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


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.”

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.

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.

I knew that marriage-is-good-for-the-economy thing sounded familiar

When I wrote the other day about Brad Wilcox’s “Strong Families, Prosperous States” report, I forgot about a conceptually similar foundation-money spoof he produced four years ago which claimed, among other things, that “Strong, sustainable families pay long-term dividends to the entire economy.” (It was part of a report that included such recommendations as “Clean up the culture” and “Respect the role of religion as a pronatal force.”)

One of the conclusions of Wilcox’s new report is that states with more married couples have higher household income than states with fewer married couples. Hm. I realize now that’s building on the report he wrote four years ago, basically saying that marriage makes households spend more, so Proctor and Gamble is excellent. I wrote about it here, but hardly any of you were reading back then, so here is an edited rehash:

Farce or fraud?

Did you know that married couples with children spend 50-times more on childcare than single adults without children? Well, if you didn’t you might not realize how good marriage is for “the economy.”

Brad Wilcox and Kathryn Sharpe have a contribution in the Bradley Foundation-funded report, “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend,” which aims to describe the benefits of marriage for the economy.

What they do is produce a simple table showing that married-couple-with-children households spend more on various things than single-childless households. If you’re thinking, “but there are more people in married-couple-with-children households,” then you may already have done more thinking than the report’s authors.

To explain why this spending pattern occurs, they offer several reasons, the first of which is “household size.” Wait — you’re still thinking — if household size explains the difference in spending, then it’s not a difference in spending, it’s a difference in accounting, just pooling the spending of several people and calling it a spending increase. So how does this help “the economy”? Believe it or not, this is their reasoning:

To serve the needs of all the adults and children in their homes, they are more likely to buy many brands in bulk, from Bounty to Tide, and to fill their shopping carts at the local grocery store.

I must be doing something wrong, because I thought I spent less in the end when I bought in bulk. (But then again, I’m apparently not as good at raising money from giant foundations, either.)

The data abused in this report are from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, which is the authoritative source on household spending in the U.S. It’s something I’ve used before to study household spending (here and here). And if you use it, all I can say in a sentence is: you better account for household size, since all the spending is reported for households, not individuals.

To illustrate this, I did a simple manipulation of the data in Wilcox and Sharpe’s report. They list average spending on specific categories for households according to family structure. Yes, households. Here is a taste of the table:


This shows, for example, that single-childless households average a paltry $1.40 per week on cereal, compared with a robust economic contribution of $4.44 for married-with-children households. This doesn’t just mean children are good for “the economy,” because single parents spend only $2.86. So spouses are good for “the economy” too.

Or, maybe this just means people eat cereal.

I took the data from their list and compared married-with-children households to the sum of single-childless and single-parent households. On average, if every adult buys one beer a day, and every child buys one glass of milk, then the level of spending in married-with-children households should be the same as the sum of spending in single-childless plus single-parent households (if they have the same number of children). This is not serious consumer science, but it’s appropriate for a blog-scale debunking. And the results:

This graph is for weekly expenses on small consumer items;* the graph for bigger ticket items looks about the same. If the dots fell along the dotted line, my beer-and-milk hypothesis would be supported. It’s pretty close — but tipping a little the way you would expect it to — toward bigger households spending less, since they have economies of scale (“buying in bulk”).

Anyway, the analysis is junk. But the more interesting question is: Is this farce or fraud? Maybe they really don’t know what they’re doing, in which case the foundation funding makes it a farce. Or maybe it’s fraud.** Maybe they are deliberately misleading the public, the foundation, and the major corporations they are hoping will spend their “philanthropy” money on such “public education” projects.

Actual recommendations:

Companies whose fortunes are linked to the health of the family, such as Procter & Gamble, spend billions of dollars each year on advertising. … Executives with oversight across brands should ask themselves a simple question: Do the messages used in our advertising make family life look attractive? Or do they exalt single living? Obviously, it’s in their long-term interest to do more of the former.

If you have another 3 minutes, consider watching this hilarious video they link to as an example of “family life = attractive.” It’s from Proctor & Gamble’s 75th anniversary in the Philippines (unless it’s a spoof, too), which includes images like this:

2015 Population addendum

Of course, people spend more than things that aren’t people, so population growth spurs economic growth. But not all economic growth is the same, because, for example, people without incomes create less “demand” (because they “choose” not to consume as much). As I explain in this one-minute animated video, rich families spend a lot more on their kids than poor families do. Is that waste, or economic stimulus? The answer might affect whether we want to take money from rich people and give it to poor people to spend on their kids, or coerce poor people into having fewer kids, or coerce rich people into having fewer kids — or convince rich men to marry poor women. My guess is that, if you want more people to grow the economy (which is not an unambiguously good thing, but for argument’s sake), the most efficient thing would be to get poor people to have more kids and then train those kids to be high-skilled workers. Also, allowing more poor people to immigrate. Probably getting rich people to have more kids and spend more on them is not as good, because there is so much waste on rich kids. But I could be wrong.

Anyway, none of this that I can see suggests much influence of “marriage” on the economy, and if it did I wouldn’t want the state to be promoting marriage anyway. If Proctor and Gamble wants to promote marriage, that’s fine, as long as they’re taxed at a sufficiently high rate, too.

* cereal, baked goods, beef, pork, other meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, fresh fruit, fresh veggies, processed fruit, processed veggies, sweets, non-alch bevs, oils, misc. food, alchohol, tobacco, personal care products and services, and household products and services.

** colloquial use of the term “fraud” in this blogosphere context is not meant to express or imply legally criminal fraud.

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


I’m having a hard time believing the latest Brad Wilcox marriage-promotion fake research event is as dumb as I think it is, but I think it really is. I don’t use such a judgmental word lightly, but rather with a heavy heart, because it means it’s time to waste another hour debunking him.

The new thing is a report published by the American Enterprise Institute and “launched” at an event they hosted (droning-strike video here). The report is called, “Strong Families, Prosperous States” (PDF). The news coverage was light, which is a good sign for our news media, with credulous reports showing up in the Washington Post wonkblog and the Deseret News (though with Ross Douthat on the panel, expect more ripples sooner or later).

The basic finding is that people with more money are richer. But Wilcox (with co-authors anti-gay activist Joseph Price and Robert Lerman) describe it like this:

Higher levels of marriage, and especially higher levels of married-parent families, are strongly associated with more economic growth, more economic mobility, less child poverty, and higher median family income at the state level in the United States.

Their analysis, using state data over time, calculates the relationship between the change in marriage rates and the change in income per capita, poverty rates, and family income (mobility is done differently, using a single cross section, and I’m setting that aside for now). Basically, all this would be true if the only difference between states with lots of marriage and states with less marriage is that the former had more high income families — which of course they would, because married-couple families have higher incomes. So, rich people are richer.

To show how dumb this is, I illustrate it using fictional states made up of real families, drawn from the 2013 American Community Survey (data from I took all the married-couple and single-parent families with children, and created four states: Heavcox, where everyone is married; Hellcox, where no one is married; and two states in between, Lowersham (86% married) and Highersham (40% married). The families were assigned to states randomly (with replacement, so some families are in more than one state).

Here are the four states, with their scores on the measures used by Wilcox:


Heavcox has the lowest poverty, the highest median family income, and the highest per capita income (which means increase in marriage would lead to higher growth in per capita income).

The point is this has nothing to do with states, it’s composition: married-couple families more income, so their states do, too. The report includes a lot of statistical controls, but none that affect this basic pattern (for example, racial composition, average education level, and crime and tax rates). This is mostly because the units used for income and poverty are families. I’m not taking the time to do this, but I am pretty sure it would work if you randomly assigned individuals to families as well, that is, if the difference between married couples and single people was literally just the number of adults in the household. And with per capita income, more married-couple families means more high-income individuals, so higher income states. (Of course, there are interesting reasons married couples are richer, but they don’t have to do with states: they have more high-income earners, because high earners are more likely to get and stay married, and to a much lesser extent, because marriage helps people earn more.)

There is a funny note in the report, which says:

While these comparisons are based on median family income, we find similar gaps when we look at median household income or median household income adjusted for household size.

The adjustment for household size would help a little, but it still wouldn’t change the basic pattern, since married couple families have more earners, not just more people. But I completely distrust “we find similar…” if the numbers aren’t reported, since we know Wilcox lies a lot (frankly, even taking un-replicated numbers from one of his reports is dicey — I wouldn’t want to build a life raft out of it — but that’s the risk we take).

So, sure: “states show especially positive economic outcomes when a larger majority of their families are headed by married parents.” This is not news.

This is another case of think-tank public relations hype successfully masquerading as research, with journalists and funders as the intended audience. The American Enterprise Institute, which has a legal obligation to waste money, wants media mentions; reporters need easy stories expertly told and packaged for public consumption (unlike most real research); and political partisans want to click on and share things that support their assumptions. It is understandable that some honest reporters and editors fall for this stuff (and again, I’m appreciative of the many who didn’t). Washington Post reporter Jim Tankersley may have been trying to boost the legitimacy of the new report when he wrote this:

There is a story gaining steam among some academics that suggests the institution of marriage — particularly marriage for parents of young children — could play an important role in strengthening the American economy. It is a story about growth and poverty, about responsibility and work ethic.

But there is no evidence for the “gaining steam” thing in the story, except the existence of an American Enterprise Institute PR event.

Some reporters really try to check these stories out a little before running with them. But it’s hard for non-experts to do that, especially quickly. For example, Tankersley responded to a tweet I tweeted saying the report “appears to control for some of the factors you have raised flags about in the past.” Which is true, but this just shows the effectiveness of the PR, not the quality of the research. Which all means that as much as I don’t like the system we use to manage peer review, it’s still a good idea. There is nothing in this report that couldn’t have waited a few months for a real peer review before presenting it to the public.

If I’m wrong about this for some reason, and you can show my why — really show me, not just suggest other work I could do to check out your suspicions — I’ll be glad to admit it.

Aside: but why not?

You may be thinking, “sure, but isn’t it still the case that married couples are richer, so more people getting married would be good, right?” The first problem with that is that there is no known way to generate that outcome: the government’s marriage promotion has not worked at all, and I have seen no approach to trying that doesn’t impose religion or other values on people or shame them for their circumstances.

The second problem (which I wrote about a little here) is that the next marriage won’t bring the same benefits as the average existing marriage. If economics is one reason people don’t get married — and it is — then the economics of the currently-not-married will not be as beneficial as those experienced by the people who were in better shape to get married in the first place.

Conservatives don’t have happier marriages

On Vice’s Munchies channel (who knew), Hillary Pollack links to an excruciating Fox News chat about how Republicans have happier marriages, which I wrote about the other day.

The Fox intro says, “According to a new study, Republicans are far happier, and more stable, than Democrats are.” (Then they inaccurately described the data as being about how “married couples who describe themselves…”, when the data are about individual spouses, not couples.)

I already showed the premise isn’t true, at least as far as expressed happiness in marriage. The two groups with the highest reported marriage happiness, with demographic controls, are strong Democrats and strong Republicans, and the difference between them isn’t statistically significant.

So we can take Brad Wilcox’s words of wisdom on the meaning of Republican marital bliss in that light — that is, not.


But there is another problem here, which is he is conflating party identification with political ideology. As when he tweeted this:


“Republican” is not the same as “conservative.” In fact, the General Social Survey — the data we’re using here — has a question on political ideology as well as party identification. (Thanks to Omar Lizardo for reminding me of this.) They ask whether you “think of yourself as liberal or conservative.” And 15% of people identifying as Democrats consider themselves conservative (Republicans are much more consistently conservative).


If you’re going to claim that “conservatives have happier marriages,” you should use the political views question.* And that is even worse for this theory than the party identification (which I’m sure has nothing to do with why Wilcox chose to use the variable he did). Here is my result from the other day, using political views instead**:


So, what was that about conservatives having happier marriages?

Extreme liberals are a small group, just 3% of the this GSS sample (compared with “strong Democrats, who are 12%). But that difference is big enough to be statistically significant, with control variables, from each of the other groups (at p<.05, except the extreme conservatives, p<.10, in two-tailed tests).

David Leonhardt and other journalists covering “reports” from Brad Wilcox should consider the merits of peer review or, absent that, checking around a little before serving up this bologna. I understand there isn’t time for our peer review system to vet every little partisan claim, and I’ve served up some non-peer-reviewed reports to the news media, too. I would always encourage journalists to at least check around before running with a splashy claim.


* This doesn’t mean ideology is always a better measure, of course. For example, when it comes to attitudes toward health care spending, this paper by Stephen Morgan and Minhyoung Kang shows that party identification is a strong predictor even controlling for ideology. But in this case the issue is conservative values, not some partisan policy matter.

** Use the code I posted the other day, but with POLVIEWS instead of PARTYID

The latest get-married-young thing tells you all you need to know

Just a quick note for people wondering about this new thing by Nicholas Wolfinger on Brad Wilcox’s blog. He says it used to be (before 1995) that getting married young increased the odds of divorce. Since then, however, he says getting married either before or after age 32 raises the odds of divorce.

Why is that? His explanation — in his very own words, from his very own post: “my money is on a selection effect.” In other words, do not follow the advice in the headline, which is: “Want to Avoid Divorce? Wait to Get Married, But Not Too Long.” Because if the mechanism is selection, then changing your behavior to ride that curve will not work.

I’m not getting into the methods, which are not revealed, despite a link for “more information” — there is no paper, no tables, no code or data. However, something is off, and the post is off-gassing a discernible essence of Wilcox’s influence. In the new blog post, they show this graph:

wolfinger1Wow, that’s a pretty big boomerang effect. If it weren’t a selection effect, it might really be relevant for personal decision-making. But when you follow the link for “more information” you see this graph:


The upward swing here is hardly enough to get your marriage promotion lather up. Clearly, something had to be improved from Wolfinger’s post from April and his post for Wilcox’s site in July. That’s the kind of data leadership we expect from this site. (Also, get rid of those dots, which show you the all those people with really low divorce odds at higher ages.)


To tell the truth (right-wing front edition)


The mission of the Institute for Family Studies is “strengthening marriage and family life, and advancing the well-being of children, through research and public education.” As of this morning, this includes not a single use of the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “same-sex” anywhere on their website, according to Google. They routinely post links to articles and research “of note,” that might interest readers who believe in their mission. So, why never mention the gay?

Or — dramatic pause — is that really their whole mission? The IFS website lists seven “senior fellows.” Don’t tell the others, but W. Bradford Wilcox is the only one getting paid $50,000 per year (in 2013). Their 2013 fundraising included $50,000 from the Bradley Foundation, which also supported Wilcox’s effort to fund the Regnerus study; and $20,000 from the Vine and Branches foundation, which lists the purpose of the donation as “religious” (the foundation’s eligibility criteria include, “Christian organizations that overtly express their faith through programming”).

So, do you really believe this?

As a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, and not-for-profit institute committed to the study of family life, IFS works with scholars, writers, and supporters without regard to academic discipline, party, or ideology.

The only thing that bothers me about this, besides the values, is the blatant, routine dishonesty. Why do respectable people just tolerate that?

Not to get into minutiae, but also, would it kill him to have any women among the nine officers of his shadowy, bogus non-profit foundation?

Note: I first wrote about IFS here, but only some of that info is still accurate.

Upshot sells Wilcox, but I’m not buying

David Leonhardt at the NYTimes Uphsot has a piece up on the rate of children living with married parents across states. It’s superficial and unhelpful, based as it is off a blog post by Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Zill.

It reads, in part:

When it comes to family arrangements, the United States has a North-South divide. Children growing up across much of the northern part of the country are much more likely to grow up with two parents than children across the South. … These patterns — which come from a new analysis of census data — are important because evidence suggests that children usually benefit from growing up with two parents. It’s probably not a coincidence, for instance, that the states with more two-parent families also have higher rates of upward mobility.

And there is this map:

leonhardtmapLeonhardt really should spend more time looking at maps of the racial distribution. Anyway, he doesn’t quote the Wilcox & Zill conclusion, which is this:

The relationship is modest but statistically significant. For every ten-point increase in the Red State Index, the proportion of teens living with both parents rises by one percentage point. This suggests that red state family culture is associated with increased odds of being raised in an intact, married family.

That is an impressive level of wrong, and overreach, based on an analysis at the state level with 5 variables (% with BA, 5 Black, Hispanic, and Asian, and a red/blue voting index).

States do “matter,” of course, and there is a literature going back decades on regional variation in family demography and inequality. Sorry I don’t have time this morning to make a lit review — feel free to put links in the comments. But for whether or not a child lives with both married parents, race/ethnicity and education — indicators of America’s unique brand of inequality — explain the pattern much better than some amorphous “state family culture.”

Leonhardt likes to be very post-racial, for example happily repeating Chetty results for single-motherhood effects on mobility that don’t control for race (see here). And he does that again here:

Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill also point out that two-parent families tend to be more common in states with predominantly white populations. But race is hardly the only explanation for the patterns. White single-parent families have become much more common in recent years. And in the Deep South, single parenthood is common among both whites and blacks.

But that’s facile and misleading. Who would say race is “the only explanation”? And “common among both whites and blacks” doesn’t mean close to equal.

Anyway, doing this at the state level is not optimal (although it is the kind of thing I have done plenty when I’m being superficial or illustrating something I know is actually true). White college graduates in the South look a lot more like White college graduates in the North, when it comes to family structure, than they do to poor Blacks in the South. And if states “matter,” it’s much more through their legacies of racial inequality and educational underinvestment. To illustrate this, I put the following regression table on Twitter, reflecting an entire half hour of work — from data download through table construction — partly to show how superficial as well as wrong the Wilcox/Leonhardt analysis is. It shows that if you know the race/ethnicity and education of a child’s parents, further knowing the state they live in gives you virtually no better chance of predicting whether their parents are married.


That R-squared tells you the variance explained, and it moves less than 1% when you add the state fixed effects (though it gives you a full 1% when there are no other variables in the model).

As I said on Twitter, maybe the most common problem in bivariate data-science journalism is mistaking visual descriptive power (e.g., state map) for explanatory power. The alternative is to read some more, then spend a little more time with the data, and consult with honest experts.

Sorry I don’t have more time to write this morning.


Someone on Twitter said I should talk about effect sizes instead of variance explained. That’s reasonable. To illustrate this I added an interaction term between state and parent-BA, and calculated marginal effects. The education effect on having married parents is 39% overall, and ranges from 27% to 50% across states. On the other hand, states have a range of 13% for kids with a BA-holding parent, and 28% for kids with a BA-holding parent. To illustrate what this means: There is only only state move that would lead to a bigger difference in predicted chance of parents being married than the smallest education effect. So moving from Maine or Rhode Island to Utah — for kids without BA-holding parents — has a bigger predicted effect than having your parents get a BA in Utah. Except for that comparison, having a BA-holding parent has a bigger predicted effect than any state move.

Here’s a figure:

little leonhardt thing.xlsx

I didn’t do race effects across states, but for comparison: the overall Black effect is 31%.

Tip to Wilcox: See how all those high-marriage New England states actually have low predicted marriage rates net of education? If you want to talk about “marriage culture,” it would be smarter to look at state marriage rates net of within-state education and race/ethnicity effects.