Archives: W. Bradford Wilcox

Do Fathers Matter Around the Globe?

W. Bradford Wilcox 01.15.2013 11:39 PM

It depends. The newest report from Child Trends finds that children from two-parent homes are more likely to flourish in the educational arena in the developing world, especially the West. No surprise there. As my Foreign Policy article notes:

Children from single-parent families in Australia are 55 percent more likely to have ever repeated a grade, compared to their peers in two-parent families, even after controlling for socioeconomic differences. Similar patterns obtain for children of single parents in Chile (69 percent more likely), Israel (194 percent), Spain (63 percent), Sweden (78 percent), Turkey (95 percent) and the United States (54 percent).

So, in the developed world (yes, even in Sweden!), it looks like it helps to have an on-site father around who can help with the homework, shuttling the kids to extracurricular activities, and devoting a fair share of his paycheck to his kids’ schooling.

But, to my surprise, the two-parent family does not seem to give children an educational leg up, compared to children from single-parent families, in much of the developing world, especially Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The World Family Map (which I helped to edit) suggests three reasons, among others, that the two-parent family may not provide children with an educational advantage in the developing world:

  • The extended family in many developing countries can pick up the slack left by an absent parent, usually an absent or deceased father;
  • School effects in the developing world may drown out family effects in the developing world; and,
  • Fathers may not devote as much practical and financial attention to educating their children in some developing countries.

Indeed, economist Cynthia Lloyd’s work indicates that mother-headed homes in Sub-Saharan Africa are often more likely to devote a significant share of the family income to kids’ schooling than are homes in the region with two parents. The reason? Dads in some Sub-Saharan countries focus more on their own pursuits and pleasures than on the education of their children.

So, when it comes to education, fathers seem to matter most in countries where fathers are expected to put their children’s needs over their own desires–that is, if they are in the home.

Is Martin Luther King, Jr. Worth Listening to?

W. Bradford Wilcox 01.14.2013 12:39 AM

How does Martin Luther King, Jr. rate in David Blankenhorn’s eyes today? More specifically, how does King’s understanding of moral truth and his articulation of that truth square with David’s recent reflections about moral epistemology and public argumentation?

These were the questions I was left with after reading David’s recent post on Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. He praised Herzfeld’s epistemological modesty, and then went on to laud him for “not declaring, or explicating from on high for our edification, things that he insists are objectively true. He does not ask us to believe that he is somehow channeling the voice of Nature and Nature’s God.”

While David and I agree on the need for modesty and humility in public discourse and public reasoning, I must part ways with him regarding his treatment here of objective truth and the natural law tradition. If there is no objective truth out there, why come together to reason together, or debate one another, about the common good? Why not just retreat to the comforts of our own secular, political, or religious ghettoes or, worse yet, simply worship at the contemporary altar of the sovereign self? What is the point of “engaging the key debates” about the family unless we hope–albeit imperfectly, through a glass darkly, this side of eternity–to draw closer to the “objective truth” about the human person, the family, and the common good?

More particularly, David’s post makes me wonder what he thinks of reformist movements in American life that have drawn much of their power from strong appeals to truth, Nature, or Nature’s God. Consider, for instance, this passage from the Reverend Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

King’s letter has none of the epistemological modesty David admires in Herzfeld’s sermon. But, as King’s letter argues, sometimes the gravity of an injustice demands clear and bold assertions, rooted in a confident assertions about the “moral law.”

In my view, one of the greatest challenges facing our nation is not so much a lack of epistemological modesty but rather the fact that many of our citizens have such divergent and incommensurate understandings of what the “moral law” looks like and demands of them and the nation.

But we can only profitably live together, work together, and argue together, amidst our deepest differences, I think, if we believe in a truth and a moral law that ultimately exists, to some degree, above and apart from our own limited, parochial, and self-interested conceptions of the true and the good. And motivates us to find common ground for the common good, realized in part through reasoned and civil argument.

Mommy Blogs, Making Domesticity Hip

W. Bradford Wilcox 01.09.2013 11:16 PM

Mommy blogs are enjoying a surge in popularity, and are part and parcel of renewed interest in domesticity, localism, and the family in some sectors of the country. Cville has a story on these blogs, and makes the point that they fill in a domestic educational void left by the decline in extended families, home economics classes, and other institutions that used to teach young adults how to run a household. They also lend status to stay-at-home mothers, as I noted in my comments to the author:

Mommy Blogs, with their gorgeous depictions of ordinary home interiors, their celebration of family-centered living, and their recipes not only for good meals but also for good parenting, have moved into this gap with a vengeance, making stay-at-home momdom hip.

Blue State Blues: Is There a Downside to Waiting?

W. Bradford Wilcox 12.10.2012 5:52 PM

Naomi Cahn and June Carbone have written eloquently in defense of the Blue (State) Family Paradigm, which entails postponing marriage and parenthood into middle adulthood, so as to maximize the accumulation of parental education, professional experience, and income before having a child. But there are downsides to waiting until your late 30s (or later) to marry and start a family.

The Grayest Generation“, the New Republic‘s latest cover story by Judith Shulevitz, paints a textured and sobering portrait of those downsides:

  • Unrealized dreams for a child or children;
  • 40something parents sandwiched between elderly parents and young children, struggling physically and emotionally to care for two generations at the same time; and,
  • Higher rates of developmental disabilities born to children of older moms and older dads.

Money quote from Shulevitz, who has personal experience with older motherhood and a son with a mild case of “sensory-integration disorder”:

[L]earning problems, attention-deficit disorders, autism and related disorders, and developmental delays increased about 17 percent between 1997 and 2008. One in six American children was reported as having a developmental disability between 2006 and 2008. That’s about 1.8 million more children than a decade earlier. Soon, I learned that medical researchers, sociologists, and demographers were more worried about the proliferation of older parents than my friends and I were. They talked to me at length about a vicious cycle of declining fertility, especially in the industrialized world, and also about the damage caused by assisted-reproductive technologies (ART) that are commonly used on people past their peak childbearing years.

Let me clear: Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Other factors could be driving trends in children’s developmental disabilities. But it’s worth thinking more about, and seriously studying, the social, developmental, and physiological consequences of waiting until your late 30s or 40s to start a family.

Who Needs An Intact Family? Jail Will Do Just Fine

W. Bradford Wilcox 11.27.2012 1:38 PM

Barry Deutsch wonders if the divergence between recent trends in single motherhood and crime means that marriage is no longer the best strategy to deter crime. But he (and Philip Cohen in The Atlantic) don’t bother to map out another big trend rising since the late 1980s: incarceration.

In fact, we know from work done by sociologists Sara McLanahan and Cynthia Harper that boys raised in a home without their father are more than twice as likely to end up in prison by the time they turn 30. In their words:

[C]ontrolling for income and all other factors, youths in father-absent families (mother only, mother-stepfather, and relatives/other) still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those from mother-father families.

So, the weakening link between single motherhood and crime to which Barry refers may be a consequence of dramatic recent increases in incarceration in the United States. That is, insofar as comparatively large numbers of young men from single-mother and step-families are now landing in prison, they may be simply unable to commit crimes–hence, the recent drop in the violent crime rate. Or it could be that improved policing is driving the trend. Or something else.

But I would like to see some good empirical research on this question, not just two trend lines, before we seek to minimize the link between family structure and crime. In the absence of such research, it’s just as plausible to argue, based on the incarceration trend noted above, that incarceration is now driving down violent crime in America. And I bet Barry and I can agree that mass incarceration is not the ideal way to reduce violent crime. Heck, if forced to choose between a stronger marriage culture and mass incarceration, Barry might even choose a stronger marriage culture.

But, right now, given the state of empirical research, the jury about crime in America is still out. And two lines on a graph cannot settle the debate about family structure and crime.

PS – A paper by Johnson and Raphael suggests that much of the initial decline in the violent crime rate was indeed driven by increases in incarceration but that the continuing decline seems to be attributable to other factors. One colleague who studies this issue thinks shifts in the numbers of young men and the end of the Crack epidemic also help explain this downturn.

Even in Sweden, Marriage Matters

W. Bradford Wilcox 11.23.2012 10:47 PM

This week, Paul Krugman dismissed Ross Douthat’s concern about the retreat from marriage in America by suggesting that the Swedish example shows us that a generous welfare state can more than make up for an anemic marriage culture:

In Sweden, more than half of children are born out of wedlock— but they don’t seem to suffer much as a result, perhaps because the welfare state is so strong. Maybe we’ll go that way too. So?

Here, as elsewhere, Krugman typifies the ignorance at the heart of much progressive thinking about marriage and family life. For, even in Sweden, a small, homogenous, and egalitarian nation that looks and feels nothing like the United States, marriage matters. Three quick points:

1) Even in Sweden, the institution of marriage seems to furnish an important measure of stability to children. As we pointed out in Why Marriage Matters, children in Sweden who are “born out of wedlock” to cohabiting parents are 75 percent more likely to see their parents separate, compared to children born to married parents. By age 15, 34 percent of children born to cohabiting parents have witnessed their parents’ break up, compared to just 19 percent of children born to married parents, according to demographers Sheela Kennedy and Elizabeth Thomson.

2) Even in Sweden, the retreat from marriage seems to be connected to increases in family instability and single parenthood. For instance, Kennedy and Thomson’s article indicates that family instability increased by more than 25 percent in Sweden over the last four decades. (Strikingly, their article also suggests that family instability is rising most quickly among high school-educated Swedes, much like it is in the United States.) Part of the story here is undoubtedly about the family fallout associated with economic globalization, but part of the story here is also undoubtedly about the increasing popularity of nonmarital childbearing in Sweden over this period.

3) Even in Sweden, children in single-parent families do worse than children in two-parent families, and we know from Kennedy and Thomson’s work that Swedish children born outside of marriage are more likely to end up in single-parent families. For instance, a Lancet study of the entire population of Swedish children found that children in single-parent families were about twice as likely to suffer from serious psychological problems, drug use, alcohol abuse, and attempted suicide, compared to children in two-parent families.

So, even in Sweden, with one of the world’s strongest welfare states, children “seem to suffer” when marriage disappears.

For the Record

W. Bradford Wilcox 10.02.2012 9:31 PM

Barry Deutsch, a fellow blogger here at Family Scholars, has asked about my affiliation with the Witherspoon Institute. For the record, I served as a fellow and as the director of the program on marriage, family, and democracy at the Witherspoon Institute from 2004 to 2011. These positions were honorific, and designed to highlight my writing and speaking on family-related issues. I also provided my perspective to Witherspoon Institute staff about scholarly matters of interest to the Institute, from a conference on marriage at Princeton University to the New Family Structures Study. However, I never served as an officer or a staffer at the Witherspoon Institute, and I never had the authority to make funding or programmatic decisions at the Institute. (Over the years, I have held similar fellowships at institutions ranging from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion to Yale University’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion; these fellowships have also never entailed any kind of administrative authority at these other institutions.) In the fall of 2011, I stepped down from these positions at the Witherspoon Institute because the Institute and I were heading in different substantive directions, with my focus centering on the growing marriage divide in America.

From October of 2010 to April of 2012, I also served as one of about a dozen paid academic consultants to the New Family Structures Study (NFSS). As a consultant, I attended an initial planning meeting in Austin, Texas and provided input to Professor Mark Regnerus about the design, analysis, and interpretation of the survey data associated with the NFSS. The process associated with this study was much like other academic projects that I have been associated with over my career, in which scholars from a range of disciplines and a range of perspectives offered input on a project.

I viewed my consultation for the NFSS as collegial, that is, as providing academic advice that Regnerus was free to take or ignore (and he took some advice, and went his own way on other matters). I was not acting in an official Witherspoon capacity in relationship to him.

Finally, I note that the NFSS data has been given to the University of Michigan’s Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) data archive. This means that other scholars can analyze the NFSS data for themselves, and draw their own conclusions about the value of the data and the study.

NYTimes: Marriage Divide Driving American Inequality

W. Bradford Wilcox 07.15.2012 10:01 PM

Jason DeParle has a great piece in The New York Times showing that the growing marriage divide between Americans with a college degree and those without a college degree is a major driver of economic and social inequality in America. Money quote:

[Scholars] have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

In other words, it’s not just recent changes in income, earnings, and assets that are driving inequality in American life, it’s also changes in marriage and family life. Today, in America, the educated and affluent largely get and stay married, to their benefit and the benefit of their children, whereas Americans without college degrees are more likely to sidestep marriage or fail at marriage, both to their detriment and to their children’s detriment.

We’ve covered this ground before in our report, When Marriage Disappears. But one interesting new angle is that Scott Winship at the Brookings Institution found that “just 15 percent of teenagers [from the top echelons of society] living with two parents fell to the bottom third, compared with 27 percent of teenagers without both parent.”

In their heart of hearts, educated and affluent elites of all ideological stripes are intuitively aware of the power of this statistical truth. This explains in part why marriage among the educated and affluent in America has become stronger since the divorce revolution of the 1970s and early 1980s. Elites definitely do not want to see their children falling behind. So, they have learned to steer clear of the easy divorce ethic of the 1970s and early 1980s (think Gingrich) and to embrace a more sober marriage-minded ethic for the twenty-first century (think Obamas).

The challenge facing the nation: How do we extend this marriage mindset to the rest of the country?

Marriage Disappearing? Only If You Don’t Have a College Degree

W. Bradford Wilcox 12.14.2011 10:31 AM

The Washington Post has a story on Pew’s new report showing that marriage is in retreat. The Post didn’t get my quote totally right. What I said was:

Almost half the births to high school-educated moms are out of wedlock. Among that group, we’re at a tipping point. Marriage is losing ground among middle Americans.

What can sometimes get lost in all these headlines is that the general “marriage in retreat” story is really three stories that we told in When Marriage Disappears, the 2010 State of Our Unions report from the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values:

1) Among the poor and the least educated Americans (about 20% of the nation), marriage has almost vanished;

2) Among working-class and lower-middle-class Americans or Americans with a high-school degree (what we call “Middle Americans”–about 50% of the nation), marriage is in trouble, is losing ground, and nevertheless has not yet disappeared from the family scene; and,

3) Among more affluent and college-educated Americans, marriage lost ground in the 1970s and 1980s but now marriage trends have stabilized in this segment of society (about 30%).

The new Pew report also shows this trend (see figure below).

What’s going on here? Partly it’s about economics–especially the fact that less-educated men now have much greater difficulty finding decent, stable jobs. Partly it’s about culture–paradoxically, we expect more from marriage and we are also more tolerant of departures from the marriage norm. And partly it’s about the unraveling of civil society. I put it this way for MSNBC:

“Strong marriages and strong families flourish in a healthy economic and community context. Those contexts have weakened particularly in working class and poor communities in the last 30-40 years,” Wilcox said. “People are less likely to be engaged in stable fulltime work, their church community, the Jaycees.”


Explaining the Figures in Latest State of Our Unions

W. Bradford Wilcox 12.12.2011 1:20 PM

Recently, Professor Philip Cohen raised concerns about the methodology of the new State of Our Unions report. We are happy to respond to his criticisms.

One of Cohen’s critiques was that some of the figures show similar predicted probabilities for the different groups. Indeed, Cohen stated that they are alarmingly similar. This similarity arises from the way that we chose to treat non-significant dummy variables when calculating predicted probabilities from the logistic regression models.

We faced a (common) dilemma as we created figures from the regression models: Should we create the figures by including the variables and intercepts with non-significant coefficients or should we create the figures using only those variables and intercepts that are significant? Read More

Is Cohabitation Unstable in Europe Too?

W. Bradford Wilcox 08.17.2011 8:09 PM

Yesterday’s report, Why Marriage Matters, from the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project is getting some good press. In the National Public Radio story, psychologist John Gottman suggests that cohabitation is more stable in Europe, where it receives more cultural and legal recognition. This is a view held by many academics and journalists (including Lauren Sandler who weighed in at Slate). Sandler believes that “cohabitation is only a problem because it’s not normal yet.” By contrast, in Sweden (the land of sweetness and light), where it is “normal to parent without a marriage certificate” all is supposed to be well.

But is this true?

No. In his work on European family life, UCLA demographer Patrick Heuveline finds that

in most [European] countries children born to cohabiting families are two to four times more likely to see their parents separate than are children in married households.

Even in Sweden, children are worse off when mom and dad cohabit. Demographers Sheela Kennedy and Elizabeth Thomson find in their recent study that children born to cohabiting parents are 75% more likely to see mom and dad break up, compared to children born to married parents.

So, in part because cohabitation does not offer the same rituals (a big ceremony), norms (commitment), and practices (fidelity) to partners, their family and friends, and their communities as does marriage, my bet is that cohabitation is not soon likely to deliver stability to kids in the way that marriage does–even in fair Sweden.

“Savage Love” is “Stupid”

W. Bradford Wilcox 07.11.2011 11:01 AM

Dan Savage, Judith Stacey, and other contemporary apologists for open marriage are obviously smart people. But in a piece in today’s Washington Post, I argue that their advocacy for open marriage is “stupid.” Here’s why:

1. Even today, sex often results in pregnancy.

2. Monogamous, married sex is more likely to deliver long-lasting satisfaction than the quick thrill offered by infidelity.

3. People often do not realize what they are really consenting to when it comes to open marriage.

4. Swinging increases your risk of acquiring a sexually-transmitted disease (STD).

5. Open marriages put children at risk.

On the last point, we do not really know much about how open infidelity affects children. What we do know, from the recent federal report on child abuse, is that kids are much more likely to be abused if they are exposed to a revolving carousel of romantic partners in the household. But my question is more fundamental: How does mom or dad’s open infidelity distort a child’s views of sex, love, and marriage, and influence their future adult behavior? I can only imagine. But, perhaps the Kennedy clan’s sad experiences with infidelity gives us some sense of how all this plays out across the generations.

I also find it strange that smart people like Savage and Stacey are harkening back to one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s recent family history, especially since the National Marriage Project finds that support for infidelity has fallen since the 1970s.

For all these reasons, let’s keep the “book on open marriage” closed.

The Matrilineal Tilt in the Support of Adult Children

W. Bradford Wilcox 07.27.2010 10:50 PM

It takes a marriage to keep a father investing in his biological children. A mother will keep investing in her biological children no matter what. Of course, there are exceptions to this sociological rule. But, on average, men are much more likely to invest–financially, emotionally, and otherwise–in their biological children when they are married to the mother of their children, whereas women tend to invest in their biological children no matter what their marital status.

A new study in Social Forces, which explores the financial implications of the divorce revolution on parental financial support of adult children, provides more evidence in support of this rule. Sociologists Shelley Clark and Catherine Kenney point out (a) that the divorce revolution has dramatically reshaped the character of intergenerational family ties and (b) that women now have a lot more income and assets of their own to share with their adult children.

You put these two facts together and you find that, in the wake of a divorce, fathers who remarry are much less likely to support their adult children than divorced mothers who remarry or remain single. (Interestingly, divorced fathers who remain single [and few do] support their children at a slightly higher rate than divorced mothers who remain single or remarry.) So, the bottom line here seems to be that the flow of the father’s money is influenced much more by his marital status, whereas the flow of the mother’s money is influenced much more by her biological relatedness to the child. Note: children are most likely to receive financial support from their parents when they remain married to one another.

Another point fleshed out by this study: stepmothers appear to steer less money to their stepchildren, whereas stepfathers appear to allow their money to flow to their stepchildren. Once again, when it comes to parenthood, marriage trumps for men, whereas blood trumps for women.

Finally, this study provides more evidence that as marriage breaks down, the U.S. is seeing what sociologist Frank Furstenberg has called a “matrilineal tilt”. That is, children who experience divorce or single parenthood typically end up relying much more on mom than dad. In this case, the adult children of divorce generally can depend more on mom than dad when they need a financial helping hand.

Are Fathers Really Fungible?

W. Bradford Wilcox 06.14.2010 11:16 PM

I have a lot of respect for Pamela Paul. So it pains me to say that her new piece in The Atlantic, “Are Fathers Necessary?”, gets it wrong, and in two very big ways. The gist of her argument is that sociologists Timothy Biblarz and Judith Stacey are right in claiming that fathers play no essential role in the lives of their children. Or, in their words, ”based strictly on the published science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a woman and a man…”

Paul’s first mistake was to take Biblarz and Stacey’s article as an impartial, scientific treatment of the “published science” on gender and parenthood. Alas, it is not. In fact, a close reading of their article’s appendix indicates that the vast majority of the published studies they relied upon are deeply flawed from a methodological perspective. Specifically, most of the studies relied upon small, unrepresentative samples of same-sex and heterosexual couples. You just cannot draw strong conclusions one way or another from these studies, given their methodological limits. Read More

Stephanie Coontz: Gore Divorce a “Success”

W. Bradford Wilcox 06.03.2010 9:49 PM

Stephanie Coontz is the media’s favorite go-to-gal when they are looking for pollyannish commentary on the family issue du jour. But she reaches a new nadir in her comments to ABC News today on the Gore split. She thinks the upside to the Gore split is that it is one indication that Americans–especially women–never need to feel constrained in a marriage, and can always look forward to a new start in life. Money quote:

“It’s a success that they have the option to move on and not be stuck.”

But there are at least seven people–the Gore’s four children (Karenna, Kristin, Sarah, and Albert III) and three grandchildren (Wyatt, Anna, and Oscar)–who probably won’t be able to “move on” from this divorce. Read More

An Inconvenient Truth: Divorce Hurts the Environment

W. Bradford Wilcox 06.01.2010 10:47 PM

Sad to say, Al and Tipper Gore are calling it quits after more than forty years of marriage. Don’t they know that divorce hurts the environment, according to a study from Michigan State? MSU summarizes the findings in this way:

A global trend of soaring divorce rates has created more households with fewer people, has taken up more space and has gobbled up more energy and water.

Specifically, the study by Jianguo “Jack” Liu and Eunice Yu at MSU indicates that in 2005 in the United States “divorced households used 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water that could have been saved had household size remained the same as that of married households. Thirty-eight million extra rooms were needed with associated costs for heating and lighting.”

Media reports indicate that the two have simply “grown apart.” Too bad for them, their children, grandchildren, and the planet.

The Couple that Saves Together, Stays Together

W. Bradford Wilcox 05.28.2010 5:18 PM

Well, we now know money matters in a range of important ways for marriage. Catherine Kenney and Ryan Bogle have an important new study out showing that married couples who do not pool their income are much more likely to divorce. In fact, such couples are 145% more likely to head to divorce court, compared to couples who share a checkbook. In the financial domain, as in others, couples  do better when they create a common life together. I’m waiting now for Kenney to take up the subject of commuter couples!

And, btw, they also find that couples are much more likely to divorce when wives bring home a substantial share of the bacon, and that different patterns of income pooling help explain black-white differences in divorce. So, if we can only get more couples to open up a joint checking account!

Women Marrying Down

W. Bradford Wilcox 05.17.2010 4:50 PM

CNN has a story today that reports that more and more women are marrying down the social ladder. Stephanie Chen points out that this phenomenon is rooted in the fact that women are more and more likely to outperform men in the educational arena and, increasingly, in the labor force. The story paints a largely rose-colored picture of this phenomenon.

But nowhere does the story provide any evidence that these marriages are (a) typically happy or (b) typically stable. By contrast, my own research, featured in the 2009 State of Our Unions report on money & marriage, indicates that couples are more vulnerable to unhappiness and divorce when the wife outperforms her husband in the labor force. And this trend is likely to rise as more women have to marry down.