Tag Archives: single mothers

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.


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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 Deva 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.


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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.

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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.


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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.


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The marriage movement has failed (long live the marriage movement), Blankenhorn edition

I don’t know David Blankenhorn, so I can’t really judge whether he’s still a hypocritical opportunist or he’s really transformed into a half-evolved pseudo-moderate. But it doesn’t matter; his movement has failed. Even if he manages to get his fundraising sea-legs back under him again, nothing substantive will come of it.

I will get to the new Blankenhorn treatise in Washington Monthly. (They retitled his essay from the pompous, “Marriage Opportunity: The Moment for National Action” — as it appears on his website — to the more topical but deeply ridiculous, “Can Gay Wedlock Break Political Gridlock?“) But first, at the risk of contributing to Blankenhorn Declaration Fatigue, I start with a little background. You can skip right to the part about the new essay, or, after reading the background, just stop reading because it doesn’t matter what he says anymore. Or read the whole thing.

Blankenhorn’s lost long decade

Blankenhorn likes to collect signatories for statements of bold blandness, conservative feel-goodism dressed up as high-minded Moments of Clarity and Reason under the mantle of his Institute for American Values (IAV). The 2000 pamphlet, “The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles,” declared “something new: a grassroots movement to strengthen marriage,” which embraced the notion that “a healthy marriage culture benefits every citizen in the United States” (including, oddly, “gay or straight” Americans, whose right to marry Blankenhorn spent the next decade or so viciously opposing), and pledged to “turn the tide on marriage” in the 2000s. In the decade that followed, the decline in marriage rates accelerated in every state except North Dakota (here color-coded by common political convention):

The “marriage movement” has been a disastrous failure — in terms of its stated goals — as I discuss below. For Blankenhorn, the nadir was his 2010 humiliation by Federal Judge Vaughn Walker in California’s Proposition 8 case (Perry v. Schwarzenegger). The would-be intellectual leader of a cultural revival, and the author of several books, was disqualified as an expert in the losing cause, having provided, “inadmissible opinion testimony that should be given essentially no weight.” Under scrutiny, it was clear his expertise was limited to making moral proclamations.

At the time of his Proposition 8 disqualification, Blankenhorn and then-ally Maggie Gallagher were also part of the team assembled by the Heritage Foundation to motivate a research program showing the harms caused to children by same-sex couples, described here. Along with Brad Wilcox, Joe Price, and David Allen — who all contributed research — they launched what became the discredited Regnerus study. As with the general goal of “turning the tide on marriage,” this too was a spectacular failure, as the research was discounted or dismissed by one court after another.

But achieving one’s stated goals is not the measure of success in right-wing foundation land, where billionaires heat their tax shelters with burning cash and millionaires exchange bloated salaries in the service of ideological reproduction. The bottom line is always the same — protect the wealth of the very rich, and distract the public. The social issues are mostly details — marriage, thrift, religion, guns, and so on — although occasionally inflamed by a confused crusader for one random cause or another. And of course, at whatever effective tax rate they’re avoiding, the money they’re burning is yours.

Anyway, fortunately for Blankenhorn (and his staff, including his wife, Raina) the United States had a devastating financial collapse in 2008. Early funding from Templeton positioned him to take advantage of the crisis, leveraging the disaster to waste something like $9 million of right-wing foundation money on the issue of “thrift.” (These details are from my non-expert analysis of the foundations’ tax-exempt IRS 990 forms.) To distract Americans from the crimes of the rich, foundations like Templeton and Bradley decided to pollute the public square with the idea that what we really need to fix is Americans’ culture of personal saving. The reforms IAV proposed included promoting small loans, opposing gambling, and teaching children good behavior — and of course marriage. As far as I can tell, the result was some books and pamphlets. (You no-doubt missed their 2012 pamphlet, “An American Declaration on Government and Gambling,” produced by IAV on behalf of a failing organization run by right-wing church types called Stop Predatory Gambling, whose board includes Barrett Duke; they were shellacked in the Massachusetts anti-gaming ballot measure last November.)

In the thrift era, times were good: funding from Bradley and Templeton brought David and Raina’s combined IAV salaries to a peak above $400,000. When those grants ran out, they took a 25% pay cut (along with Barbara Defoe Whitehead, who was demoted from “Director of Thrift” to just “Director” as her pay was cut from $110,000 to $82,000):

iav finances.xlsx

Toward a new treatise

After the California humiliation, Blankenhorn — with his (then) deputy, Elizabeth Marquardt* — attempted a soft pivot on gay marriage. In 2012 they spoke out against a ballot measure in North Carolina that would have banned same-sex civil unions as well as marriage, saying it went “too far” in the direction of bigotry, instead of merely barring gays and lesbians from equal status in marriage (in keeping with his string of losses, voters approved the measure 61% to 39%, but it was later found unconstitutional). That led to yet another declaration, this one called “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage,” launched with 75 signatories in early 2013. They called marriage “society’s most pro-child institution” — versus unspecific contenders. (Presumably because they were still billing Templeton for the thrift work, they also called “marriage and thrift,” “the two great engines of the
American middle class since the nation’s founding.”) They wrote:

The new conversation does not presuppose or require agreement on gay marriage, but it does ask a new question. The current question is: “Should gays marry?” The new question is: “Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage?”

With the Regnerus scandal, creeping court decisions for marriage equality, and shifts in public opinion in favor of gay marriage, the family right was unraveling. Maggie Gallagher, who claims to have co-written the 2000 Statement of Principles, was furious. Not only had Blankenhorn dropped opposition to gay marriage, he had stopped referring to the gender of spouses in his descriptions of how awesome marriage is.

Unlike Blankenhorn, Gallagher and her National Organization for Marriage have a track record of political victories with American voters — that these measures that turn out to be unconstitutional merely fuels their outrage. Whether Blankenhorn is successful in his attempt to outflank his former comrades — to rejuvenate his flagging income stream — remains to be seen. Whether he will be successful in changing “the culture” is obvious.

Agenda, rewarmed

The Washington Monthly piece is bylined David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Jonathan Rauch, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. I’m treating it like a Blankenhorn production, but correct me if I’m wrong. (Galston and Rauch are at Brookings, Whitehead works at IAV; the full list of Marriage Opportunity Council members is here.)

The new headline makes it about gay marriage, but that’s really a cheap political and rhetorical device, a little taunting for those marriage equality advocates who were always afraid the movement would lead to marriage promotion. I’ll get back to that.

Recall that, in 2000, the story of marriage decline was mostly about cultural change, caused by:

…increases in intimacy expectations, greater social approval of alternatives to marriage, the greater economic independence of women, “no-fault” divorce reform, the rise in social insurance programs that make individuals less dependent on families, the expansion of market and consumer mores into family life, and lesser social supports and pressures to get and stay married from family, friends, professionals, churches, business, and government.

The problem then was young people “translating attitudes into action” and rushing into cohabitation. Now, they say, we need to “reduc[e] legal, social, and economic barriers to marriage.” In 2000 there was no mention of barriers, it was all cultural decay.

The attempt at progressive coöptation comes in the admission that “for millions of middle- and lower-class Americans, marriage is increasingly beyond reach.” In the face of barriers, they embrace “marriage opportunity” as the concept that “can help give birth to a new pro-marriage coalition that transcends the old divisions.”

as it becomes increasingly clear that aspirations to family formation are being stymied by wage stagnation and disappointing job prospects among working-class and less-educated men, conservatives are coming to realize that they need to be concerned about economic and labor market bottlenecks that reduce men’s employability, damage their marriageability, and help drive the cycle of family decline. To be sure, important non-economic factors are also at work. But the increasingly dire situation of less-skilled men in the marriage market and in the labor market implies that no amount of moral suasion can, by itself, restore a marriage culture among the less privileged. Improving the economic prospects of the less educated, especially men, is vital.

Despite the bologna sprinkles, this concession is a testament to the effectiveness of the political agitation around economic inequality after the shock of the economic crisis. The reason this seems unlikely to generate a truly unifying coalition is that they revert straight back to the story of declining marriage causing social collapse. The decline of marriage is:

creating more fractured and difficult family lives, more economic insecurity for single parents, less social mobility for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, more childhood stress, and a fraying of our common culture.

But none of these need to be consequences of declining marriage. Under a decent welfare state, which equalized resources, mitigated risks, and created shared responsibility for children’s well-being — in other words, created conditions more like those rich single parents can achieve today — such dire consequences would be prevented. The lesson of economic hardship and insecurity undermining marriage isn’t that we need to fix those things so that people can be married — it’s that we need to fix those things so that people can move through the stages of their lives with a sense of confidence and self efficacy.

Blankenhorn has not shaken his old scaremongering and Moynihan-esque sky-is-fallingism about marriage. For children, single parenthood is “trapping them in a multigenerational cycle of poverty or family instability”; for adults, singledom is sapping their productivity; for communities, low marriage rates are “depriving them of role models and support networks.” Then there’s the pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo that got Blankenhorn’s testimony thrown out of the California case, unfalsifiable pronouncements that amount to, “marriage is super special!”

Marriage draws its strength from broadly shared assumptions and values. Its unmatched power to bind families together, over time and through hardship, stems from its standing as a social norm, not just a legal status. It needs the social legitimacy and broad cultural buy-in that come, in America, from being a realistic aspiration of the many, not just a privilege of the few.

You lost me at the idea that there is a thing called “marriage” that has a level of “strength.” At, “the two-parent married family [is] a touchstone of America’s economic and moral vitality,” sociological readers may be scratching their heads and mumbling, “Parsons…?” This kind of polemic — not current academic research — is why we still teach “functionalism” in introductory sociology courses.

Like a state-of-the-union speech, this essay has nods to the important political donors and constituencies it hopes to appease. For the marriage promotion community — many of whom are still getting their bills paid by repossessed welfare money — they offer this bit of polite nonsense:

…notwithstanding the valuable and encouraging work of many leaders, there are currently few (if any) major policy or program interventions that have been clearly demonstrated by independent evaluations to be effective over time in areas such as improving marriage rates and improving marital quality and stability. This fact is not surprising, given both the complexity of the challenge and the still-early stage of the national policy response, and it should certainly not discourage us. But it should cause us to favor an approach to reform that is experimental, non-doctrinaire, and sensitive to emerging evidence and unfamiliar ideas.

No. The research is clear: they wasted more than a billion dollars of single mothers’ welfare money for nothing.

The policy suggestions that follow are a combination of platitudes and existing ideas that are all good or not good independent of their effect on marriage, so there is no need to review them here.

Dress that umbrage

The “grassroots movement to strengthen marriage,” which Blankenhorn claimed credit for in 2000, has failed. Demographically the results are in. Politically, too. Gay marriage won as the gays-are-bad-for-kids research was discredited and exposed as a conspiracy of bigots. (It’s no wonder Blankenhorn whines, “it is not necessary for anyone to recant old positions, confess sins, or re-litigate old debates.”) Blankenhorn and his allies kicked millions of poor families off welfare in the name of marriage promotion — that drove women to work, but did nothing for marriage. They tried slashing sex education and promoting virginity pledges, with no results. Even the Catholic Church is backpedaling on divorce.

This drubbing by the forces of history leaves Blankenhorn et al. struggling to conceal the bitter and defensive underbelly to their upbeat populism. To dress their umbrage in magnanimity, they offer a smarmy, conditional embrace to gays and lesbians — one they think also puts progressives generally in a bind:

Liberals fighting for social justice and economic opportunity are now called by the logic of their values to help extend the advantages of marriage to low- and middle-income couples who seek it for themselves, much as they fought to help gay Americans attain the right to marry. … Gays and lesbians who are winning marriage for themselves can also help to lead the nation as a whole to a new embrace of marriage’s promise.

Two things about this. First, guess what? Gay men and lesbians are not a political party. Some are “pro-marriage” and some aren’t — even though almost all support the right to marriage. Some will join the marriage movement that once shunned and demonized them, and some will be progressive. Second, when have “liberals fighting for social justice and economic opportunity” ever opposed “extend[ing] the advantages of marriage to low- and middle-income couples who seek it for themselves”? What “logic of their values” requires a change on this issue?

I would like to extend to poor people the advantages of not being poor. As I wrote here:

Reducing the hardships associated with single parenthood is not a complicated proposition. The failure of basic needs provision for poor families is so stark that virtually any intervention seems likely to improve their wellbeing. Among single-mother families, more than one-in-three report each of food hardship, healthcare hardship, and bill-paying hardship in the previous year. Poor families, especially those with a single parent, need more money, which may come from a (better-paying) job, an income subsidy, or in-kind support such as food support.

In the absence of providing the obvious — and uncomplicated — support necessary for poor families to rise to a level of subsistence and security adequate to establish a basic command over their own futures, political or cultural intervention on the marriage front is deeply patronizing and morally offensive. Despite a welcome recognition of existing economic constraints, Blankenhorn’s “new pro-marriage coalition that transcends the old divisions” ultimately extends the existing practice of shaming poor people for not being married to also shame progressives for not joining in that festival of moral disapprobation.

* Marquardt has left IAV and now works at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Maybe her stronger opposition to gay marriage (expressed here) was part of their breakup, or maybe she was downsized. Her new bio says she previously worked “at a centrist think tank” (but should add: “which she thought was too centrist”).


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50 years after the Moynihan report: Hell in a hand basket?

Update, March 14, 2015: In response to a column by Nicholas Kristof, Heidi Hartmann and I published this letter in the New York Times, based on our report.

I had the great pleasure of working with Heidi Hartmann, Jeffrey Hayes, and Chandra Childers — from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) — on a briefing paper marking the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. The report is published jointly by the Council on Contemporary Families and IWPR, as part of a symposium called Moynihan+50. Our report is here, the full symposium (PDF) is here.

(This isn’t the first time the Moynihan Report has been revisited, of course. Here’s the transcript of a 1992 hearing that featured Senator Moynihan — and a brilliant statement by Stephanie Coontz — before Pat Schroeder.)

Here is our executive summary:

Moynihan’s Half Century: Have We Gone to Hell in a Hand Basket?

In The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, published in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously argued that the fundamental obstacle to racial equality was the instability of Black families, and especially the prevalence of single-mother families. That same year, he predicted that the spread of single-parent families would result not only in rising poverty and inequality but also in soaring rates of crime and violence. Half a century later, we report that the changes in family structure that concerned him have continued, becoming widespread among Whites as well, but that they do not explain recent trends in poverty and inequality. In fact, a number of the social ills Moynihan assumed would accompany these changes have actually decreased.

  • Even as single-parent families have become more prevalent in all race/ethnic groups, especially among Black families, poverty rates have fallen, partly because of effective welfare programs, and partly because of increased education and job opportunities (especially for women). In 1967 more than 60 percent of single-mother families were poor. Today, according to new, adjusted poverty calculations, that poverty rate has been almost halved, falling to 35 percent.
  • During the period of greatest change in family structure, educational levels rose for Black children and young adults. Today, almost 90 percent of Black young adults are high school graduates, compared with only about 50 percent in the 1960s; Black college completion rates have doubled, from less than 10 to almost 20 percent.
  • Since 1994 juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent for Blacks and Whites alike, even though marriage rates have continued to fall and the proportion of children born out of wedlock has reached 40 percent.
  • Although it is true that single-parent families are more likely to be poor than two-parent ones, we show that fluctuations in poverty rates since the 1990s cannot be explained by changes in family structure.
  • Marriage is no protection against racial inequality. Black and Latino children in married-couple families are, respectively, three- and four-times more likely to be poor than White children in such families.

One of the legacies of the Moynihan Report has been to focus attention on changing family structure, rather than on other factors that are more amenable to policy intervention. While marriage promotion programs have proven ineffective, evidence suggests that increasing employment opportunities and wage levels, anti-discrimination policies, and social safety nets have considerable potential to reduce poverty, increase economic and educational opportunity, and decrease racial inequality.


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