Breaking through the Wilcoxian ceiling of nonmarital births

Finishing off right-wing family think-tank recognition week.

In the first post I pointed out the right-wing foundations gave their academic and think-tankian foot-soldiers more than $5 million over three years to prop up conservative family ideals. In the second post I ridiculed Brad Wilcox’s unsupported assertion that “the nation’s retreat from marriage may have bottomed out.” He based that on the fact that marriage rates did not fall in 2010 or 2011 after the very steep drop in 2009. (Thank G-d for small favors.)

Today is a quick one to point out the even worse distortion in the second half of Wilcox’s sunny-side post. He wrote:

In the wake of the Great Recession, nonmarital childbearing has accounted for 41 percent of all births from 2008 to the present. This is the first time in at least 40 years that the percentage of children being born outside of wedlock has remained stable for five years.

That kind of trend-line bottom feeding reminds me of the basketball announcer’s patter as the player steps to the free-throw line: “He’s only 71 percent from the line on the season, but he’s three-for-four so far tonight.”

Anyway, it’s worse than that because of the way demography works. To give away the conclusion: after 2008 births shifted dramatically to older women as younger women’s fertility rates fell. Older women have lower unmarried childbearing rates. So the overall unmarried-birth rate didn’t rise much even as the unmarried-birth rate in each age group continued to rise.

You gotta love demography. Here are the trends.

Note I’m using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data, which asks a giant national sample of women each year if they’ve had a baby in the past 12 months. If gives rates a little different from the trend Wilcox showed, which was based on vital registry data submitted by the states to the CDC. I use this because it’s easy to break births out by age and marital status for each year. (Unfortunately, the IPUMS data archive I use doesn’t have the 2012 file up yet, and the Census website was shut down by Wilcox’s friend Mike Lee and his GOP colleagues.)

Anyway. First, here are the percent of births to mothers who are not married, the total and by age group, shown as changes from 2006. Wilcox is talking about the relatively flat “total” trend from 2008 to 2012.


In these data the total trend is upward for whatever reason having to do with the data source, but it doesn’t matter because the point is the same. The amazing thing is that by 2011 the total increase is smaller than the increase for each age group! That is, from 2006 to 2011, the percentage of all births that were to unmarried women increased 2.6 percent, but the increase was steeper for each specific group — up to a 4.3 percent increase for women in their 20s. (Some “enduring appeal of marriage”!)

How is this possible? It happened because births shifted from younger to older women, as we’ve known since 2011. And older women are much more likely to be married when they have children. Here’s how big that difference is:

wilcox-blog-debunk-2Twenty-something women are almost twice as likely to be unmarried when they have babies as those in their 30s and 40s. And here’s how big the change was in who was having babies from 2008 forward:

wilcox-blog-debunk-3Wow! Women in their 40s had 80,000 more babies in 2011 than they did in 2006. Those in their 20s had 134,000 less. Remember the women in their 20s were also the ones who had the steepest increase in nonmarital births rates. That means that among this group it was married women who cut their birth rates — probably deliberately postponing births because they have a biological clock buffer and could afford to hold off till (they hoped) the economy picked up. Meanwhile, the older crowd, who are on a long march toward higher birth rates, couldn’t fit that delay into their plans, so their birth rates didn’t fall.

So, back to Wilcox to see how this new evidence fits his triumphal conclusion:

But the enduring appeal of marriage for most Americans may also be part of the story for both of the trends noted above. For the vast majority of Americans, marriage remains an integral part of the American Dream. … The enduring appeal of marriage may translate into a floor for the marriage rate, insofar as a substantial share of Americans remain committed to tying the knot [see the last post], and a ceiling for the nonmarital childbearing rate, insofar as a substantial share of Americans remain committed to having their children in wedlock.

Of course a “substantial share remain committed” to marriage. No one would suggest otherwise. But the ceiling/floor story is just a (pontifical) fantasy. If the percentage of women at every age having their births while not married has continued to increase — regardless of whether the overall percentage is pretty flat for a few years — then we have to conclude the story he tells is complete baloney.

(Follow my Brad Wilcox stories under the National Marriage Project tag even though he’s blogging for the Institute for Family Studies now. As long as IFS operates out of the same post office box as Brad’s shell foundation, I’m not giving them their own tag.)

ADDENDUM: I should have discussed more the differences between these data and the vital statistics. Elizabeth Gregory, author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood, sent the following chart using the NCHS data. This appears to confirm that, although the number of births are different, the trends by age after 2008 are very similar to what I reported from the ACS data.

ADDITIONAL ADDENDUM: The ACS reports more births than NCHS, because ACS asks about the “previous 12 months,” which goes back to, for example, June for interviews in June, so that can be up to 13 months. Also, ACS respondents on average are interviewed 6 months after they gave birth, so they skew older than the NCHS data. I don’t know if these two differences account for the difference between my numbers from ACS and those sent by Elizabeth Gregory. But I think the point remains that the stall in non-marital births is probably an artifact of the shift to older-age births during the recession.


ACS births 2011: Census version (not available during shutdown); Wayback Machine version.

Census Powerpoint report on differences with NCHS: Census version (not available during shutdown); Wayback Machine version.


Percent describing themselves as “lower class” hits 40-year high

Yipes. Have you seen the General Social Survey responses to the CLASS question lately?

Since 1972, they’ve asked,

If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?

The responses have been pretty stable, with close to an even split between working and middle, and tails of 5% or less in upper and lower. But not anymore:

gss-classIt might not look that dramatic. But let me zoom in on that red line for you:



I’m sure some of you (like those who have written books on this question) will be able to explain this beyond: wow, this recession made more people poor. The official poverty rate today is about where it was back when “lower class” was at 4%.


Are 50% of college graduates unemployed or underemployed?

House Republicans yesterday held a “press conference” (less than 11 minutes) in which I heard two crazy statistics. Each quote is paired with the unidentified Republican Congresswoman who said it:


Recent college grads still are having a very difficult time finding a job. In fact their unemployment is nearly 25%.


Today 50% of college graduates can’t find a job or are underemployed, that’s one in every two graduates.

The first one is just completely wrong. The second one may be just completely misleading (except insofar as 50% is one in two).

I doubt it, but it’s possible they were referring to this paper by Thomas Spreen in the February Monthly Labor Review. Spreen used data from the 2007-2011 October CPS surveys. That’s the month the CPS collects education information in detail, and he calculated the unemployment rates for people who had graduated colleges in the same calendar year. The rates were very high, and did at one point – for men only, in 2009 – reach more than 25%, as shown here:


By 2011 it fell to 16% for men and 11% for women. We should interpret these number cautiously, however, as they are based on quite small samples. According to Spreen, in 2011 the October CPS only included 440 people ages 20-29 who completed their BA degrees that year. Figure about 200 of them were men, and you’re talking about roughly 30 unemployed male recent college graduates. Granted 2009 was the worst year so a spike is plausible, you still need to put a pretty wide confidence interval around that number.

Anyway, because the Republicans used this phrase “or are underemployed,” which is not in the Spreen paper, I suspect the source of these talking points was this 13-month-old AP story, titled “Half of recent college grads underemployed or jobless, analysis says,” or some other version of it. “Underemployed” here means working at a job that doesn’t require a college degree. The number “unemployed” is not given. Those are two pretty different things and should probably never be combined. But Jordan Weissman at The Atlantic, trying to read between the lines, wrote,

Unfortunately, I don’t have all of the data the AP was working with. But their analysis implies that about a quarter of the post-collegiate population is outright unemployed.

That’s not crazy if you were writing about just men for 2009 (and remember most college graduates are women), but Weissman was writing in 2012 about 2011. He might not have all the data the AP had, but he – and you – have what we need to check unemployment rates using the IPUMS CPS data extractor. That will give you March CPS survey data (not the October survey, which identified graduates in the last year, but good for ballparking). It’s pretty easy:

Choose “Analyze data online,” then “Analyze all March samples 1962-2012,” then fill out your table request. Based on the definition given of “recent” college graduates as people under age 25 with a BA, this is what I did:


That gives me employment status, by sex, for years 1993-2012, among people with BA degree (no more, no less), age 15-24 (hardly any are under 20), who are not currently attending school. Here are the percentages unemployed from that:

colgradunempOkay, so nowhere near 25% unemployed. The worst it was for men was 10.9% in 2012, for women 6.4%. (And note these are based on samples of more than 500 men and 800 women in recent years.) Shockingly high unemployment for college graduates, of course. And it’s interesting that it’s higher for those who graduated within the last few months (what the MLR paper showed) than it is for those who graduated sometime within the last few years (the under-25 grouping I used).

The underemployment thing may be important, but there’s not enough information here to evaluate it.

Listening to the press conference on the radio, I naïvely expected one of the reporters to ask, “Excuse me, did you just say the unemployment rate for recent college graduates is 25%?”

Anyway, thanks for listening.

Converging toward equality (When a tipping point disappoints)

The story of women’s employment is not dominance, flipping, or tipping points—it’s convergence towards equality.


The story of women’s employment is not dominance, flipping, or tipping points—it’s convergence towards equality.

In the first period of the recession, employment rates fell faster for men than for women. And for a moment at the end of 2009, women crossed the 49 percent threshold in their share of one measure of the labor force: the “B-5 series,” or nonfarm payrolls, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It excludes farmworkers and self-employed people, who are mostly men, so it leans more female.

Word spread like wildfire. The Economist was among the first to call it out:

At a time when the world is short of causes for celebration, here is a candidate: within the next few months women will cross the 50% threshold and become the majority of the American workforce.

The New York Times put the trend in global context this way:

Across the developed world, a combination of the effects of birth control, social change, political progress and economic necessity has produced a tipping point: numerically, women now match or overtake men in the work force and in education. … this year, women will become the majority of the American work force.

In the 2009 preface to the Shriver Report (“A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything”), John Podesta wrote that the effort was inspired by:

a major tipping point in our nation’s social and economic history: the emergence of working women as primary breadwinners for millions of families at the same time that their presence on America’s payrolls grew to comprise fully half the nation’s workforce.

Ever since The Tipping Point, no one in the American media wants to miss the next big tipping point. For some reason reporting on demographic trends has been especially susceptible, even though they rarely fit the epidemic model the Malcolm Gladwell laid out — in which small innovations explode out into major trends for unpredictable reasons.

That’s not what women’s employment trend looks like at all. Here is that nonfarm employment series, from 1964 to 2012 (through October):


The long-run news is the huge increase in women’s share of this labor pool. The medium-run news is the 15 years of stall from 1992 to 2007. The latest news is the increase since 2007, which moderated as women’s job losses partially caught up with men’s. That moment was not a triumphant entry into a new era, but rather a dramatic illustration of the hit men took at the start of the crisis.

In my last post I showed that underlying economic pressure toward women’s employment has cooled since the 1970s. The data give us very little reason to expect a sweeping economic shift that privileges women’s jobs in the near future.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a dramatic story—it’s just a story about convergence toward equality rather than women’s dominance. When I say convergence I mean that two ways: convergence between women and men, and convergence in the pattern across the rich countries of the world. Here is women’s share of civilian employment for the 18 OECD countries with consistent data from 1970 to 2011:


Women have increased their share in every country. But no country has crossed the 50 percent threshold, and most show tapering or slowing progress as they approach it. Some exceptional countries—especially Spain, Ireland, and Italy—continue to rise quickly, but they were catching up from a low point in 1970. Maybe in next decade or so some of these countries will cross 50 percent, but from the slowing pace of change it doesn’t look like it will be a stampede over the line. In fact, the most dramatic thing about this figure may be the convergence between 45 percent and 50 percent, where 13 of the 18 countries now lie.

Maybe it’s the winner-take-all, 50 percent+1 nature of the American discourse that creates this unhealthy focus on dominance, as if that can be captured by a single indicator passing a 50/50 threshold. 51 percent isn’t an on-switch for social dominance. If we could get out from under these 51 percent-take-all narratives we might be able to appreciate the progress that we have made toward gender equality, and focus on the obstacles that impede further movement in that direction.

Fertility bottoms out, reflects unemployment

In all the hubbub over the unemployment trend, we mustn’t forget a more basic indicator of the way things are — the fertility rate.

I’m not just saying that because it looks like I was right (more or less) that fertility would rebound in 2011, based on my advanced amateur Google search analysis. (That’s what you get for your tax dollars (thanks, Maryland) — a prediction pretty much as good as some corporate scam.)

Based on the new 2011 fertility report and annual unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we can now report that fertility rebounded — with a dramatic drop in the rate of decline, and that fertility changes are pretty closely related to unemployment trends.*

Here’s the trend in change in fertility:

Sure, fertility rates again hit an all-time low, but it’s the direction that counts.

More importantly for the moment, it looks like it is still related to unemployment. Here is the relationship between change in the unemployment rate from 2009 to 2010, and change in the fertility rate the next year, 2010-2011, for each state. The correlation is about -.45, continuing the association reported for early years in the recession (06-09 and 06-10).

So, put it this way: As as been the case throughout the recession, falling fertility is concentrated in states with worsening economic conditions.

* Generalizations(TM) about statistical associations should not be taken as predictions about the future or descriptions of stable directions in underlying trends.


Fertility forecast for free?

For $295, you can pay an outfit called Demographic Intelligence for their U.S. Fertility Forecast(TM). According to them, a number of companies that sell products for children, and families with children, have bought the product. Their forecast, they claim, was “a remarkable 99.8% accurate” for 2010.

Here is my free evaluation:

We don’t have the final fertility numbers for 2011 yet, but we have some reports from the government that take us from 2007-2009 to the middle of 2011. These tell us there were 4,057,000 births for the 12 months ending in June 2010. Let’s say you were conservative, and cheap, and wanted to sell a forecast that assumes nothing would change. In that case, you would forecast 4,057,000 births again for the 12 months ending June 2011. In fact, the number of births fell to an estimated 3,978,000. So your no-change forecast — let’s call it the Discount Forecast(TM) — would only be 98.1% accurate.

But, if you had an extra 10 minutes to work on it, you could take the 2007 number of births, which was 4,316,233, and calculate the annual change between 2007 and 2010, which is -64,808. Using that trend, your forecast for 2011 would be 3,992,192. And you would be 99.6% accurate. I would call that the Academic Spare Time Forecast(TM).

So, if you are a giant multinational conglomerate, I recommend paying the $295.

Why should you trust my free forecast?

I am an experienced blogger who has been following short-term fertility fluctuations since at least 2010 (if you discount my 2009 work, in which I misguidedly asked, “Why Are American Women Having More Children?” Since 2011 I have been offering speculation about the future of fertility. At that time I wrote, “I predict we will see a fertility rebound at least in the first half of 2011.”

In fairness to me, how wrong I was depends on how you define “rebound.” I showed that Google searches for “pregnancy growth,” “pregnancy tips,” and “pregnancy contractions” had started to rise again at the end of 2010 after a steep drop that mirrored the fall in actual birth rates associated with the recession. The latest government report does not show an increase in birth rates, but it does show a distinct slowing of the decline in the first half of 2011, with a curve that looks promising for a turnaround soon.

So, sure, I was “wrong,” if you define accuracy at the 100% level. But my error was in the correct direction.

If it reassures you, Demographic Intelligence has also predicted a rise in fertility for 2012, according to recent public relations reports attributed to then-D.I. President and founder Bradford Wilcox (I say “then” because he doesn’t appear on their website any more). You could trust them, despite their entanglement with Wilcox, whose National Marriage Project has produced a long series of misleading, ideologically driven reports; and their current research director Samuel Sturgeon, who previously worked for the Heritage Foundation and the Sustainable Demographic Dividend, which I discussed previously.

But trusting me is cheaper.*/**

What are the ethics here? Is it just distasteful (to me) to use your taxpayer-funded demographic training and credentials to make a profit from these companies, while concealing your results from the information-seeking public? Lots of academics — including me — make money on the side (and like medical “side-effects,” these may be bigger than the main effect). Just because our products aren’t as valuable as chemists’ or doctors’, should social scientists be left off the corporate gravy train?

Interestingly, that Demographic Dividend report, which had a lot of ridiculousness to it, also promoted fertility-enhancing efforts by corporations, and offered advice on how they could make more money with pro-natal ad campaigns. So, does Demographic Intelligence have a conflict of interest, because its officers want people to have more children?

*U.S. taxpayers have already paid. Thank you!

**Also, if you decide to go with Demographic Intelligence, please be aware that the phone number on their webpage is also  (or has recently been) the contact number for Family Worship Month, Family Worship Resources, the Freedom Film Fund and Freedom Film Distributors — so make sure you specify which product you want.

Recession divorce paper preview

8:30 AM, Thursday, May 3: Be at the first session of the Population Association of American conference to hear me present, “Divorce and the Recession, 2008-2010” (and three other interesting papers on the how the recession has affected families).

The presentation version of my paper is now available as a Maryland Population Research Center Working Paper. Here are a few highlights and additions.

This analysis supersedes some of my earlier musings about divorce fluctuations, which have been quite inconsistent (here’s the whole series). I once reported a positive relationship between rising unemployment and rising divorce rates — but no increase in Google searches on divorce. But then my Google method turned up what looked like an increase in divorce-related searching — by which point I was skeptical that there was in fact dominant effect of the recession that is discernible in the short run. And now I don’t see an unemployment pattern to speak of.

The conference paper is the most I can do with what we now have — big-sample data from 2008-2010. As I noted before, there is a drop in divorce rates from 2008 to 2010, but that hides a rebound from 2009 to 2010; that pattern holds when individuals factors are controlled. In the context of a long-run decline in divorce rates, I don’t make much of that. At the state level, this my story:

After establishing an individual level model predicting women’s divorce, I test whether unemployment and foreclosures are associated with the odds of divorce, and for whom. Results show that foreclosure rates are positively associated with the odds of divorce, but only for those with more than a high school education. State unemployment rates show no effect on odds of divorce. I also test the effect of state laws delaying divorce, and find they have an increasingly negative effect of the three-year period, suggesting a backlog of new divorces during the recession.

The interpretation of those state law patterns — a late addition to the paper — is up for discussion. Anyway, here’s the figure showing the foreclosure pattern by education level, from a model that controls for individual characteristics and state fixed effects:

Maybe this means marriages in which people are more likely to own homes are more at risk of real estate shocks, but that’s pretty indirect. There might be a fancy way to work that out, with a prediction model for which of these divorced people probably owned a home before divorce (be my guest!).

Those state patterns are built on an individual model shown in this figure. Bars that point left show negative effects on divorce odds, bars that point right are for increased risks.

None of these patterns are surprising given past research, but it’s very nice to have recent big-data estimates as new benchmarks.

Finally, I updated the Google analysis, because I couldn’t resist. The trend for a basic “divorce” search, which I used previously, was seriously diverted by the something called “the Kardashian event” in October 2011. How much did this mess up the data? This much:

Partly for that reason, this time I stuck with lawyer searches: “divorce lawyer,” “divorce attorney,” and “family law attorney,” which are all pretty well correlated over time. This is the trend (dates on the x-axis appear at the end of each year):

I could interpret this as consistent with the divorce/recession lull-rebound hypothesis, but time will tell. It doesn’t fit well from 2004 to 2008, since divorce rates were probably falling during most of that time. Still, that’s a pretty rapid rise at the end. If there isn’t an increase in divorce in 2011/2012, remind me to report that this method didn’t work.

Cash welfare down, food stamps, disability, marriage fiasco and extreme poverty up

In the New York Times, Jason DeParle has a very good article on the struggle to survive among poor single mothers, post welfare-reform, during the recession. Bottom line: Although millions more families are receiving food stamps, millions have lost benefits they really needed, and the crisis for people at the very bottom has reached extreme proportions as government turns away from their needs.

There are good experts and links in the story. I would only suggest two other things to consider, with a couple quick links.


First, among those worst affected are single mothers with health problems. Getting disability benefits is much harder than it used to be to get cash welfare (AFDC/TANF), and as the cash welfare support has been reformed away, employment opportunities and  disability benefits have not risen enough to keep many of them afloat. I explored this in a policy brief back in 2006, and haven’t updated the numbers since, but I’m still pretty confident in the conclusion:

Among single mothers with disabilities in the United States, the rock of disability has met the hard place of welfare reform, and the result is official poverty rates of 56% (only marginally minimized by household extension), employment rates below 1-in-5, and an increasing tendency to surrender residential independence for basic survival or wellbeing. For this group of about 700,000 mothers, more than 20% of whom live below half the poverty line, only sustained policy attention from government and, ultimately, substantial transfers of wealth, will lead to adequate standards of living.

Marriage fiascos

The other note is that, while welfare benefits have been slashed and material suffering has increased for the very poor, the government has embarked on the ridiculous fiasco of “marriage promotion,” which has had no demonstrable benefit for poor people who aren’t married. This is not just a plaything. Funded out of the TANF program budget, it has taken hundreds of millions of dollars worth of support out of the pockets of former welfare recipients.

That’s something to keep in mind as you read about poor mothers trying to eke out survival in today’s story.

Related reading

Nice graphic, bad info in gender inequality infographic

Just a quick note on this graphic, which is bound to show up everywhere in the next few days, after appearing in National Journal and Feministing.

Two points about it:

  1. It’s very attractive.
  2. It’s very misleading.

It’s not for me to say which is more important, but because my expertise is more relevant to point #2, I’ll focus on that below.

The problems are just in the top two parts of the graph.

At the top, the yellow bars show job losses for women compared with men (in black), and the text says women have lost jobs since July 2009, while men have gained. That’s since the end of the recession, but if you widen the view a little, remember, men lost a lot more jobs than women during the recession — and their employment numbers are still down. Men are down about 4 million jobs since their peak in 2007, while women are down about 2 million since their peak in early 2008, as this graph from the  Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows:

That’s just moderately misleading. It is important that men are gaining jobs faster than women now, but readers should also be informed of the context for that: greater net losses for men.

The next section is the most dramatic, showing sweeping upward curves growing further and further apart. The text box is fine, but the graph uses nominal dollars (follow the small asterisk) — that is, not adjusted for inflation. That means the big white bar showing the gender gap for college graduates in 2011 — representing a gap of 25% — is several times larger than the tiny white bar showing a bigger gender gap in 1980: 32%! Similarly, for the non-graduates, the 2011 gap of 23% looks much bigger than the 39% gap in 1980.


Once again, I’m here pointing at people exaggerating gender gaps. Please don’t take that the wrong way. Gender gaps are big and important. There is lots of gender inequality. Progress toward gender equality in the US has largely stalled. That’s serious. Pretty graphics with bad information in them aren’t.

Divorcing our way to prosperity

Matthew Yglesias had a funny post recently about how the backlog of divorces, births and young people waiting to move out from the parents’ homes is holding back the economy. It’s true, strictly speaking. But no one really wants more divorces just to stimulate the economy, right? That would be as crazy as wanting more marriages just to stimulate the economy — which must be crazy, because it’s exactly what Brad Wilcox has advocated (hopefully just to see if his deep-pockets corporate sponsors are paying attention to what he does with their slush funds).

All that is why it was funny to see the Wilcoxian Elizabeth Marquardt take offense at the Yglesias piece. “Sure, America, get divorced and go shopping,” she huffed. “A divorced household means two refridgerators rather than one, and what could be better for the economy?” Of course, waste is consumption, and consumption is a good way to get out of a recession. As Yglesias put it:

 There are millions of “missing” households in America that can appear—through childbirth, divorce, or moving out—very suddenly if people get a bit more in their pockets.

Put another way, all those divorces waiting to happen are really shovel-ready households, ready to be formed. But what kind of moral view of the family is that?

Seriously, I have to put my foot down on this. I don’t want either divorces or marriages just because one or the other stimulates more shopping — even if it means shopping for cool new beds:

That image is from a post by Mike Konczal, who believes the recession is reducing divorces. His data is a little old. I’ve done quite a bit on this issue, and my latest leaning is in the direction of the recession creating a backlog of divorces that may already be showing themselves, with an uptick in the number of couples reporting divorce in the 2010 American Community Survey and Google divorce searches trending upward.

When the economy improves — and more new households are formed, by people moving out, for better or for worse — the improvement will be good news, and the boom in broken marriages will be good or bad depending on whether they were good or bad divorces, not because they are good or bad for “the economy.”