, not complete bologna. See below. 

Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Zill have a new report on Brad’s Institute for Family Studies website, about Arizona: “Stronger Families, Better Schools: Families and High School Graduation Across Arizona.” It bears a strong resemblance to a previous report, about Florida, “Strong Families, Successful Schools: High School Graduation and School Discipline in the Sunshine State.” Together these two give you a feeling like taking the first two bites of a leftover giant burrito that might have gone a little bad, and realizing there are probably about 48 more bites to go.

Anyway, this is about the Arizona one. I’ll first raise the possibility that it’s complete bologna – as in, fraudulent or error-ridden – and then discuss how it’s conclusions are dishonest at best even if the analysis is not technically wrong but rather just presented terribly.

Update: with the report corrected to show the complete data, the analysis now replicates fine. So I set aside the bologna issue. I leave this section here just so you can see the research design, but the main argument is in the next section.

First, the bologna issue

The report uses demographic data from 99 Arizona school districts to model graduation rates, and the gender gap in graduation rates. Their conclusion, based on two regression models using districts as the units of analysis and demographic indicators as the predictors, is this:

In Arizona, public school districts with better-educated and more married parents boast higher high school graduation rates. Gender equity is also greater in districts with more married parents. That is, boys come closer to matching the high school graduation rates of girls in districts with more married-parent families. Moreover, married parenthood is a better predictor of these two high school graduation outcomes than are child poverty, race, and ethnicity in public school districts across the Grand Canyon state.

To pad out the report, they also include appendix tables, so it’s theoretically possible to replicate their regressions. Unfortunately, unless I’m missing something, they don’t replicate. I wouldn’t normally bother rerunning someone’s regression, especially when the argument they’re building is so wrong-headed (see below), but just because we know from long experience that Wilcox does not behave honestly (in methods, ethics, and ethics) what the heck.

The report says, “Graduation rates and male/female graduation ratios for the 99 Arizona school districts in our study are shown in Table A1 in the Appendix.” Table A2 then lists the districts again, with the demographic variables. Unfortunately, table A2 only includes 83 districts – and the 16 missing are exactly those from Indian-Oasis to Paradise Valley in the alphabetical list of district names, so apparently an error handling the data. So I could only use 83 of the 99 for the regressions. Since I don’t know when they lost those 16 districts, I don’t know if it was before or after running the regressions (there are no Ns or standard errors on their regression tables).

For each of their dependent variables – graduation rate, and the male/female ratio in graduation rates – they list bivariate correlations, and adjusted betas from as multivariate regression. Here are their figures, with mine next to them. The key differences are highlighted:

aztab

If they’re using 99 cases and I have 83 (actually 81 for the gender cap because of missing data), you would expect some difference. But these are very similar, including the bivariate correlations and the R-squareds for the models.

The weird thing is that the biggest difference is exactly on their biggest claim: “married parenthood is a better predictor of these two high school graduation outcomes than are child poverty, race, and ethnicity…” That is based on the assertion that .29 is larger than -.28 (very luck for them, that tiny, insignificant difference in  magnitude!). In my model the minority-size effect is more than twice as large as the marriage-parenthood effect. So, huh. It’s definitely possible Brad simply lied about his results and made up a few numbers. (And I’m just using the data they include in the report.) But now let’s pretend he didn’t.

Update: with the complete data I can report that those two betas are actually .2865 (.29!) versu .2847 (.28!). The idea that one is a “better” predictor than the other is clearly not serious. Further, for some reason (we can only guess), they combined percent Black, Hispanic, and American Indian together into “minority,” which produced the .28 result. If they had entered them into the model separately, they would find that Hispanic and American Indian effects are each bigger than the married parent effect, as I show here:


So much for the headline result. Anyway, back to the argument…

Policy, shmolicy

The point of the analysis is to make policy recommendations. They conclude:

If the state enjoyed more stable families, it might also see better educational outcomes among its children. It’s for that reason that Arizona should consider measures designed to strengthen and stabilize families.

Their recommendations to that end are vocational education and marriage promotion.

Private and public initiatives to provide social marketing on behalf of marriage could prove helpful. Campaigns against smoking and teenage pregnancy have taught us that sustained efforts to change behavior can work.

First, I’m not an education specialist (and neither are they), but shouldn’t there be some kind of policy variables in this analysis, like per-pupil spending, or teacher salaries, or something about curriculum or programming? It’s unusual to use only demographic variables and then conclude that what we need is a policy to change the demographics. It’s just not a serious analysis. (Please also please remember that “controlling for income” is not an adequate control for economic conditions and status.)

But second, given the first billion dollars of money spent promoting marriage produced absolutely no increase in marriage, is there any possible way Brad legitimately thinks this is the best way to improve graduation rates?

These are just two ideas. More should be explored. The bottom line: policymakers, educators, business leaders, and religious leaders in Arizona need to address the fragile foundations of family life if they hope for the state’s children to lead the nation in academic achievement.

Does this report really support that “bottom line”? Would it be better to spend money promoting marriage than to spend the same amount of money on some effort to improve schools? That’s obviously a dumb idea, but is it possible he really believes it? These are the only policies proposed. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt he believes it. I think he wants to promote marriage promotion programs for other reasons: to fund him and his compatriots, to support pro-marriage ideology, and so on. Not to improve graduate rates in Arizona schools. But, maybe I’m wrong.

And a laptop

I think what Brad is really doing is noise noise statistics statistics marriage-is-good expertise trust me fund me. The details clearly aren’t that important.

Meanwhile, not coincidentally, things are looking up for Brad at the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), the organization he created to handle the foundation-money rake. He started in 2011 as president / director of IFS at a salary of $35,000. After paying himself a paltry $9,999 and in 2012, he started improving his productivity, paying himself $50,000 in 2013, and then $80,400 in 2014 as a Senior Fellow, the last year for which I found a 990 form. Much of that money is coming from the Bradley Foundation (which also funded the Regnerus/Wilcox study) — their 2015 report lists $75,000 for IFS, so projections are good for next year. This is, of course, on top of what he gets for his service to the public at the University of Virginia.

The IFS disclosure forms also show purchase of a MacBook Pro. Which might or might not have been for Brad.

bradslaptop

I do not make this case, and make it personally, because I disagree with Brad about politics. There are lots of people I disagree with even more than him, and I don’t spend all day criticizing them. The dishonesty offends me because it’s work and issues I care about, it hurts real people, I’m well situated to expose it, and his corporate-Christian-right megaphone is big, so it shouldn’t go unchallenged.

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A party like it’s 2014 (marriage equality edition)

My question for Marco Rubio is, what are you going to do about this gay marriage you are still so against?

In his closing statement at last night’s debate, Marco Rubio said,

Our culture’s in trouble. Wrong is now considered right, and right is considered wrong. All the things that once held our families together are under constant assault. … If you elect me president we are going to re-embrace free enterprise, so that everyone can go as far as their talent and their work will take them. We are going to be a country that says that life begins at conception, and life is worthy of the protection of our laws. We’re gonna be a country that says that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Here it is:

This wrong-right thing is not exactly specified, but in context it clearly refers to abortion and gay marriage — so wrong, but not “considered right.”

What does it mean to say, “We’re gonna be a country that says that marriage is between one man and woman”? What does a country say? Does anyone really listen to what these people say?

Yes, they do. Because as of the morning of yesterday’s debate Rubio has a Marriage & Family Advisory Board to make sure that his words have meaning, and that right returns to right, while wrong is again returned to its proper place: hidden, shamed, and reviled.

Here’s the charge of the board:

This morning, the Marco Rubio for President campaign is excited to announce the formation of Marco Rubio’s Marriage & Family Advisory Board. Marco believes the family is the most important institution in society. He understands that in a vibrant culture of marriage and family everyone benefits, but in a culture where the importance of families is neglected all sorts of problems result. You cannot have a strong nation without strong people, and you cannot have strong people without strong values. Right and wrong. Good and bad. That is learned from your values instilled in you in the family. It is irreplaceable.

Strong statements for strong times. (In fact, you cannot have strong times without strong statements.) These are the board’s members:

  • Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
  • Joseph Backholm, Executive Director, Family Policy Institute of Washington
  • Ambassador Ken Blackwell, Senior Fellow, Family Research Council
  • David S. Dockery, President, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
  • Sherif Girgis, J.D./Ph.D. candidate, Yale Law & Princeton
  • Alan Hawkins, Ph.D., Professor, Brigham Young University
  • Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow, Manhattan Institute
  • Jonathan Keller, CEO, California Family Council
  • Caitlin La Ruffa, Executive Director, Love and Fidelity Network
  • Robert Lerman, Emeritus Professor of Economics, American University
  • Everett Piper, Ph.D., President, Oklahoma Wesleyan University\
  • Bill Wichterman, former special assistant to President George W. Bush
  • Bradford Wilcox, Senior Fellow, Institute for Family Studies & Visiting Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

I wish the Republicans would debate this a little more seriously. Ted Cruz has proposed a Constitutional amendment, Jeb Bush and John Kasich have complained about marriage equality but not argued for overturning it, Trump says he opposes marriage equality but doesn’t really care. So what’s Rubio’s plan. Either you think it can be reversed, which is dumb, or you’re just attacking gays and lesbians as “wrong,” which is mean.

On Rubio’s board, Wilcox, Lerman, Hawkins, and Hymowitz are Family Inequality regulars. Of course he doesn’t really need policy advice at this point in the campaign, so this is just about signaling — it’s Rubio showing donors the direction he’s taking, and it’s these people deciding to put their names on his campaign. (Somehow, though, I’m sure they will also still be able to describe themselves as “non-partisan,” because wrong is now right.) It’s also the first time I know of that Wilcox has publicly opposed marriage equality, which is a promising turn in his maturation as a partisan hack.

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Marriage promotion snake oil tour

W. Bradford Wilcox is in Oklahoma today, lecturing on the benefits of marriage promotion for an anti-abortion activist group. His speech was previewed in an op-ed in the Oklahoman. (It’s fitting that this comes up the day after my post about promoting your research — I never said your research was good.)

Just briefly, here are two of the claims, with the QBD™ (QuickBradDebunk).

He wrote:

“Strong Families, Prosperous States,” a report I recently coauthored, found that states with more families headed by married parents enjoyed significantly higher levels of economic growth, family median income, and less child poverty, compared with states with fewer married-parent families. Indeed, if Oklahoma enjoyed its 1980-levels of married parenthood, its per capita GDP would be 2.5 percent higher, its median family income would be 5.6 percent higher, and its child poverty rate would be 8.5 percent lower.

Indeed. I wrote about that deeply ridiculous report in this post last fall. This just adds a wrinkle. Even if that research were reasonable, which it definitely isn’t, this kind of statement is completely misleading. It’s fine to illustrate a regression coefficient with a statement about the magnitude of the coefficient, as in, “for every year of history, net of other factors, the marriage rate declined X%.” But when you’re describing a trend over time it is not reasonable to say that rolling back a single variable would actually create that effect. Nothing really works that way, and any statement isolating a regression coefficient like that needs to make explicit that it is a counterfactual illustration of an effect size, not an actual statement about what “would” happen.

More extremely fraudulent, however, is this one:

The state should continue supporting the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The initiative is one of the bright spots on the state’s family landscape, as its programs have been shown to increase the quality and stability of family life among lower-income Sooner families. Indeed, one study found that OMI was responsible for a 3-percentage-point increase in the share of Sooner children living with two parents.

Indeed. Thorough research on this marriage promotion program puts the lie to this exaggeration. Yes, some of the local results from this program showed very small relationship improvements to program participants. These results did not include increases in marriage, which is what most people think of when a “marriage scholar” (from the headline of the piece) refers to “quality and stability of family life.” And readers can be excused for thinking he was talking about marriage if they read the next sentence, which refers to an increase in “the share of Sooner children living with two parents.”

That last claim is unsourced, but I think it might come from the study that I debunked here. They found that states with higher marriage promotion funding, in some years, had a higher proportion of children living with two parents. Wow. Except when they removed Washington, D.C. the effect was gone. I’m not kidding about this; it’s all in the post. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that is where he gets the claim that marriage promotion worked in Oklahoma. (Read all about Oklahoma’s marriage promotion program in Melanie Heath’s excellent book, One Marriage Under God.)

In any event, this certainly doesn’t reflect what actually happened in Oklahoma, which is that the proportion of families with children headed by married couples continued to fall throughout the marriage promotion period, actually declining faster than the national average. Here are the trends, using data from the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org.

wbwok-fig2

Wilcox may have some legalistic defense of this claim. But he knows that it is not true, and that it will be misunderstood and misused by his credulous audience. In fact, based on the template of this op-ed, Wilcox could literally go to every state and tell them that marriage promotion increased the rate at which children live with two parents, because every state had greater-than-zero funding. Even as marriage has declined in every state. Regression!

Such a tour would not be unprecedented in America, of course. The original snake oil salesmen took something that was actually good — the fatty oils used by Chinese immigrants — and turned it into a bogus miracle cure peddled by American hucksters to gullible consumers. This is the modern bureaucratic update to that hoax, funded with more than a billion dollars of welfare money and peddled through think tanks and academic journals.

Marriage promotion does not die, it is undead, requiring none of the material sustenance upon which mortal movements rely (such as facts or evidence of effectiveness). Lakshmi Gandhi’s piece on snake oil is fitting:

playwright Eugene O’Neill referred to snake oil in his 1956 play The Iceman Cometh, when a character suggested that a rival was “standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there’s nothing like snake oil for a bad burn.”

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That time when your research is used to justify ripping a baby from the arms of its loving adoptive parents

UPDATE: Judge Johansen has rescinded his order

Brad Wilcox and Mark Regnerus lost in their attempt to turn the federal courts against marriage equality. The work they did culminated in a paper published under Regnerus’s name, and Regnerus is the name most associated with its bogusness, but it was Wilcox who led the effort to raise the money (some of which he kept), helped direct the study, and weaseled it into the journal by serving as a peer reviewer for its publication. (Two subsequent studies reanalyzed the Wilcox/Regnerus data, and thoroughly debunked its results — here and here; you can get the full story by following the links in this post.)

Although they failed in their quest to affect the Supreme Court, their work lives on in the very small, evil minds of anti-gay fanatics around the world, who continuously cite the original paper. One of those men is Judge Scott Johansen, a juvenile court judge in Carbon County, Utah (the state’s seventh district), who has cited unspecified “research” to justify his decision to take a one-year-old baby from the home of Beckie Peirce and April Hoagland, a married lesbian couple who are the child’s foster parents. With the approval of the baby’s biological mother and child welfare authorities — who did the routine thorough investigation and vetting that all adoptive parents (including me) have endured — the two were moving ahead with plans to legally adopt the baby when Johansen, a law graduate of the Mormon Brigham Young University, handed down his decision. The decision is set to take effect next Tuesday (November 17). His decision is not public, but he told the couple his own research showed it was better for children to be raised by a heterosexual couple. We don’t need to ask what research he has in mind.

Legal efforts continue, and officials — including the governor of Utah — have asked the judge to reconsider.

If your research was used like this, what would you do?

So, this is the point of all the work Wilcox and Regnerus did. We must assume they wanted exactly this decision, but on a much larger scale; they wanted same-sex couples to be denied the right to adopt children, and children to be denied the right to have married gay and lesbian parents. They would apparently rather see a one-year-old child who has spent three months with a loving family ripped from that family rather than face the fate of having lesbian parents.

If I’m wrong, and I would be especially happy to be wrong in this case, then Wilcox and Regnerus should be the first experts lining up to convince Judge Johansen that he’s making a mistake, that the actual well-being of the child, and the civil rights of its parents, should come before slavish devotion to religious dogma. In fact, speaking up right now might actually do some good.

Wilcox has gone out of his way to sing the praises of the “deep normative and religious commitments to marriage and to raising children within marriage” in Utah specifically. But he doesn’t comment on this aspect of Utah’s holiness — the deep commitment that has led the Mormon church to announce a wretched, hateful policy under which it will not bless or baptize the children of gay and lesbian couples unless they denounce their parents.

Now might be a good time for Wilcox’s sham Institute for Family Studies — which has yet to ever use the words “lesbian,” “gay,” or “homosexual” on its web pages — to break its silence and take a stand for children and family well-being.

I’ll be holding my breath.

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Marriage matters

A critical post describes me this way: “progressives, like sociologist Philip Cohen, who seek to minimize or deny the importance of family structure.” It’s not an accurate way to frame this debate. The question is much more about goals. If your goal is reducing child poverty, for example, we know how to do that, more or less — something like giving their parents money. But the ostensible goal of the marriage promotion people is increasing marriage because they believe there are things that come from marriage that are both good and not producible through any other means. I say ostensible because, given the obvious futility of all marriage promotion policies, one must suspect other motives as well. (Some of those motives are religious, of course, but I set those aside for now).

No doubt there are some things that only marriage can truly provide to children under present conditions. But that doesn’t imply a particular policy goal, much less a specific approach. I have a few problems with assuming we need more marriage.

What’s wrong with that?

Demographic barriers. First, not everyone can be married, or have married parents, no matter what we do with policy. So we need to figure out how to minimize the harms associated with not being married anyway. The steeper the penalty for non-marriage (what most people call the benefits of marriage) the less we are responding to the needs of people who suffer not only the losses that flow from non-marriage, but also the deficits that cause non-marriage.

This is one thing that’s so powerful about Chinese history for me — as told by Lee and Wang — in which marriage was absolutely essential for social success and also mathematically denied to a large portion of the population (because of female infanticide and polygyny). In that case you’d find a very strong benefit to marriage — in a system of marriage that exacted tremendous costs. If we have a strong marriage benefit (that is, non-marriage penalty) we have the same situation as feudal China. The demography of inequality means lots of people can’t be married. Here are the sex ratios for non-Hispanic Blacks and Whites by age (this is the whole U.S. population, not just single people, or people who aren’t in prison):

black white sex ratio.xlsx

This is just an example of a demographic dead end for marriage promoters. What’s the plan? The plan is that some large portion of poor and/or Black women — because of circumstances beyond their control — should not have children. (In their heart of hearts, they believe they shouldn’t have sex at all, but that’s not spoken in polite circles.) Life is hard. Try going to church instead.

Marriage is bad, too. Second, marriage also causes harms. This should be obvious, but I guess in a society where people are so ready to believe that racial discrimination isn’t a problem anymore or that women have actually overturned patriarchy, we have to keep pointing that out. The married-couple family is still an extremely dangerous place for a lot of people — mostly women and children — whose abuse and exploitation is made more difficult to root out the more we make marriage an exalted status and indicator of social competence. It’s not an accident that marital rape was protected by law for all those centuries — the men who did it were (are) engaged in the successful performance of admirable patriarchal roles.

Outside of violent rape and abuse, there are also lots of people who aren’t happy in their marriages, or who don’t want to be married at all. In 1960, 94% of women were married before reaching age 40. Now that number is 78%. You know if 94% of people were married a lot of them weren’t happy. So, what’s the right number, marriage promoters? Is 78% participation in your favorite institution too low? To the people who aren’t happy in marriage, or don’t want to be married, the marriage promoters offer two choices: be celibate, or shame on you. (Actually, there is a third choice: date night!) For people who want to have children, too, their offer is to punish your children by withholding a child tax credit.

Signification. Third, the more we support marriage through politics, policy, and “the culture,” the more we increase its value as a conformity signifier, the more we constrain people’s family options — and that exacerbates the non-marriage penalty, which starts to look like other penalties people dole out for non-conformity, like gender non-conformity for example, or employer discrimination in favor of married men.

Bologna. Fourth — and less important, given the first three — of course there is no evidence that policy can increase marriage in any meaningful way, making the whole exercise deeply cynical. It’s largely a conversation between people validating the importance of marriage in their own social (and political and religious) circles, rather than a serious attempt to reverse the course of modern demographic evolution.

Marriage, advantage

I have been dealing with the paradox of marriage advantages for many years. Here’s a little greatest-hits history on this argument, with links. (I’m assembling this material for a book project anyway).

In a 2001 review of Linda Waite et al.’s edited volume, The Ties That Bind, I wrote, in reference to a chapter by Paula England, who influenced me fundamentally:

England paraphrases a quip about another tie that binds — capitalism — when she says, “The only thing worse than being dominated by a husband is not being dominated by a husband.” Given that women in the United States still have children, and are still largely responsible for their care, and given that men still dominate economically, married mothers and their children are advantaged.

So, what to do? Here’s me on Huffington Post in 2009:

…when a condition … yields benefits compared to being in some other condition — that also means it contributes to inequality. That’s because not everyone gets to experience it. If children of married couples are more likely to finish high school than those who grow up with single mothers, for example, then there is inequality between those two groups. One policy approach to that inequality is to make the condition more common — for example, encourage or coerce people to marry (or discourage people from having children when single). Another approach is to improve outcomes for people in the disadvantaged group. For example, because resource scarcity is a big part of the problem for single-parent families, we could support a public school system that educates all children effectively, or provide income support to poor families.

I carried on that argument in 2011, writing:

It’s obvious empirically that adults and children in married-couple families, on average, are doing better on many measures than those not in such families. The logical problem is when people conclude from this pattern that the obvious response is to “strengthen marriage and family life.” But, why not try to reduce that disparity instead? This is the logical equivalent of the Republican mantra that “We don’t have a revenue problem in Washington; we have a spending problem.” That’s only true if you’re doing one-handed math.

I made the case more formally in this 2014 chapter, responding to a paper by Sara McLanahan:

Cross-sectional comparisons show that children of married parents are less likely to suffer material deprivation. To reduce hardships for children, therefore, some analysts advocate policies that would increase marriage rates. I argue that alternative approaches offer more chance of success: increasing education levels and reducing the penalty for single parenthood.

And I concluded:

The rise of women’s independence, along with the decline in marriage and fertility, are interrelated parts of modern social development. And the overall consequence of these trends must be deemed positive – as life expectancies have increased, absolute poverty has decreased, and gender inequality has receded. The delay in age at marriage and the extension of divorce rights have no doubt prevented or ended many unhappy or unsafe marriages, even as they have carried risks. But the advocates for marriage offer no attempt to specify the ideal marriage rate. How are we to know that the decline in marriage has gone too far? The unwavering advocacy for more marriage, in the face of its continued inefficacy and impracticality, dissolves into ideology and distracts from the important challenges we face in attempting to improve the quality of life for poor families and their children.

Finally, I also addressed the contribution of marriage trends to economic inequality:

Falling marriage does contribute to rising inequality in the USA, because of how it’s manifesting: increasing selectivity in marriage, so that richer people are getting and staying married more; and increasing social class endogamy, so that there are more two-high-income families lording over more one-low-income families. And all of that is exacerbated by widening underlying inequality, with high-end incomes pulling away from low-end incomes, relatively unchecked by income redistribution.

One obvious solution is to take money away from married high-income people and give it to single low-income people. With all the benefits that married people get — many of them through no special effort of their own, but rather as a result of their social status at birth, race, health, good looks, legal perks, or lucky breaks — it seems reasonable to tax marriage, like a windfall profits tax, or an inheritance tax, or a progressive income tax. But, if you’re squeamish about taxing something “good” like marriage, then just taxing wealth a little more would accomplish much the same thing. This elegant solution would decrease inequality, increase well-being for poor people, and equalize life chances for children (who are the future, I believe). In other words, it’s out of the question.

Far from minimizing or denying the importance of family structure, I have written about it extensively — and argued we should find ways to reduce it.  On the other hand, marriage promotion as an approach to poverty and inequality is both completely ineffective at achieving its goals and harmful in other ways.

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