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American Demography: Meet the Parents

cohabitation, education, family, human capital, MARRI, marriage, poverty 2 comments
By MARRI Interns
Over the weekend, the New York Times published a front page article by Jason Deparle and Sabrina Tavernise reporting on new data by Child Trends (“For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage,” Feb. 18, 2012). But the objective data that the unassuming title portends quickly gives way to a remarkable synthesis of logical flaws, selective data interpretation, and glaring oversights which all culminate in an irredeemably confused analysis of contemporary American demography.

The raw data is not the cause of these accusations. The burgeoning number of children born outside of marriage is beyond dispute and is, as Deparle and Tavernise rightly note, a trend that is observable through the past five decades. Only slightly less controversial is the assertion that this trend has been decisively harmful to the development of the children involved. The article is thus correct in noting, “Researchers have consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.” The article also includes the admission by Susan Brown, a sociologist from Bowling Green State University, that “children born to married couples, on average, ‘experience better education, social, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes.’” It is simply no longer a point of debate that children raised in monogamous, married, intact families perform incomparably better than do children raised in other family structures.

The article is lacking not because of flaws in the data but because Deparle and Tavernise’s interpretation of that data is erroneous and relatively dismissive. It is already established that these trends are pernicious toward children and society as a whole. Why then this facile intimation that such trends are somehow of nominal significance, that the increase of children born to unwed parents does not bode poorly for the future, and that marriage is somehow, in the words of University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg, “a luxury good,” in the face of volumes of sociological evidence to the contrary?

The confusion inherent in the article is made manifest in the implicit insinuation that such trends are simply to be accepted passively as an irremediable feature of American demography, and that the circumstances which occasioned their advent were regrettably unavoidable. Deparle and Tavernise’s interpretation of the data is a reductionist one that explains the decline in marriage as attributable almost entirely to economics and education. While DeParle and Tavernise rightly assert that “men are worth less than they used to be,” they provide no explanation for that development.  But the research presented in MARRI’s 162 Reasons to Marry shows definitively that men are worth less because they fail to marry, and that marriage correlates with significant increases in working hours, productivity, and wages for men. Furthermore, married, intact families save more, have higher average net worth, enjoy more rapid net worth growth, and are less likely to be impoverished than any other family structures. None of these benefits apply to cohabiting couples, the very structure identified by Deparle and Tavernise as the source of most of the new nonmarital births. The research supporting these conclusions is copious and consistently strengthened by newer studies. By contrast, the analysis provided in the NYTarticle has the causal link exactly backwards, and in ironic fashion, the cohabiting couples or single parents interviewed for the anecdotal segments of the article are also, by their intentional decision not to marry, unintentionally ensuring the propagation to their children of the very circumstances they attribute to be the cause of their familial instability, and thereby putting their children at a disadvantage, not shielding them from the potential devastation of a fractured marriage.

Nor are the beneficial aspects of involvement by both parents in a stable marriage for the children merely financial. MARRI’s 2011 Index of Belonging and Rejection demonstrates that children from intact, stable families have higher high school graduation rates and standardized tests scores and a lower incidence of teenage out-of-wedlock births, among other indicators. The data resound to indicate that mothers—even financially stable mothers—cannot so quickly dispense with the fathers of their children, nor can women be removed from a society without grave repercussions, as previous entries in this blog have noted. An indelible interconnectedness binds private behavior and public well-being together, and this ever-increasing volume of studies demonstrates that the sexes are not as independent and isolated as might be thought. It would seem that fathers and mothers are not mutually expendable baggage to be jettisoned capriciously for the sake of convenience, but are rather integral components of successful families and society as a whole.

2 comments

David Cary Hart - February 22, 2012

Is any of the Marri research that you refer to published in a respected, peer reviewed academic journal? Is Marri associated with Tony Perkins' hate group? The site uses the FRC icon.

Pat Fagan - February 24, 2012

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