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Responses to the "Social Science Consensus" about marriage

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Sometimes, I hate the Ensign.

Now it's even claiming that social science is behind marriage. Not that far off. After all, social science is behind marriage. But not for the reasons they state.

Here's my egocentric point by point refutation of the 21 points that they cite.

Summary from Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-One Conclusions from the Social SciencesFamily

1. Marriage increases the likelihood that fathers have good relationships with their children.

Fathers are around more often when families are wealthy, as are marriages.

2. Cohabitation is not the functional equivalent of marriage.

Why? This is purely a cultural statement and proves nothing about what would happen in a culture absent marriage.

3. Growing up outside an intact marriage increases the likelihood that children will themselves divorce or become unwed parents.

I'll buy this one, but poor people are also more likely to do both of these things and (surprise) grow up outside an intact marriage.

4. Marriage is a virtually universal human institution.

So is racism. Universal and good aren't the same thing.

5. Divorce and unmarried childbearing increase poverty for both children and mothers.

I agree with this effect, but it's much more due to economic circumstances to begin with than these factors.

6. Married couples seem to build more wealth than singles or cohabiting couples.

They're richer. Not terribly shocking.

7. Married men earn more money than do single men with similar education and job histories.

I'll buy this. Single men have less incentive to make money, although you could call that good as well. Score one for the Ensign!

8. Parental divorce (or failure to marry) appears to increase children’s risk of school failure.

Economics explains this one too: especially given the lousy quality of schools in poor neighborhoods, where the above is much more rampant. I will say that parental involvement in education is key.

9. Parental divorce reduces the likelihood that children will graduate from college and achieve high-status jobs.

Economics clearly explains this as well.

Physical Health and Longevity
10. Children who live with their own two married parents enjoy better physical health, on average, than do children in other family forms.

Economics again. Rich people are MUCH healthier than the poor.

11. Parental marriage is associated with a sharply lower risk of infant mortality.

Better prenatal care for the wealthy.

12. Marriage is associated with reduced rates of alcohol and substance abuse for both adults and teenage children.

I agree with this one, but economics play a role here. I also think there are substantial issues with reporting of D&A abuse. I'll still give the Ensign a point.

13. Married people, especially married men, have longer life expectancies than do otherwise similar singles.

Wealth. Health. Life.

14. Marriage is associated with better health and lower rates of injury, illness, and disability for both men and women.

Same as above. Three of these four are basically making the same point.

Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being
15. Children whose parents divorce have higher rates of psychological distress and mental illness.

Divorce is certainly very stressful. I'll give a third point.

16. Divorce appears significantly to increase the risk of suicide among both adults and their adolescent children.

Another point. Divorce is bad.

17. Married mothers have lower rates of depression than do single or cohabiting mothers.

Another point. The wealthy tend to have similar rates of depression to the poor, although this may be due to underreporting among those with less access to mental health professionals.

Crime and Domestic Violence
18. Boys raised in single-parent families are more likely to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior.

Poor people are much more likely to be criminals.

19. Marriage appears to reduce the risk that adults will be either perpetrators or victims of crime.

Adults that make it to a culture of marriage or that aren't in jail during prime marrying years are certainly less likely to be criminals. Also, they're less likely to be victims because they don't live in Hell quite so often.

20. Married women appear to have a lower risk of experiencing domestic violence than do cohabiting or dating women.

Wealth explains that too. Rich people don't beat each other up as much.

21. A child who is not living with his or her own two married parents is at greater risk of child abuse.

Ditto number 20.

I've wasted a lot of space to tell you that economic factors alone are a better explanatory factor in sixteen of these twenty one cases. Three of the five that did score have to do with the dissolution of marriage and the mental health impact of Daddy being in one day and gone, never to return in the next. And, I believe that in those five cases, other factors can offer competing interpretations.


10 Responses to “Responses to the "Social Science Consensus" about marriage”

  1. Blogger RoastedTomatoes 

    Nice post! Your comments about wealth as a pervasive alternative explanation are good. Also worth thinking about is selectivity. If some subset of marriages is bad because of inherent incompatibility or something, marriages from that subset would be seriously overrepresented in the "divorce" column--because people choose to get divorced for reasons. But because of that, it's difficult to tell whether people in families that go through a divorce are worse off because of the divorce--or if they're just worse off because they're in a terrible family.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous 

    I don't have a reference, but I heard a professor at the University of Utah claim that divorce appears to have less of an impact on children now than in the past. Research showing the negative effects of divorce on children is mostly based on looking at people that grew up in the 50's and 60's when divorce was less common and occurred mainly in the most dysfunctional families. Research done on people that grew up in the 70's and 80's still shows negative effects, but less severe.

    Something similiar can be said about co-habitation before marriage. It used to be a very good indicator of divorce. But now that co-habitation has become a mainstream practice, it's much less useful for predicting divorce.

  3. Anonymous Rosalynde 

    D-Train, I also thought that little side-box was particularly clumsily done---but I've got to say, I'm thoroughly confused by your refutations!

    You seem to want to separate marriage out from economic factors, as if the two had nothing to do with each other---but marriage is and always has been a legal institution with primarily economic implications. A valid objection can be made that the correlations cited between marriage and favorable outcomes do not imply causation, but, I think, as correlations they are generally convincing and easily accounted for.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous 


    All those Ensign reasons can also apply to Polygomy!

  5. Blogger D-Train 


    The real question boils down to this. Where's the causality? Does marriage make people wealthy or do wealthier people engage in marriage? In my view, it's the latter.

    I don't argue that marriage is completely unimportant, simply that it's an institution that explains less than the people that participate in it.

    I disagree that marriage is primarily about economics. Even if it has economic impacts, it is not the case that decisions about marriage today are primarily economic, indicating that it makes sense to separate these things conceptually. And, even if they are, doesn't that place economics as the prime mover, rather than marriage? It seems that your argument that marriage is economic bolsters my position rather than some defense of marriage as essential to these factors, since it's a lot more plausible to claim that economics shapes marriage than that marriage shapes economics.

    I'm confused about where you're getting significant causal power for marriage. Could you show me where marriage itself better explains these things than the economic state of the people entering marriage?

  6. Blogger Pris 

    Furthering anonymous #2, many of these points can also work for SSM.

    D, I don't think you should give them a point for #17. It seems to me that one cause of that depression may be not living up to cultural standards; I'd apply the same argument you give for #2.

    The point about causality and correlation is a good one, and is the reason why I dismiss this list. The list itself even implies this:

    (*)"...couples seem to..." (6)
    (*)"...failure to marry) appears to..." (8)
    (*)"...marriage is associated with..." (11,12,14)


    "13. Married people, especially married men, have longer life expectancies than do otherwise similar singles."

    Well, you know what they say about marriage: it doesn't make you live longer, it just makes you feel like it.

  7. Anonymous Paul Mortensen 


    You need to do a little more reading. Thomas Sowell at Stanford has done a lot of work on marriage and economics and their relationship over the past 50-60 years-- especially in connection with black families (go to the Hoover Institute website for reference). The cohort studies he has performed demonstrate that marriage has a positive economic impact for individuals. The magnitude of said impact has changed over time due to changing government policies (i.e. LBJ's "War on Poverty) but nevertheless the effect exists. The long and short of the matter is that if one wishes to improve one's individual economic status then one should marry. Hence, your estimation that economic status as an alternative explanation for the "21 Points" really is unfounded-- that is unless you can cite evidence to the contrary.

  8. Blogger D-Train 


    I haven't read Sowell's stuff, but the problem with the studies that I've seen is that economics is not controlled for within the study. It is true that the married are wealthier. I have no complaint here. I also recognize that you can't control for the dependent variable.

    What I do know is that we're not correcting for confounding variables such as age, education level, economic background prior to marriage, etc. The causal chain is much more theoretically robust here than in any kind of marriage argument. I might very well buy that having one's parents marry is going to create wealthier kids, but marriage itself isn't going to make people any happier.

    I am interested in Sowell's reasoning, though. Do you have any further details/links on his study? Does he actually control for the reasoning above? If so, how?

  9. Anonymous Paul Mortensen 


    I'm not real adept at the hyperlink game so the best I can do is provide a few titles. Sowell has written a number of books that address the issue of marriage and have excellent bibliographies: "The Vision of the Annointed: Self-congradulation As a Basis for Social Policy", "Black Rednecks and White Liberals", "The quest for Cosmic Justice", and "Migration and Cultures: A World View" (just to name a few). In his work Sowell does an excellent job of controlling for economic status and age when he focuses on marriage-- that's a huge benefit of cohort studies. Some of his basic findings include:

    1. Those who marry move up the economic ladder faster than those who do not (within their same age groups).

    2. Those who marry build wealth (regardless of income) faster than single individuals.

    In short, marriage improves individuals' economic status regardless of where an individual begins. And BTW, co-habitation does not produce the same positive economic impact (Sowell addresses this issue too).

    As for some of your other sniping.

    Re #2 & #4: You seem to be implying that marriage as an institution is arbitrary-- that the institution of marriage is little more than an accident that's been perpetuated throughout the world over time. This makes absolutely no sense when viewed historically. The universality of the concept of marriage IS strongly indicative that marriage, as an institution, has positive societal benefits. The concept of institutional marriage developed simultaneously all over the world among isolated populations (just as the concept of institutionalized religion). Why? Because it is likely that marriage endows on its practitioners an evolutionary benefit-- societal survival. Now, if you wanted to make the argument that the human condition has changed so much since ?whenever? that marriage ceases to be relevant then make that argument-- but don't pretend that snarky comments represent legitimate criticism. A good book with an excellent bibliography related to these issues would be Michael Crichton's "The Lost World." No, it's not a book about dinosaurs and that will become obvious when you look at the associated bibliography.

    Re #3: There's no evidence that the poor divorce at a higher rate than the affluent. In fact, all the evidence indicates that divorce rates are consistent irregardless of economic status. Sloppy! As for unwed mothers, this is a post "War on Poverty" phenomenon. Prior to LBJ's WOP the birth rate to unwed mothers declined every year. Let's end the WOP and we'll see fewer unwed mothers.

    Re #20 & #21: Do you have evidence of this? Every study I've seen shows the rate of spousal/child abuse to be the same among income cohorts.

  10. Blogger D-Train 


    If you could cut down on the patronizing, I'd appreciate it.

    We're talking past each other, and I think the reason why is that you've noticed a correlation and just won't let go. You've cited correlation after correlation, but refuse to provide any theoretical basis for your comments. It's the old ice cream and crime rates problem. Ice cream sales and crime rates are positively correlated, and significantly so. Does this mean they're related? No, it's been proven that hot weather causes them both. You need to provide some reasoning that places marriage as a causal influence on economics and that disputes my view that economics causes the benefits associated with marriage, albeit with marriage as an intermediate variable.

    I'll emphasize that I'm not specifically familiar with Sowell's work, so anyone that is should step in and correct me if I've got a problem.

    Replying to Sowell's #1 and #2: He's created a tautology. When people get married, their household income skyrockets. Why? Because you're often (not always) adding two incomes together. You do note that Sowell addresses cohabitation effects. However, since cohabiters aren't officially a household until they're common-law married (which takes a long time and is very context specific, aside from being a debatable concept in the first place), the definition problem is still present. Additionally, given the fact that marriage is the cultural "commitment" option and cohabitation is the cultural "less commitment" option, there's going to be less mingling of the finances. The positive effects of adding two incomes together can't come without commitment. Is this an argument, then, in favor of marriage? Not really. Adding two incomes together has many of the same benefits of having one income of the size of that sum. Also, I should note that Sowell has a gigantic axe to grind.

    Paul, I'm not going to tell you that marriage has no economic impact. I think that the pressures of marriage can produce good financial habits in ways that being single probably cannot. My argument above about commitment should suggest that we agree more than you might want to admit. I will tell you, however, that being economically successful has a lot more to do with having a pre-marriage foundation of economic privilege and educational advantages than does whether you marry. Aside from being more intuitively sensible, it's the thing that Sowell and others like him just won't control for. They aren't controlling for the wealth of the parents of the wealthy. They aren't controlling for quality of education. They aren't controlling, in short, for all of the conventional explanations of wealth, which are much more intuitively sensible than your hypothesis. All that Sowell controls for in the cohort studies (if I read your comment properly) is income, which can't allow him to explore the relationship between those initial variables and marriage in the first place. So, then, I have to ask: if he can't falsify the status quo(or provide a clearer theoretical vision of how the two are linked), why should I even give his argument a second look?

    Your argument that the universality of marriage makes it useful isn't legitimate. Among the other universal or near universal institutions of mankind include slavery, patriarchal domination, warfare, and racism. Actually, given that every successful state in today's world has implemented some form of welfare state, why are you so hard on it? Same argument applies, right?

    This study from the University of Tokyo (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=8227098&dopt=Abstract) substantiates my claims about divorce rates and economic decline/low income in Japan. This Wall Street Journal article (http://www.careerjournal.com/columnists/workfamily/20040423-workfamily.html) summarizes a study authored in part by Tim Heaton at BYU that indicates tremendous relationships between demographics and divorce. This study (http://www.divorcereform.org/real.html) indicates that breaking 50K annual income reduces the chance of divorce by thirty percent. I'd put some more stuff in, but I've got to go harass some less actives. :)

    The PDF at this site (http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/abs/10.1525/sp.2004.51.3.326?cookieSet=1) indicates that low income/financial distress and spousal abuse are quite clearly correlated.

    I could go on, but the point is clear: the evidence supports an economic causality and NOT a significant marriage effect.

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