By William K. Black
April 5, 2016 Bloomington, MN
I wrote a two-part column on the joint report by AEI and Brookings on poverty reduction. Part two of my column focused on the policy that report pushed most prominently – a government program of propaganda urging pregnant women to marry. My first article, however, criticized Eduardo Porter’s February 2, 2016 column in the New York Times for ballyhooing the supposed wondrous nature of Brookings and AEI working together. Porter portrayed them as “leading thinkers on opposite sides of the ideological divide.” I pointed out that a majority of the group had hard-right views and that the group had an exceptionally weak member pushing a single idea – marriage propaganda. I also pointed out that Brookings had, for decades, played the same very junior partner role of giving AEI cover for “joint” proposals with Brookings to cripple financial regulation.
Porter’s original column did not stress the wonders of AEI and Brookings agreeing to push for government marriage propaganda, but it does indicate in three separate passages that he was aware of that AEI proposal.
They strongly endorsed marriage….
The collection of proposals — from promoting strong and stable families to improving the quantity and quality of work — actually adds up to a coherent approach to improving an anti-poverty strategy that has fallen far short of its goals.
Many liberals are still skeptical that encouraging marriage will do much to help the poor, but most have come to accept that the children of intact families have a better shot in life.
Porter’s tone was clearly supportive of AEI’s push for governmental marriage propaganda directed at pregnant women.
I write today in fairness to Porter, for his March 22, 2016 column returned to, focused on, rigorously critiqued, and strongly opposed the marriage propaganda proposal. I discuss only one of his conclusions because it anticipates the hostile response from two members of AEI and Brookings group favoring a government program of marriage propaganda. I know that these quotations from Porter’s second column make multiple points, but I will show that they add up to one decisive analytical failure by the propaganda proponents.
There’s no question that children generally do worse in single-parent families. They engage more in risky behavior.
And yet despite years of research to identify how changes in family structure hurt children, there is much less agreement on the “why.”
Selection is clearly at work: Single mothers and the fathers of their children are generally less educated than married parents. They tend to have lesser-paying jobs and more mental health issues. They would have a tough time raising children in a healthy environment even if they stayed together.
“Family disruption is not a random event,” wrote Sara McLanahan of Princeton, Laura Tach of Cornell and Daniel Schneider of the University of California, Berkeley, in a study assessing efforts to disentangle the effect of selection from that of family structure. “The characteristics that cause father absence are likely to affect child well-being through other pathways.”
Then, of course, there is the issue of resources. Families headed by single mothers are poorer.
Given the evidence, marriage promotion might even backfire. Encouraging a mother to stay with a father who deals in drugs, can’t hold a job and beats her can actually lead to worse problems for the children, according to Sara R. Jaffee of the University of Pennsylvania.
But the strongest case against a policy to deliver strong marriages and stable families is that the government has no clue how to do that.
All of this analysis comes down to one key conclusion. The purported rationale for marriage propaganda is that kids do better on average in stable families with two parents. But that is not a logical basis for proposing that the government adopt a marriage propaganda program. The logic gap is the assumption that people that choose not to marry each other are just like people who choose to marry each other. All adults know from their personal lives that this assumption is nonsensical. We choose not to marry people with whom we have been intimate for a vast number of reasons, but most of them come down to the belief that marrying them would be a terrible mistake that would ruin our lives. In particular, a pregnant heterosexual woman or mom often chooses not to marry the birth father because she fears that he would endanger the child. That harm may be economic, psychological, or physical. Alternatively, of course, mom might want to marry the birth father or lesbian partner – and he or she may not want to marry her. That’s the point about marriage that makes it so special and effective – it requires both partners to believe jointly that they, and any children, will be best off through marriage.
The passages I quoted from Porter add up to this key analytical failure made by proponents of marriage propaganda. He starts with the point that propaganda proponents incorrectly consider decisive – partners who agree to marry produce (on average) better outcomes for kids. Porter then explains why the propaganda proponents are wrong. People who do not marry their partners are not the same as the couples that do marry. The differences are not “random” – people choose not to “select” people they view as schlubs to marry. A wide range of factors make people unmarriageable. “Single mothers and the fathers of their children are generally less educated than married parents. They tend to have lesser-paying jobs and more mental health issues.”
Porter then reinforces a point that I stressed – women often choose not to marry a sexual partner because they fear that the partner could endanger mom and her children. The consequences of this analysis is that marriage propaganda is likely to fail because moms are making informed decisions given the severe constraints that they are subject to when they decline to marry a partner. That is exactly what the studies show – marriage propaganda fails.
Porter then concludes, as I did, that the true key to poverty reduction (and increased marriage) is good jobs.
There is good reason to believe that it was the demise of the solid blue-collar job — squeezed out by globalization and technological change — that played the principal role in putting an end to the stable working-class family. Perhaps men with poor job prospects feel unprepared to marry. Perhaps women will not marry men who cannot provide.
Porter’s column led to a letter to the editors by Ronald Mincy and Robert Doar, two members of the AEI/Brookings panel opposing his conclusion. Unfortunately, they simply repeat that marriage among those who wish to marry each other is a good thing, a point that is true and irrelevant to their promotion of marriage propaganda. They ignore Porter’s (and my) detailed analysis of why you cannot assume that getting people who do not want to marry each other to marry each other will produce good results. They conclude on this unfair note.
Throwing up our hands and giving up on reducing the high rate of nonmarital births, as Mr. Porter advises, would be nothing short of abandoning low-income Americans.
Porter (and I) did no such thing. Both of us stressed the need to provide good jobs. A job guarantee program like those designed by my UMKC colleagues is ideal for the purpose of improving the economy, reducing inequality and poverty, and increasing marriage and happiness.
Mincy has made many of the points that Porter and I have stressed that reveal the logic gap in his support for marriage propaganda in an interview with Columbia University’s media services.
According to Mincy, one third of all American children (70 percent of African American children) are born to unmarried parents. Yet 80 percent of the parents in the study thought their chances of marrying were between 50/50 and certainty at the time their child was born. “But if they want to marry, why don’t they?” he questions. The main reason very few marry (only 15 percent do so within 12 months), he says, is relationship quality, measured by factors such as the ability to compromise during disagreements and the man’s support for the woman during pregnancy. Race also matters, as do employment and culture.
African American women are unlikely to marry unemployed men, he notes. Thus the formula for black men’s success requires jobs that pay a living wage.
Note that Mincy does not claim that people decide not to marry because the government lacks a propaganda campaign extolling the apparently unknown virtues of marriage. They choose not to marry for perfectly understandable reasons. Mincy agrees that jobs are the key. His statistics show that people choose not to marry particular prospective partners precisely because they believe that doing so would make their life miserable and perhaps endanger the children economically, psychologically, and even physically.