Tag Archives: single mothers

The failure of the success sequence

This essay was originally published as part of a forum on the success sequence sponsored by the Cato Institute, featuring Michael Tanner, Isabel Sawhill, and Brad Wilcox.

The success sequence is often (mistakenly) attributed to the 2009 book Creating an Opportunity Society by the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill. “First comes education,” they wrote. “Then comes a stable job that pays a decent wage, made decent by the addition of wage supplements and work supports if necessary. Finally comes marriage, followed by children.” They called for “marketing campaigns and educational programs to change social norms: to bring back the success sequence as the expected path for young Americans.”

The only issue here is marriage, as the rest is obvious to everyone. And in that regard this model of social change is wholly unproven and without precedent. Seat belt laws and anti-smoking campaigns, always cited by success sequence advocates, are not comparable. Those are daily habits easily addressed by legal regulations and tax policy (seat belts are required by law; with taxes, the price of cigarettes has more than tripled since 1980). The decline in marriage is a massive global trend driven by economic development and cultural adaptation. And the decline in teen pregnancy, to which success sequencers also point as a precedent for public information campaigns, flows with rather than against that underlying trend. As I detail in my new book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible, the drop in teen birth was part of the general increase in the age at which women have children, driven by the expansion of their educational and professional opportunities.

That idea of using public information campaigns to preach “marriage culture” echoed the futile proclamations of a previous generation. In a Hoover Institution symposium in 1996, former vice president Dan Quayle wrote that, “when it comes to strengthening families … we also desperately need help from nongovernment institutions like the media and the entertainment community.” Taking up the call with even more zeal, in 2001 Heritage Foundation fellow Patrick Fagan declared it was time to add three W’s to the common three R’s of schooling. “We need to stress something just as fundamental [as reading, writing, and arithmetic],” he wrote. “Call it the three W’s: work, wedlock and worship. … Put all three in the lives of parents and children, and they thrive.”* Five years later, another Heritage fellow said of the three W’s, “According to the social science data, if these three fundamentals are in place, government social policy is virtually unnecessary.” In 2012, the National Marriage Project, under director W. Bradford Wilcox, was again calling for “community-based and focused public service announcements” and a Hollywood “conversation” to promote marriage.

Meanwhile, slightly more liberal think tank denizens had discretely replaced “worship” with education, but they stuck to the basic idea that the problem with poor people is that they’re doing life wrong—and the “three somethings” formula. In a 2006 report for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Marline Pearson wrote that it was time to “teach teens the rules of the success sequence,” which they defined as, “Finish high school, or better still, get a college degree; wait until your twenties to marry; and have children after you marry.” (Three things is a favorite formula of Chinese social engineers we well, as with Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Three Supremes”—but China combines such slogans with centralized education and state repression to increase their salience.)

Today, more than two decades after Quayle’s plea, 17 years after the three W’s, 12 years after the first “success sequence” proclamation, and one president after the National Marriage Project pitched its “President’s Marriage Agenda,” movement leaders are still calling for “Public and private social marketing campaigns on behalf of marriage and the ‘success sequence’,” to quote Wilcox and Wendy Wang’s latest report. Neither the policy nor the campaign to promote the policy have changed appreciably over the years, although the definition of the success sequence has varied from author to author. And in all this time, I could not find one academic study, outside of those published by think tanks, that seriously evaluates the claims of the success sequence.

What Could Go Wrong?

Today’s success sequence movement is puzzling in part because it fails to recognize—or admit—the extent to which its adherents already won. After the landmark 1996 welfare reform act, the federal government pumped more than $1 billion into national marriage promotion programs (the Healthy Marriage and the Responsible Fatherhood initiatives). This was cause for great celebration in the movement, as it should have been. In 2004, a Heritage Foundation report gushed, “The President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative is a future-oriented, preventive policy. It will foster better life-planning skills—encouraging couples to develop loving, committed marriages before bringing children into the world.”

It didn’t. The previous decade’s marriage promotion programs sent the same message the “success sequence” promoters do today. But where is the recognition that they failed? Rigorous evaluations of the marriage promotion efforts showed unequivocally that they produced no increase in marriage, not even among the people coerced into sitting for hours in relationship skills courses required to qualify for welfare benefits. As most readers probably know, in the years after welfare reform, marriage rates have continued to fall, and they have fallen fastest for those with less than a college education, the very population the programs were supposed to help. Even though pro-marriage billboards dotted the highways and FedEx delivered thousands of new-daddy care packages to hospitals. In fact, the only people more likely to marry after all these years of conservative activism are gays and lesbians. (This history is also reviewed in my book.)

Does this mean it’s bad advice to get an education, get a job, and find a permanent partner before having children? Of course not. But the success sequence is bad public policy, which is not the same thing at all. For public policy the question is, what will we accomplish with this money, compared with other things we could spend it on (or nothing at all)? Will the proposed campaigns have any positive effect on family outcomes? And if so, would they be better than some other way of spending money, like giving it to poor people, which is what most rich countries do, along with jobs, paid family leave, health care, and preschool education? Specifically, the rationale for spending money on these campaigns assumes that there are people who are on the fence about the success sequence, whose minds might be changed by the campaign, and that those altered decisions would lead to better outcomes in the future for those specific people. There is simply no evidence to support anything like that chain of events. Despite the ad nauseam repetition of the obvious fact that educated, employed, and (much less importantly) married people are less likely to be poor, there is no evidence at all that convincing people who are not one of those things of their importance will cause a reduction in poverty rates.

Given the well-documented desire of most young adults to finish high school, get a job, and get married—if the opportunity to follow that course presents itself—there is no reason to think the people reached by the proposed campaigns would not either already plan to follow the sequence or rightly suspect that it is not feasible for them. The decision to delay childbearing in hopes of marrying first rests on assumptions about the future—education, economics, relationships, health, stability—that the target population simply cannot makeabout their own destinies in today’s economic and social context. Improve the basic equation, the material expectations of young adults, and you won’t need a campaign to change behavior.

When women have more to lose, they delay parenthood. The college students in my classes, overwhelmingly women (I teach sociology of the family), almost all want to get married and then have children after they finish college. They understand that their marriage prospects will improve after college, and they don’t want children to interfere with their education or career launch. So, why shouldn’t we tell all women, especially those with poorer education and career prospects, to follow this course as well? Success sequencers believe it’s hypocritical to hoard this advice and only dispense it to the children of privilege. But you can’t wish away education, career, and marriage uncertainty or impose order on instability by force of will. If we’re not prepared to guarantee all women the same opportunities as those in my classes have, it’s not reasonable to demand the same attachment to the success sequence that those opportunities make feasible. In the absence of that guarantee, you’re simply asking, or requiring, poor people to delay (until “they’re ready,” in Sawhill’s terms, meaning not poor) or forego having children, one of the great joys of life, and something we should consider a human right.

In addition, what signals will a federal “success sequence” program send? What message will these campaigns send to people who are currently materially underserved by the welfare state, and people who don’t have the option to pursue the sequence because stable partners, education, or jobs aren’t available to them? What message will it send to the majority of Americans who are in a position to look down upon, and act against, those who become, in Sawhill’s chilling phrase, “norm breakers”?

And here race becomes especially salient. Black women have low marriage rates and black single mothers have high poverty rates. They face marriage markets with drastic shortages of eligible men, as Michael Tanner noted in the essay that opened this discussion. Not coincidentally, the history of welfare politics in the United States is intricately bound up with the history of racism against black women, who have been labeled pathological and congenitally dependent. The idea that delaying parenthood until marriage is a choice one makes is highly salient and prized by the white middle class, and the fact that black women often don’t have that choice makes them the objects of scorn for their perceived lax morals. The framing of the success sequence plays into this dynamic. For example, Ron Haskins has argued that welfare reform was needed to “[change] the values and the approach to life of people on welfare that they have to do their part.” The image of the poor welfare “taker” has a race and a gender in America.

In their book, Haskins and Sawhill proudly acknowledge that their cause was out of step with contemporary society. “To those who argue that this goal is old-fashioned or inconsistent with modern culture,” they wrote, “we argue that modern culture is inconsistent with the needs of children.” That may by a reasonable ideological position, but it’s no way to make public policy. The success sequence is a political meme repeated in highly similar form over more than a generation of public policy debates, without yet having any discernible impact for the better. The third “step” or “norm” in particular—marriage—has already been promoted with massive federal subsidies for almost two decades. The first two, education and jobs, are terrific ideas, obvious for good reasons, and not in need of much normative boosting, and we should turn our attention to improving the opportunity for more people to attain them.

* Thanks to Shawn Fremstad for this nugget.


Filed under Politics

The fathers behind teen births (or, statistical memes and motivated blind trust)

When makes people trust statistical memes? I don’t know of any research on this, but it looks like the recipe includes a combination of scientific-sounding specificity, good graphics, a source that looks credible, and – of course – a number that supports what people already believe (and want their Facebook friends to believe, too).

If that’s the problem, and assuming the market can’t figure out how to make journalism work, I have no solution except seizing the Internet and putting it under control of the Minister of Sociology, or, barring that, encouraging social scientists to get engaged, help reporters, and make all their good work available publicly, free, and fast.

Today’s cringe:


The blogger TeenMomNYC takes credit for creating this, and the Facebook version has been shared tens of thousands of times. Its popularity led to this story from Attn: “The Truth About Teenage ‘Baby Mamas’ is Quite Revealing.” (If anyone did want to study this issue, this is a neat case study, because she posted 8 “did you know” graphics on Facebook at the same time, and none of the others took off at all – why?)

I don’t know anything about TeenMomNYC, but I share her desire to stop stigmatizing and shaming young mothers. I wish her work were not necessary, but I applaud the effort. That said, I don’t necessarily think shaming young fathers (even if they’re not quite as young) is a solution to that, but that’s not the point. My point is, what is this statistic?

According to the footnote (thanks!), it comes from this 1995 National Academies report, and (except for changing “29” to “29.7”) it represents it accurately. From p. 205:

These data highlight an additional component of the sexual abuse picture— the evidence that an appreciable portion of the sexual relationships and resulting pregnancies of young adolescent girls are with older males, not peers. For example, using 1988 data from the NSFG and The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Glei (1994) has estimated that among girls who were mothers by the age of 15, 39 percent of the fathers were ages 20–29; for girls who had given birth to a child by age 17, the comparable figure was 53 percent. Although there are no data to measure what portion of such relationships include sexual coercion or violence, the significant age difference suggests an unequal power balance between the parties, which in turn could set the stage for less than voluntary sexual activity. As was recently said at a public meeting on teen pregnancy, “can you really call an unsupervised outing between a 13-year-old girl and a 24-year-old man a ‘date’?”

This is an important point, and was good information in 1995, when it cited a 1994 analysis of 1988 data, which asked women ages 15-44 a retrospective question. In other words, this refers to births that took place as early as 1958, or between 28 and 58 years ago. That is historical, and really shouldn’t be used like this today, given how much has changed regarding teen births.

The analysis is of the 1988 National Survey of Family Growth, a survey that was repeated as recently as 2011-2013. Someone who knows how to use NSFG should figure out the current state of the age gap between young mothers and fathers and let TeenMomNYC know.

Even if I didn’t know the true, current statistic, this would give me pause. Births to women before age 15 are extremely rare. The American Community Survey, which asks millions of women whether they have had a birth in the previous year, does not even ask the question of women younger than 15. The ACS reports there were 179,000 births in the previous year among women who were under 20 when interviewed, of which only 6,500 were to women age 15 at the interview. So that’s 3.7% of teen births, and 3 out of every thousand 15-year-old women. In 1958 this was much more common, and the social environment was much different.

Another issue is the age range of the fathers, 20-29, which is very wide when dealing with such young mothers. Look at the next phrase from the 1995 report: “girls who had given birth to a child by age 17, the comparable figure was 53 percent.” Realize that the great majority of girls who had a birth “by age 17” were 17 when they did, and the great majority of those men were probably close to 20. I’m not very positive about 20-year-old men having children with 17-year-old women, but it’s pretty different from 29-versus-13.

I can’t find the original source for this, but this report from the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Protection attributes this table to the California Center for Health Statistics in 2002, which shows that the father was age 20 or older  for 23% of women who had a birth before age 15. And of those, 93% were 20-24 (rather than 25+).


Anyway, this is a good case of a well-intentioned but under-resourced effort to sway people with true information, picked up by click-bait media and repeated because people think it will help them win arguments, not because they have any real reason to believe it’s true (or not true).

So I really hope someone with the resources, skills, and training to answer this question will produce the real numbers regarding father’s age for teen births, and post them, with accompanying non-technical language, along with their code, on the Open Science Framework (or other open-access repository).

Fixing the media and its economy is a tall order, but academics can do better if we put our energy into this work, reward it, and restructure our own system so that good information gets out better, faster and more reliably.

Related posts:


Filed under In the news

I overspoke myself on Twitter

Possibly not the only time.

A blog called Random Critical Analysis (RCA) has posted, “On Philip Cohen’s knee-jerk response to Chetty’s “causal mobility” data and its association with single-motherhood.” I now must admit that I overspoke myself on Twitter.

But I think the blog post I wrote holds up OK. I complained in the post that the now-famous Chetty et al. analysis of intergenerational mobility had mishandled race, leading to people like David Leonhardt (and rightward from there) to conclude that the big story of hampered social mobility is family structure. It’s part of the overall pattern of polite society embracing the issue of economic inequality but also using that as a foil to avoid the issue of race inequality.

Brad Wilcox has seized on the Chetty analysis, repeating ad nauseum the quote that single parenthood is the “single strongest correlate of upward mobility.” My beef was, and is, that the analysis that was based on — which used the rate of single parenthood at the labor market level to predict intergenerational mobility — did not control for the racial composition of the labor market. That’s an obvious problem when your map of mobility looks like this:


When your analysis is ecological, that is, based only on aggregate characteristics, you have to be very cautious about drawing conclusions. It’s especially dicey in the Chetty case because the basic data, from tax, returns, includes family structure (because of parents’ marital status) but not race (which doesn’t go on your tax form). And that’s even more dicey because we know that at the individual level single parenthood is definitely not the “single strongest correlate of upward mobility.” I’ve been writing about this for years (follow the single-mother tag), but this figure from 2012 sums it up nicely (details in the old post):

You just have to keep that in perspective when you jump to an aggregate-level analysis. The difference between averages in Atlanta versus Salt Lake City — important as it is — is never going to be as big as the difference between a rich family and a poor family. Social parents’ class matters much more for determining children’s social class than does family structure.

Anyway, RCA is reworking my very simple analysis showing the effect of single motherhood rates was reduced by two-thirds when a single control for racial composition (percent Black) was added. That’s making the obvious point that, because single parenthood and percent Black in the local area are so strongly correlated, if you don’t take percent Black into account it looks like single parenthood has a huge, independent effect — which incorporates the effects of racism or other community factors associated with historical race composition. The new RCA post goes much further in the analysis, and concludes:

It ought to be pretty clear by now single-motherhood is capturing something quite powerful and that, contrary to Cohen’s strong assertions, it is not well explained by race.  If anything, single-motherhood mediates the black association much better than the reverse.

I’m not persuaded by the conclusion; you can evaluate it yourself. But the premise of the RCA post is actually not my blog post, but my tweets. As time went by I apparently became frustrated at the continued repetitions of the single mother thing by people who were ignoring my very clever post, and with the carelessness that distance allows I overstated my own claim, so I tweeted this,

The table and the highlighting are mine. What I should have paid attention to was my own next sentence after the underlined part: “That’s not an analysis, it’s just an argument for keeping percent Black in the more complex models.” I didn’t do a serious analysis — I just did enough to prove the point that racial composition should be in the model. Without that, you shouldn’t run around saying single parenthood is the most important factor. (RCA also believes I shouldn’t have said in the post that “Percent Black statistically explains the relationship between single motherhood and intergenerational immobility.”  I think “explains” is defensible, in that the effect is no longer statistically distinguishable from zero at the conventional level, but it’s clearly not the same as proving there is no effect, so I’ll take the criticism, too.)

I actually first did the little analysis in an earlier post, debunking a univariate analysis by Scott Winship and Donald Schneider. In that case I concluded: “This [my analysis] is not a rigorous examination of the cause of intergenerational immobility. It is just debunking one bivariate story that is too easily picked up by the forces of bad.” That seems about right.

Anyway, in conclusion, it was incorrect based on what I did for me to tweet, “the single mother effect in Chetty is all in the % Black effect.” I should just say single parenthood hasn’t been proven to matter as much as its partisans say it has. Even if it’s less effective in a tweet. This is a common frustration, that it takes more work to debunk something than to bunk it in the first place. But that’s not a good excuse.

Finally, I’m grateful that what I write matters enough that someone would go to the trouble of testing my claims to hold me accountable.


Filed under Me @ work

Lifetime chance of marrying for Black and White women

I’m going to Princeton next week to give a talk at the Office of Population Research. It’s a world-class population center, with some of the best trainers and trainees in the business, so I figured I’d polish up a little formal demography for them. (I figure if I run through this really fast they won’t have time to figure any mistakes I made.)

The talk is about Black and White marriage markets, which I’ve written about quite a bit, including when I posted the figure below, showing the extremely low number of local same-race, employed, single men per women Black women experience relative to White women — especially when they have less than a BA degree.

This figure was the basis for a video we made for my book, titled “Why are there so many single Black women?” For years I’ve been supporting the strong (“Wilsonian“) case that low marriage rates for Black women are driven by the shortage of “marriageable” men — living, employed, single, free men. I promised last year that Joanna Pepin and I were working on a paper about this, and we still are. So I’ll present some of this at Princeton.

Predictions off

Five years ago I wrote about the famous 2001 paper by Joshua Goldstein and Catherine Kenney, which made lifetime marriage predictions for cohorts through the Baby Boom, the youngest of whom were only 30 in the 1995 data the paper used. That’s gutsy, predicting lifetime marriage at age 30, so there’s no shame that they missed. They were closer for White women. They predicted that 88.6% of White women born 1960-1964 would eventually marry, and by the age 49-53 (in the 2013 American Community Survey) they were at 90.2%, with another 2.3% likely to marry by my estimates (see below). For Black women they missed by more. For the 1960-1964 cohort, they predicted only 63.8% would ever marry, but 71.3% were already married by 2013, and I’m projecting another 7.5% will marry. (I also wrote about a similar prediction, here.) If they actually get to 79%, that will be very different from the prediction.

Their amazing paper has been cited another 100 times since I wrote about it in 2010, but it doesn’t look like anyone has tried to test or extend their predictions.

Mass incarceration

Interestingly, Goldstein and Kenney undershot Black women’s marriage rates even though incarceration rates continued to rise after they wrote — a trend strongly implicated in the Black-White marriage disparity. This issue has increased salience today, with the release of a powerful new piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic (my old job), which exposes the long reach of mass incarceration into Black families in ways that go way beyond the simple statistics about “available” men. The large ripple effects implied by his analysis — drawing from his own reporting and research by Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Robert Sampson — suggest that any statistical model attempting to identify the impact of incarceration on family structure is likely to miss a lot of the action. That’s because people who’ve been out of prison for years are still affected by it, as are their relationships, their communities — and their children in the next generation.

Some new projections

I should note that some readers unfamiliar with demographic analysis may find parts of what follows morbidly depressing.

To set up the marriage market analysis I’m doing with Joanna — which isn’t ready to show here yet — I’m going to introduce some marriage projections at the talk. These use a different method than Goldstein and Kenney, because I have a different kind of data. This is a lifetable approach, in which I use first-marriage rates at every age to calculate how many women would get married at least once before they die if they lived 2010 over and over again from birth to death. I can do this because, unlike Goldstein and Kenney in 2001, I now have the American Community Survey (ACS), which asks a giant sample of people if they have married in the previous year, and how many times they’ve been married before, so I can calculate a first-marriage rate at every age. To this I add in death rates — making what we call a multiple-decrement life table — so that there are two ways out of the birth cohort: marriage or death. (Give me marriage or give me death.)

The way this works is you start with 100,00 people, and each year some of them die and some of them get married — according to the rates you have measured at one point in time. For example, in my tables, of 100,000 Black women at the start of year 0, only 98.7% make it to age 15, the first year they can be counted as married in the data. By the time you get down to age 30, there are only 67,922 left, as 2,236 have died and 29,843 have married for the first time. And so on down to the bottom. In the last row of the table, when they are all dead, you calculate how many got married before dying.*

The bottom line: 85.3% of White women, and 78.4% of Black women born and stuck in 2010 forever are projected to marry before they die — a surprisingly small gap. The first figure shows you that basic result:

NHBW life tables 2010.xlsx

Note that my projections of 85.3% of White women and 78.4% of Black women ever marrying are lower than, for example, the roughly 96% of White women and 91% of Black that were actually ever-married at age 85+ in 2010 (reported here), for several reasons. First, I count dead people against the ever-married number (additionally, married people live longer, not necessarily because they’re married). Second, today’s 90+ year-olds mostly got married 70 years ago, when times were different; my estimates are a projection of nowadays.

A very interesting age pattern emerges here, which is relevant to the incarceration and “available men” question. If you look back at the figure, notice that the big difference in marriage opens up early — peaking at 28 points by age 33, before narrowing to 7 points at the end.The big difference in marriage is that White women marry earlier. In fact, as the next figure shows, after age 33 Black women are more likely to marry than are White women. I don’t think I knew that. Here are the number marrying at each age:

NHBW life tables 2010.xlsx

Specifically, although White women are twice as likely to marry in their mid-twenties, of our fictional 100,000 women stuck in 2010, just 15.6% of White women, compared with 36.8% of Black women end up marrying after age 33.

The other way of looking at this — and an answer to a common question about marriage rates — is to see the chances of marrying after a given age if you haven’t married yet. This figure shows, for example, that a White women who lives to age 45 without marrying has a 26% chance of someday marrying, compared with a whopping 49% for Black women.

NHBW life tables 2010.xlsx

It is surprising that Black women, with lower cumulative odds of marrying at every age in the cohort, are so much more likely to marry conditional on getting to their 40s without marrying. Maybe you’ve got a better interpretation of this, but this is mine. Black women are not against marriage, and they are not ineligible for marriage in some way (even though most of these single women are already mothers**). Rather, they have not married earlier because they couldn’t find someone to marry. That’s because of all the Black men who are themselves dead, incarcerated or unemployed (or scarred by those experiences in their past) — or married to someone else. So within their respective marriage markets (which remain very segregated), the 45-year-old single White woman is much more likely to be someone that either doesn’t want to marry or can’t marry for some reason, while the 45-year-old single Black woman is more active and eligible in the marriage market. This fits with the errors in the earlier predictions, which failed to pick up on the upward shift in marriage age for Black women — marriage delayed rather than foregone.

What do you think of that interpretation? If you have a better idea I’ll mention you at Princeton next week.

Note: I found so many mistakes as I was doing this that it seems impossible there are any more. Nevertheless, caveat emptor: This analysis hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, so consider it only as reliable the latest economist’s NBER paper you read about on the front page of the every newspaper and website on earth. (And if you’re a journalist feel free to refer to this as a new working paper.)

* Technical notes: I used death rates from 2010 (found here), and marriage rates from the five-year ACS file for 2008-2012 (which has 2010 as its midpoint), from IPUMS.org. I adjusted the death rates because never-married people are more likely to die than average (I told you this was depressing). I had to use a 2007 estimate of mortality by age and marital status for that (found here), which is not that precise because it was in 10-year increments, which I didn’t bother to smooth because they didn’t have much effect anyway. The details of how to do a multiple-decrement lifetable are nicely described (with a lot of math) by Sam Preston here (though if you really want to replicate this, note one of his formulas is missing a negative sign, so plan to spend an extra few days on it). To help, I’m sharing my spreadsheet here, which has the formulas. (Note that survival in the life table doesn’t refer to being alive, it refers to being both alive and never-married.) The mortality and marriage rates are for non-Hispanic women; the never-married adjustment is for all women. For the marriage rates I used all Black and White women regardless of what other races they also specified (very few are multiple-race when you exclude Hispanics).

** In 2010, 63% of never-married Black women who lived in their households had at least own of their own children living with them.


Filed under Me @ work

Vox interview on the Moynihan chilling effect

Jenée Desmond-Harris from Vox.com interviewed me about the Moynihan backlash post. The piece is here. In it she links to this blog, but not to the specific post. If you’re looking for that, it’s here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Me @ work

Getting serious about promoting marriage to end poverty

This expands on some practice-what-you-preach criticism of conservative marriage promotion, with some numbers. I’m not endorsing the approach described here — I’m saying marriage promoters should adopt this if they are serious about promoting marriage to reduce poverty.

At Demos, Matt Bruenig wrote:

After rigging the institutions to capture the majority of the national income and basically all of the national wealth, segregating themselves residentially, intermarrying almost solely in their rich enclaves, and even sealing off their schools from being accessed by the unwashed masses, these rich social conservatives turn around and implore others to marry people that they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, people they can’t even bring themselves to make even the most minimal of community with.

In response, Sandy Darity tweeted: “I proposed that a marriage antipoverty strategy should have rich white men marry poor black women.” I don’t want to put the onus for ending poverty just on pro-marriage pundits. Instead — as Darity suggests — we should think in terms of broader policy.

Whose norms?

Marriage promotion is mostly about convincing (educating, coaching) poor people to marry other poor people. That follows from the “culture matters” perspective on marriage decline advocated by some social scientists as an explanation for declining marriage rates. For example, in a New Yorker profile of Orlando Patterson, Kelefa Sanneh writes:

[William Julius] Wilson argued that declining professional prospects made some black men less marriageable. Patterson thinks that declining marriage rates had more to do with the increased availability of contraception and abortion, which eroded cultural norms that had once compelled men to marry the women they impregnated.

Whether the proximate cause is men’s reduced economic prospects or changing norms, the fact is that if poor people changed their attitudes (norms, culture) about marriage — if they put more priority on the importance of marriage and worried less about the economic qualities of the match — there would be more marriage and, they say they believe, less poverty, inequality, violence, and abuse).

An obvious problem with this whole enterprise is that the marriage boosters assume the next marriage they generate through marriage promotion will be as economically beneficial to the participants as the average existing marriage observed in the population. But if one of the reasons for non-marriage is poor economic status, then it follows that the next marriage generated will on average be much less beneficial economically than the average marriage (I expanded on this here). So the plan to reduce poverty by promoting marriage among the poor is running uphill. Or, it would be running uphill if it was running at all, but of course (ridiculous research shenanigans notwithstanding) their billion dollars spent has yet to generate a marriage, so this is really all very generous speculation.

If they really wanted to change “the culture”

For several decades, marriage promoters have been complaining that “the culture” isn’t pro-marriage enough. The latest version of this, from David Blankenhorn and colleagues, seeks to “restore a marriage culture among the less privileged.” But, although it’s true that poor people (especially poor Black people) have seen a faster drop in marriage rates, that’s not where the biggest anti-poverty gains are to be had. If you really want marriage to reduce poverty, and you really think policy can change “the culture” to make more marriages, then what you really need is (as Darity said) some rich (mostly) White men to marry some poor (disproportionately) Black women.

Why not? Is it really more far-fetched to imagine you could change rich White men’s attitudes toward poor Black women than it is to suppose you could “restore a marriage culture” among the poor? Why? Maybe one reason policies to increase marriage among the poor haven’t work is because the economic benefits aren’t great enough. If you were the kind of person that goes in for this sort of policy (which, again I am not), you’d have to assume poor people would be more receptive to the idea of marrying rich people — that’s one important premise of Wilson and Patterson’s perspective. So the problem is rich people don’t want to marry them.

How difficult can this be? Just to put some numbers to the idea, I did the following simple exercise. Take all the poor single mothers — specifically, non-married women living in their own households with their own children, with family incomes that put them below the federal poverty line — and match them up with rich single men.

How many rich single men do you need? With this definition, I get 3.5 million poor single mothers. I started with the richest single man, and went down the income ladder till I had enough to solve the single-mother poverty problem. It turns out you only have to go down to $80,000 per year in income. Here’s the matching, with the race/ethnicity of the two groups shown:

rich men marry poor women.xlsxIf the problem is that poor women are too economically choosy to marry the poor men in their lives, then we could easily lift these 3.5 million single mothers — and the 7.1 million children in their families — out of poverty simply by changing the anti-marriage views of these selfish, rich, single men. Of course, we’d have to reduce racist attitudes also, but not entirely — only a third of the non-Black rich single men would need to open their minds to the possibility of marrying a Black woman. You would have to be creative with the incentives for these men, including consciousness-raising and parenting classes, as well as, for example, Starbucks gift cards and subscriptions to the Economist.

Now, no one thinks you can socially engineer — through shame or tax incentives — the marital behavior of entire populations, so this strategy couldn’t be expected to completely eliminate the problem of single mothers and their children living in poverty. But it couldn’t be less effective than the marriage promoters have achieved with the last billion dollars they spent.


Filed under Uncategorized

Is the Moynihan-backlash chilling effect a myth?

Recently we have seen the revival of the idea that some faction of the political left (liberal, progressive, or radical) is silencing debate through “political correctness,” as retold, for example, by Jonathan Chait. Similarly, there is a push by those reviving the 1965 Moynihan Report (neo-Moynihanists?) to advance a narrative in which venomous race police attacked Moynihan with such force that liberal social scientists were scared off the topic of “cultural explanations” (especially about marriage) for Black poverty and inequality.

This Moynihan chilling effect narrative got a recent boost from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. As Kristof tells it, “The taboo on careful research on family structure and poverty was broken by William Julius Wilson, an eminent black sociologist.” Kristof lifted that description from this recent article by McLanahan and Jencks (which he cites elsewhere in the column). They wrote:

For the next two decades [after 1965] few scholars chose to investigate the effects of father absence, lest they too be demonized if their findings supported Moynihan’s argument. Fortunately, America’s best-known black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, broke this taboo in 1987, providing a candid assessment of the black family and its problems in The Truly Disadvantaged.

This narrative, which seems to grow more simplistic and linear with each telling, is just not true. In fact, it’s pretty bizarre.

Herbert Gans in 2011 attributed the story to William Julius Wilson’s first chapter of The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), in which he said that, after the criticism of Moynihan, “liberal scholars shied away from researching behavior construed as unflattering or stigmatizing.” Wilson told a version of the story in 2009, in which the ideology expressed by “militant black spokespersons” spread to “black academics and intellectuals,” creating an atmosphere of “racial chauvinism,” in which “poor African Americans were described as resilient and were seen as imaginatively adapting to an oppressive society” when they engaged in “self destructive” aspects of “ghetto life.” (These aren’t scare quotes, I’m just being careful to use Wilson’s words.) In this vein of research,

…this approach sidesteps the issue altogether by denying that social dislocations in the inner city represent any special problem. Researchers who emphasized these dislocations were denounced, even those who rejected the assumption of individual responsibility for poverty and welfare, and focused instead on the structure or roots of these problems.

Accordingly, in the early 1970s, unlike in the middle 1960s, there was little motivation to develop a research agenda that pursued the structural and cultural roots of ghetto social dislocations. The vitriolic attacks and acrimonious debate that characterized this controversy proved to be too intimidating to scholars, particularly to liberal scholars. Indeed, in the aftermath of this controversy and in an effort to protect their work from the charge of racism, or of blaming the victim, many liberal social scientists tended to avoid describing any behavior that could be construed as unflattering or stigmatizing to people of color. Accordingly, until the mid-1980s and well after this controversy had subsided, social problems in the inner-city ghetto did not attract serious research attention.

Wilson includes this very strong causal statement: “the controversy over the Moynihan Report resulted in a persistent taboo on cultural explanations to help explain social problems in the poor black community.” I would love to see any direct evidence — eyewitness accounts or personal testimony — of this chilling effect on researchers.

If you read it generously, Wilson is mostly saying that there was a fall-off in the kind of argument that he preferred, one that “pursued the structural and cultural roots of ghetto social dislocations,” and showed how ghetto lifestyles were harming Black fortunes. It’s one thing to say a certain perspective fell out of favor, but that’s a far cry from claiming that “few scholars chose to investigate … the black family and its problems,” the McLanhan and Jencks assertion that Kristof repeats.

What is the evidence? To make that causal story stick, you’d have to rule out other explanations for a shift in the orientation of research (if there was one). If attitudes like Moynihan’s fell out of favor after 1965, can you think of anything else happening at that time besides vicious academic critiques of Moynihan that might have provoked a new, less victim-blamey perspective? Oh, right: history was actually happening then, too.


As for the idea people simply stopped researching Black poverty, “culture,” and family structure, that’s just wrong. Here, mostly drawn from Frank Furstenberg’s review, “The Making of the Black Family: Race and Class in Qualitative Studies in the Twentieth Century,” are some of the works published during this time when researchers were supposedly avoiding the topic:

  • Billingsley A. 1968. Black Families in White America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
  • Williams T, Kornblum W. 1985. Growing up Poor. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books
  • Chilman CS. 1966. Growing Up Poor. Washington, DC: USGPO
  • Liebow E. 1968. Tally’s Corner. Boston: Little, Brown
  • Hannerz U. 1969. Soulside: Inquiries into Ghetto Culture and Community. New York: Columbia Univ. Press
  • Stack C. 1974. All Our Kin. Chicago: Aldine
  • Schultz DA. 1969. Coming up Black: Patterns of Ghetto Socialization. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
  • Staples R. 1978. The Black Family: Essays and Studies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2nd ed.
  • Ladner JA. 1971. Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday
  • Furstenberg FF. 1976. Unplanned Parenthood: The Social Consequences of Teenage Childbearing. New York: Free Press

In Furstenberg’s account, many of the themes in these studies were reminiscent of research done earlier in the century, when social science research on poor Black families first emerged:

…the pervasive sense of fatalism among the poor, a lack of future orientation among youth, early parenthood as a response to blocked opportunity, sexual exploitation, tensions between men and women, the unswerving commitment to children regardless of their birth status among mothers, and the tenuous commitment among nonresidential fathers.

In addition, as Alice O’Connor notes in her intellectual history, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History, there was a shift around this time to more quantitative, technocratic research, using individual microdata. In particular, the highly influential Panel Study of Income Dynamics began producing studies at the start of the 1970s, and many scholars published research comparing social and economic outcomes across race, class, and family type using this data source. Here is a small sample of journal articles from 1971 to 1985, when the Moynihan taboo supposedly reigned:

  • Datcher, Linda. 1982. “Effects of Community and Family Background on Achievement.” Review of Economics and Statistics 64 (1): 32–41.
  • Greenberg, David, and Douglas Wolf. 1982. “The Economic Consequences of Experiencing Parental Marital Disruptions.” Children and Youth Services Review, 4 (1–2): 141–62.
  • Hampton, Robert L. 1979. “Husband’s Characteristics and Marital Disruption in Black Families.” Sociological Quarterly 20 (2): 255–66.
  • Hofferth, Sandra L. 1984. “Kin Networks, Race, and Family Structure.” Journal of Marriage and Family 46 (4): 791–806.
  • Hoffman, Saul. 1977. “Marital Instability and the Economic Status of Women.” Demography 14 (1): 67–76.
  • McLanahan, Sara. 1985. “Family Structure and the Reproduction of Poverty.” American Journal of Sociology 90 (4): 873–901.
  • Moffitt, Robert. 1983. “An Economic Model of Welfare Stigma.” American Economic Review 73 (5): 1023–35.
  • Smith, Michael J. 1980. “The Social Consequences of Single Parenthood: A Longitudinal Perspective.” Family Relations 29 (1): 75–81.

At least three of these scholars survived the experience of researching this subject and went on to become presidents of the Population Association of America.

Finally, an additional line of research pursued the question of family structure impacts on education or economic attainment, specifically aimed at assessing the impact of family structure on racial inequality. These studies were highly influential and widely cited, including:

  • Duncan, Beverly, and Otis Dudley Duncan. 1969. “Family Stability and Occupational Success.” Social Problems 16 (3): 273–85.
  • Featherman, David L., and Robert M. Hauser. 1976. “Changes in the Socioeconomic Stratification of the Races, 1962-73.” American Journal of Sociology 82 (3): 621–51.
  • Hauser, Robert M., and David L. Featherman. 1976. “Equality of Schooling: Trends and Prospects.” Sociology of Education 49 (2): 99–120.

I don’t know how you get from this rich literature to the notion that a liberal taboo was blocking progress — unless you define research progress according to the nature of the conclusions drawn, rather than the knowledge gained.

The resilience of this narrative reflects the success of conservative critics in building an image of leftist academics as ideological bullies who suppress any research that doesn’t toe their line. Such critics have a right to their own perspectives, but not to their own facts.

[Thanks to Shawn Fremstad for pointing me to some of these readings.]

Exceptions, suggested reading, and counterarguments welcome in the comments.


Filed under Research reports