Institute for Family Studies Blog The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) is dedicated to strengthening marriage and family life, and advancing the well-being of children, through research and public education. We Need to Shore Up the Ecology Around the Family by David Brooks (@nytdavidbrooks)

I want to thank all the scholars for contributing so thoughtfully to the recent IFS symposium on my Atlantic essay, "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake," but I especially want to thank Brad Wilcox. It’s got to be annoying for an academic who has spent decades carefully studying a field to have a journalist swoop in making all sorts of assertions. I’ve put hundreds of scholars in this position over my career, and I’ve never had one respond as generously and graciously as Brad—both during the process of researching the article and in the weeks since its publication.

I acknowledge Brad and Hal Boyd’s point that there has recently been good news on the family front—declining divorce rates and such. But I begin from a spot of greater alarm. This is, in part, because of the many horrifying statistics out there, many of which I’ve learned from Kay Hymowitz and the other contributors to this symposium. But mostly, it’s part of my lived experience over the past four years. I’ve spent those years pretty much constantly on the road—often in three states a week—and I have seen the effects of family disruption at almost every stop in the most gritty and brutal ways.

These effects are evident in the surge of depression in mental health issues, the share of kids with three or more adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs), the exploding suicide rates, surging opioid addiction, the widening opportunity gaps and on and on. America is going through a psychic and emotional crisis I don’t understand, but family issues and family trauma are clearly a big part of it. 

For example, I spent part of last week in Compton and Watts in South Central LA. Those neighborhoods are making progress, but they are full of young men who say they hate their dad because he’s never around, and who join gangs to have some family. Of the 15 people I interviewed, 6 had lost an immediate family member to gang violence. 

Family disruption happens as much in red America as in blue, and family hardship happens everywhere. I’ve been startled since the article came out by how many middle-class moms have contacted me to say how hard and isolating it is to raise kids all on their own.

 We don’t have to live this way. We don’t have to live in a country in which the parts with intact families are way ahead of the other parts and are pulling farther ahead at ever accelerating rates. One of the purposes of the Atlantic essay was to take a subject that is usually the province of conservatives—family breakdown—and frame it in a way that resonates with progressives. Progressives need to talk more about family. Conservatives need to talk more about social and economic inequality. The two are part of one story.

The question is what is to be done? How do we get from here—a place of unformed or fragile families—to there—an America in which more and more children grow up with loving and stable foundations?

I am skeptical that we are going to return by holding up the ideal of the two-parent nuclear family—four people in a house in the suburbs surrounded by grass. I think we’ve tried that, and I don’t think we’re going back. We can’t exhort people to go back to that form when so many of the support structures have been torn away. We can’t exhort people to go back to a family form that is so fragile without those supports. Instead, we need to frame and see the issue in a new way.

A fundamental reframing is all about assumptions, ideals, and norms. What picture do we have in our heads when we think, “family?” What do we aspire to when we think, “happy family?” 

Since at least the dawn of suburbia, we’ve let the detached nuclear family become the answer to those questions. The nest family. A small group of people surrounded by physical and relational open space. In this mental atmosphere, the relations we have within the home are very different from the relations we have outside that home. In this mental atmosphere, family and non-family are very different categories.

In this mental atmosphere we ask, how can we shore up the family? Our natural response is to work on the stuff inside the home. Family is what happens inside a home.

The essence of my argument is that “How can we shore up the family?” is the wrong question to ask and inside the home is the wrong place to focus attention. The essence of my argument is that the crucial ground is the ecology around the family. 

If you only have one family and no other families, then you’ve made a cult of the family and you’re on very dangerous ground. You may be asking of this family more than it can deliver.

Here is a sentence from the Wilcox and Boyd response that I should frame and put on the wall: “It turns out that the relationship between nuclear families and larger communities is more symbiotic than substitutionary, more interdependent than interchangeable.”

This is the crucial truth I suspect we all agree on.

Nuclear families are never going away. I was careful in the piece (but probably not in the headline) to distinguish between the detached nuclear families, which are fragile, and the embedded nuclear families, which are more binding but also more resilient. 

The characters in the early scenes of “Avalon” all lived in nuclear families, in that they lived in separate homes. But each of their families was deeply enmeshed in extended family and wider, resilient networks of relationships. It’s the pattern of relationships that matter most, especially those that extend across the boundary that separates the nuclear family and the world immediately around. 

Not surprisingly, Richard Reeves makes my argument better than I did: 

Scholars working in this field usually start with a social structure like ‘the family’ and then study the relationships within them. Marriages and parent-child relationships are the most obvious examples here. Brooks turns this approach on its head. He starts with the relationships and examines the circumstances in which they form and flourish. By assessing the history of the family through a relational rather than a structural lens, he breaks free of some of the fetters that cramp many contemporary debates on families.

When I read Richard’s description of what I was doing in the article I thought, “Wow! I wish I’d thought of it so clearly.”

I’m grateful to Andrew Cherlin for pointing to the complex kinship networks that have already been created by those outside the American mainstream. There’s a lot the rest of us can learn from those flexible and expansive forms. 

I appreciated Rod Dreher’s point that the cultural ecology matters as much as the relational ecology. And I was moved by Andrew T. Walker’s description of his old church in Nashville. He beautifully describes how his family was enmeshed in that congregation: 

Our church relationships drove us closer to one another and more attached to our church. There were a number of years where it was common for us to be with people from our church family three to four nights a week.

The practical upshot is this. When we talk to high school kids about family, of course we should talk to them about the nuclear families they hope to form and what that commitment entails. But we should never talk about just that. We should also remind them that you’re also going to have a second family, maybe at church or synagogue or mosque, and those people are going to feel very precious to you. And then you’re going to have a third family—maybe one made up of people you served in the military with or in a community organization. And then you are going to have a fourth family—maybe of childhood friends you see a few times a year. And the people in all these and other groups will feel like family to greater or lesser degrees, in that the bonds that connect you are not transactional and do not exist in any cost-benefit logic. They are the people you show up for. They all have a piece of your heart.

The second through fourth families won’t feel as intense as the first, and your heart will not be as deeply enmeshed. The nuclear family comes first. But they will be part of an archipelago of warm places that reinforce and make the first family viable. 

And when you look at your life, you won’t see a stark division: family or non-family. You will see a continuum of affections. You will realize that the skills you need to make the nuclear family work are often learned in your non-biological families. You will realize that if you only have one family and no other families, then you’ve made a cult of the family and you’re on very dangerous ground. You may be asking of this family more than it can deliver. You may be shrinking the number of strong loving relationships you have. By isolating the nuclear family, you may end up creating a disfiguring vortex that ends up destroying it.

And if you ever find yourself at a stage in your life where you don’t have several families, you should look around and say, where’s another family we can stick ourselves into?

The odd thing about the heart is that it expands. As the songwriters say, the more people you have to love the more love you have to give. The more people you have to love, the better you are at the skill of loving well. If we multiply our families, maybe we’ll end up strengthening the nuclear family along the way. 

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, and a commentator on “PBS NewsHour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He is the author of several books, including, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.

Mon, 24 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
The Nuclear Family Is Still Indispensable by W. Bradford Wilcox (@WilcoxNMP) and Hal Boyd

Editor’s NoteThe following essay from IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox, which was published today at The Atlantic, is the eighth response in the Institute for Family Studies' symposium on David Brooks' essay on the nuclear family

The nuclear family is disintegrating—or so Americans might conclude from what they watch and read. The quintessential nuclear family consists of a married couple raising their children. But from Oscar-winning Marriage Story’s gut-wrenching portrayal of divorce or the Harvard sociologist Christina Cross’s New York Times op-ed in December, “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home,” discounting the importance of marriage for kids, one might draw the conclusion that marriage is more endangered than ever—and that this might not be such a bad thing.

Meanwhile, the writer David Brooks recently described the post–World War II American concept of family as a historical aberration—a departure from a much older tradition in which parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins all look out for the well-being of children. In an article in The Atlantic bearing the headline “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” Brooks argued that the “nuclear family has been crumbling in slow motion for decades.” He sees extended families and what he calls “forged families”—single parents, single adults, and others coming together to support one another and children—as filling the vacuum created by the breakdown of the nuclear family.

Yet the search for alternate forms of family has two major flaws. First, there’s evidence indicating that the nuclear family is, in fact, recovering. Second, a nuclear family headed by two loving married parents remains the most stable and safest environment for raising children.

There are, of course, still reasons for legitimate concern about the state of the American family. Marriage today is less likely to anchor family life in many poor and working-class communities. While a majority of college-educated men and women between 18 and 55 are married, that’s no longer true for the poor (only 26 percent are married) and the working class (39 percent). What’s more, children from these families are markedly less likely to live under the same roof as their biological parents than their peers from better-off backgrounds are.

But there is also ample good news—especially for kids.

Continue reading at The Atlantic . . . .

Fri, 21 Feb 2020 23:00:00 -0500
Cohabitation, Attachment, and Intergenerational Repetition by Francie Broghammer

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, proposed an elegantly simple definition of a healthy life: the ability to love and work. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I see hundreds of patients each year who experience difficulties doing just this. It begs the questions: Why? Where do these difficulties come from? And, how do we help people overcome them?

The therapists’ cliché line, “tell me about your childhood,” often reveals the answer to such questions. The dynamics of our childhood relationships are often recreated in our adult lives (a phenomenon referred to as intergenerational repetition). For example, it is not uncommon for a previously-abused child to find themselves in an abusive relationship as an adult. This is also why children who grow up with married parents are more likely to remain married themselves, and why children who grow up with divorced parents are more likely to experience divorce as adults. And, not surprisingly, children of unwed parents are more likely to become unwed, possibly cohabiting, parents themselves. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people seek relationship dynamics that are familiar to them, even when they are dangerous or destructive.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, nearly 60% of U.S. adults now feel that “couples who are living together but not married can raise children just as well as married couples.'' Current evidence, however, does not support this claim. Research shows that two-thirds of cohabiting parents will have separated by their child’s twelfth birthday, compared to only one-quarter of married parents (see figure below). 

To understand the implications, it is necessary to explore both attachment theory and the actual outcomes for such children.    

Attachment Theory:

Psychiatrist John Bowlby defined attachment as a strong emotional tie to a specific person (or persons) that promotes a young child’s sense of security. This tie demands more than just the provision of food, clothing, and shelter for a child; it requires an emotional connection. Threats to the availability of such connection can produce fear, anger, and sadness in the child—emotions that, if unattended, may persist into adulthood.

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth took Bowlby’s work one step further. She outlined four primary types of childhood attachment (secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent/resistant, and insecure-disorganized/disoriented) that resulted largely from the physical and emotional availability of the parents toward the child. What’s more is that, barring significant life changes, the attachment style an individual develops in childhood tends to persist into adulthood and may be amplified by the experience of parenthood (thus setting the stage for transmission of attachment styles across generations). In short, parents are likely to parent how they were parented, and love how they were loved.  

Now consider that 2 out of 3 children born to cohabiting parents will experience the loss of at least one major attachment figure before the age of 12. This loss will be accompanied by a period of time where parents experience personal distress and are less available to the child.  Following a split, parents may begin dating and will again be less available to the child as they invest in new partners. These new partners may become a significant figure in the child’s life and pose the risk of yet another “loss” if they too leave. These dynamics all increase the likelihood of a child developing an “insecure” attachment style; an attachment style that they will carry into their adult life.

The Outcomes:

Those with an insecure attachment style are more likely to engage in non-committal forms of relationships as adults, such as cohabitation. Within the first year of cohabitation, 19% of women will experience pregnancy, according to the CDC. There are several notable features about Americans who engage in cohabiting parenthood.  

Cohabiting parents tend to be younger, have lower levels of educational attainment, and face more economic instability. (For reference, 54% of cohabiting parents have a high school diploma or less, and 16% live below the poverty line. In contrast, 43% of married parents have a bachelor’s degree or greater, and only 8% live below the poverty line). This naturally means there are fewer social and economic resources available to both cohabiting parents and their children. Furthermore, children of cohabiting parents are more likely to experience depression, drug abuse, and drop out of school, compared to children of married parents. These “risk factors” all place strain on the family and increase the likelihood that children will experience negative social, emotional, and psychological outcomes.

There is also a significant racial/ethnic divide amongst cohabiting families—with Blacks and Hispanics being far more likely to cohabitate than their White or Asian counterparts. The decreased frequency of cohabitation amongst White and Asian groups makes it less likely they will experience pregnancy outside of wedlock and face the socioeconomic strains described above. In turn, their children are more likely (but certainly not guaranteed) to have “secure” attachments and less strained interpersonal relationships in their adult lives. 

The importance of this divide cannot be overlooked. Psychological research has shown what many of us know instinctively: history tends to repeat itself. Grown children of cohabiting parents likely have less secure attachments, are more likely to engage in cohabitation themselves, and are more likely to face the same socioeconomic disadvantages they experienced as a child. As a result, their children are more likely to experience a similar fate. Thus, an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage is created and reinforced.

By accepting the notion that “couples who are living together but not married can raise children just as well as married couples,” Americans may be embracing a family model that will deepen the economic, racial, and social inequalities of our country.

Francie Broghammer, MD is the Chief Resident in Psychiatry at The University of California Irvine.  

Thu, 20 Feb 2020 08:32:00 -0500
The Church As Forged Family: A Reply to David Brooks by Andrew T. Walker (@andrewtwalk)

Editor’s NoteThe following essay from Andrew Walker is the seventh response in the Institute for Family Studies' symposium on David Brooks' essay on the nuclear family

David Brooks has written a masterful essay on both the history and state of the American family. It is so good, in fact, that I intend for it to be required reading in my family ethics class at the seminary where I teach. 

There is much in his essay worth commenting on, but I want to focus my comments on one area in particular—Brooks’ reflections on what he calls the “forged family.” This is a form of family relationship defined less exclusively by biological or bloodlines, and more by the chosen family—the “fictive kin”—that one surrounds themselves with amid the sundries of life. Brooks describes this arrangement as the type of family defined by “determined commitment.” 

These are the networks of thick relationships born of spontaneity and organic development. They cannot be so much planned as much as they naturally arise through the vicissitudes of life. They are the people who have your back no matter what, the friends you end up sharing holidays with because, well, why wouldn’t you? This is not meant to displace the biological family, as much as it is to accent or fill-in the areas where thick familial relationships fail to take shape. The use of such language as “forged” is as telling as it is vivid: to speak of something being “forged” is to speak of something having been refined, purified, and tested by trial. The ingredients of that which is forged imply a new substance has taken shape, which means new families.

Undoubtedly, trial and tribulation are unique catalysts for the types of relationships that sustain and nourish common life. A lost job, a miscarriage, a divorce, a diagnosis—all provide a platform for our networks of relationships, biological or not, to step up and offer the resilient backdrops necessary to carry people through hardship.

Brooks then offers a number of examples of how the “forged family” is making appearances throughout American life. He points to the many examples where the pressures and humdrum of daily life force people to rely on each other in the unlikeliest of ways.

What I want to suggest, however, is that Brooks’ call for the “forged family” can already be found in an institution so familiar to us that its routineness makes us blind to its offerings. I am speaking of the local church—not the abstract, universalized “the church.” The church remains a pillar of American civil society, and while it has traditionally played an irreplaceable role in forging community, as church participation has declined and the spiritually fluid increase, people are now able to seek forged families elsewhere. And while those who seek it elsewhere may find it, there is no other institution more apt to be the central force in forging family and social connections than the local church.

By “local church,” I mean the supposedly declining, not-worth-imitating, and discardable institution that almost everyone can find something to complain about, but who rarely seem willing to put in the effort to reap the harvest of forged relationships. It’s all too common of a refrain, especially for those flirting with a new church, that the church lacks “community.” But the person who complains about not being able to “find community” in the local church is honesty not really looking for it. Because in looking for it, stages of awkwardness and possible offense have to be worked through. Sure, not everyone can be each person’s best friend. But I’ve yet to find a local church where the people who were really looking for thick and forged relationships were not able to find it if they really get involved.

This model of church-as-forged-family cannot be the province of only married families like ours...the local church is uniquely primed—and in fact called—to be the forged family for the unmarried, for single parents, and for the fatherless.

I write about this church paradigm from a personal (and what I hope is a temporary) experience. My family recently relocated from the Nashville area to Louisville, Kentucky where I teach at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Though we have countless friends in Louisville, we are still without a local church. Not yet having a church to call home is an example of experiencing even minimal accounts of loneliness and isolation (all of which, I want to add, are normal in a season of transition). If anything, our move to Louisville is teaching us how the absence of a local church home can make a new town seem even more foreign and dislocated from normalcy. This is because our church is our family. This is especially pronounced considering that we live five-to-seven hours away from in-laws and grandparents. For us, church is not only an option, it’s a requirement. It orients us to our community and brings ballast to life’s uncertainties. 

The backdrop of our current predicament is having left a church in the Nashville area where our family thrived. It was the centripetal and centrifugal force for our relational networks. Our church relationships drove us closer to one another and more attached to our church. There were a number of years where it was common for us to be with people from our church family three to four nights a week—from the spur-of-the-moment restaurant outings, to the after-church meals, to discipleship groups, reading groups, to service projects, to the number of people who had the passcode to our front door and an open invitation to raid our pantry. For now, that is gone, but the promise of relationality and the gift of the church means that new friendships of similar depth can just as easily be on the horizon (with no intention of displacing our Nashville friends!). Such transmutability from one location to the next is but a demonstration of the church’s brilliance.

No amount of central planning can configure a web of such relationships. There was no conscious choice to form the types and depth of relationships we had (and still do, from a distance)—they just happened.

But this model of church-as-forged-family cannot be the province of only married families like ours, as if enlarging the bank of reserve childcare is what forged family is all about it. No, as Brooks’ essay reminds us, the local church is uniquely primed and, in fact, called to be the forged family for the unmarried, for single parents, and for the fatherless. It is there that the fatherless can find a fatherly example. For the person desiring family life, open seats at the married family table provide a glimpse into the beautiful chaos of raising children. And it is in the church that young marrieds can learn from older married couples (a gift my wife and I are particularly thankful for). It’s why faith and healthy marriage go together. 

To understand the church as a forged family is to understand it is as a place of welcome, habit, and nurture—a place where those without a spouse, or those who experienced a breakdown in a marriage or parenting relationship, can find grace and acceptance and the warm embrace of family.  

To understand the church as a forged family is to understand it is as a place of welcome, habit, and nurture—a place where those without a spouse, or those who experienced a breakdown in a marriage or parenting relationship, can find grace and acceptance and the warm embrace of family.  

What we experienced in Nashville, and what I am hopeful the Lord will provide us in Louisville, is an embodied reflection of why the New Testament depicts the local church in familial terms. The New Testament church is a “forged family” by virtue of the calling it has for itself. The New Testament does not describe fellow Christians as “colleagues.” I would venture that the New Testament model is far more than “neighborliness,” as well. We are brothers and sisters. While Jesus did not dispense with the foundations of the biological family (Matthew 19:4-6), Jesus made it clear that a new family is forged in their quest to follow after him (Mark 3:31-35). Members of a church are to care and look after one another in patient, long-suffering love (Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 4:2). We are “members of the household of God” who are “being joined together” (Ephesians 2:19-22). And these verses are nothing to say of the manifold numbers of verses in Scripture teaching the biological family how to relate to one another. 

The nuclear family is necessary. This is a matter of simply reality born of Genesis: Man and woman are called to multiply and exercise dominion. But it is a mistake to believe that a solitary man and solitary women united together in their socially-isolated marriage is sufficient for all their needs. Families need families. Of course, kids depend and rely upon their parents, but research shows that parents nestled in a church community are more likely to thrive, endure, and promote an ecology of personal and social flourishing. This is not coincidental: the Genesis portrait of marriage is one of culture-formation, not just home-formation.

What David Brooks’ laudably describes as the “forged family” is available to everyone, for in knowing Christ as Savior, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). For in knowing and experiencing the fatherhood of God through the local church, we are offered a family forged by his love that we are called to share with others.

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He also serves as Executive Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. You can find him on twitter: @andrewtwalk.

Wed, 19 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
The Deeper Roots of Youth Anxiety by Joseph E. Davis

Megan, 19, wants to stand out and be “the person,” but she perceives herself to be falling short. The problem began in high school. She attended an elite academy, where she began “to feel like I was mediocre or below average.” Earlier, at a regular school, she “was the smartest person in the class” and had been on the gifted and talented track since the fifth grade. This heady recognition made her feel special. But then came the academy, where she was surrounded by very bright, high-achieving kids. She began to “feel marginalized” and yearned to “feel special again.” These feelings carried over into college.

Although she is now a scholarship student at a first-rate university, Megan is frustrated and despairing of herself. She explains that she is attending her “safety school” and wants to “show that I should be somewhere better by acing all my classes and being president of 40 organizations.” But, she adds, “that is really not happening. I am, if anything, a mediocre student … and that just makes me so angry at the world and then me for not being the person.” Although she wants “to impress someone,” she says, “I end up being impressively unimpressive,” and that “crushes me.” 

Megan is one of the many young people that I, with the help of my students, have interviewed over the past decade. Stories like hers are not unique. The distress of America's young people continues to attract attention from the media and experts.1 Anxiety in teens is on the rise and constitutes the leading mental health issue among American youth. Frequently-cited surveys show that the number of adolescents diagnosed with an anxiety disorder is growing, more and more high school seniors are reporting feeling overwhelmed, and the past-month prevalence of college students feeling “overwhelming anxiety” surpasses 40 percent.2

What’s going on? Psychologists, who provide most of the commentary, put their finger on a number of social phenomena contributing to all the distress. The causes they mention include the active shooter drills and preoccupations with safety now common in schools, the constant and insidious comparisons kids make to each other on social media, the high stakes testing and college admissions process, and the “over-parented, over-trophied” ways in which so many children are raised. And the solutions they offer for high anxiety typically center on medical interventions, such as behavioral therapy or medication in the more severe cases and, generally, on the teaching of life skills that promote resilience, mindfulness, wellness, and the like. Young people, they tell us, are either too sheltered or not sheltered enough and are therefore prone to distorted “habits of thought” in the face of challenges and disappointment, and so they need to learn to think critically and put things in their proper perspective.3

These observations and recommendations certainly have merit. But I want to suggest that they do not go deep enough. They miss something fundamental about how childhood itself has been reconfigured and therefore what may be the greatest sources of unease.

In my experience of listening to young people talk about the pressures of their social worlds, what stands out is the way in which they are required to conceive of their lives. Much of what once constituted a way of life that was imparted to children—involving traditions and communal purpose, rites of passage and stable institutional reference points—has disappeared. Now, youth like Megan must define themselves and the shape of their lives—who they want to be and become—by primarily referencing their own preferences, desires, and choices. They are urged to project a future and treat themselves and the social world as though every constraint and limitation is essentially malleable. Obstacles are “variables” that can be moderated or eliminated by their hard work and creative efforts. And they are virtually compelled to represent this biographical project, this “story you choose to live in,” as one young man put it, to others—from peers to college admissions officers—in a way that demonstrates and confirms its upward progress and realization. 

For young people, especially, enacting their life in terms of choice carries many risks. It creates a powerful and relentless type of ethical responsibility for their own well-being. They become their choices, so to speak, in the sense that their choices are taken—by themselves and by others—as the realization of their personal attributes, values, and priorities, as reflecting back upon them as the sort of person they are, and as demanding justification with reasons, motives, and aspirations. In the face of failure, confusion, or disapproval, decisions cannot be attributed to social obligations, institutional norms, or role requirements. 

And, as young people are only too aware, this self-making project is not made in a vacuum. It is made in a context of status competition and constant comparison and in light of often unforgiving ideals and normative expectations. Among these expectations, the duty to stand out and to attain their distinctive potential are particularly fraught. 

A high school senior I interviewed told me that the measure of success is to be able to walk into the cafeteria and have everyone know who you are: “Not that you know them, but they all know you.” The ideal is to distinguish yourself from others, to forge a life that others will take notice of and even envy. Failing to do so can bring shame and humiliation.

Indeed, some young people fear a precipitous loss of status. Like Megan, another college student I spoke to was distressed because she was insufficiently demonstrating the special qualities she was presumed to possess. This failure to “be somebody,” she told me, shows that she is—in herself—a “loser,” a lesser type of person that young people often contrast with that higher form, the “winner.”

Similarly, it is each person’s duty, as many kids report, to “live up to their potential.” The specific direction is theirs to determine by their own autonomous choices, but the injunction carries unmistakable expectations. One father from California that we interviewed reported that his teenage son, who hopes to attend USC, asked him, “Would you be disappointed if I didn’t go to college?” He responded, “I would be a little bit hurt,” and then offered this further hypothetical response, “but if you tell me, ‘Dad, I want to be a plumber,’ then you know what I’d tell you? You be the best plumber out there. You tell me, ‘Dad, I want to be a mechanic,’ then you be the best mechanic.” Anything less than best, apparently, will be counted a failure, a failure to reach an aptitude that his son both can and should reach. 

I am not questioning the good intentions of parents. As one student, Sarah, explained of her parents’ expectations, “They just hope for better for you and for you to be all you can be.” Surely, that’s right. But the message may be mixed. Potential is a language of possibilities, of as yet unrealized and untapped abilities. It implies the overcoming of limitations and, whatever one’s achievements, a continuous demand for more. There is no blood test to determine if you are being “all you can be.” The only way to know, as Sarah herself intimated, is to prove to others and yourself that you can be a lot. 

Surveys of young people, in fact, document the “soaring” and “absurdly ambitious” educational and occupational expectations they often have for themselves.4 In a 2019 survey, 3,000 American adolescents, most aged 14-17, were asked about their aspirations for adulthood. How important, for instance, was it to them to become “powerful and influential” as an adult? Tellingly, 21% indicated “absolutely essential,” and another 27% as “very important.” Less than a quarter ranked it as not very important.5

As has long been recognized, the inability to realize important goals produces high rates of distress. Being “impressive” and being the “best” at whatever one does are two such goals. They are not the only ones, and the list could go on to include other attributes and markers of a good self, from being smart and outgoing to being fit and athletic. Flipped around, the list is a chronicle of the ever-expanding ways to fall short, disappoint, and be inadequate. Almost inevitably, young people find themselves struggling to measure up.

While no account is complete, we cannot appreciate the anxiety, sense of burden, and feelings of unfairness that young people express—actively or in dropping out—without recognizing how leaving kids to their supposed autonomy helps produce these problems.

Joseph E. Davis is a Research Professor of Sociology and Moderator of the Picturing the Human colloquy of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. His new book, Chemically Imbalanced: Everyday Suffering, Medication, and our Troubled Quest for Self-Mastery, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in February. 

1. See, for example, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” New York Times Magazine, 10/11/17; and Amy Ellis Nutt, “Why Kids and Teens May Face Far more Anxiety these Days,” The Washington Post, 5/8/18.

2. Rebecca H. Bitsko, “Epidemiology and Impact of Health Care Provider-Diagnosed Anxiety and Depression Among US Children.” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics39, no. 5 (2018): 395-403. Ellen Barba Stolzenberg, et al. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2018. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2019. American College Health Association. “ACHA-NCHA Assessment II: Undergraduate Student Executive Summary Spring 2019.” Silver Spring, MD: ACHA, 2019. 

3. See, for example, Jelena Kecmanovic, “Excessive Worrying? A Psychologist Sees a Spike in Anxiety and Offers Tips” Washington Post, 11/4/19.  Hara Estroff Marano, “Crisis U,” Psychology Today (September 2015); Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015. 

4. For example, Chardie L. Baird, Stephanie W. Burge, and John R. Reynolds, “Absurdly Ambitious? Teenagers’ Expectations for the Future and the Realities of Social Structure,” Sociology Compass 2, no. 3 (2008): 944–62.

5. National Survey of Moral Formation, designed by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and fielded by the Gallup Organization. (Charlottesville, VA: IASC, 2019).

Tue, 18 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
The Collapse of International Adoption is a Tragedy by Naomi Schaefer Riley (@NaomiSRiley)

In January, Bethany Christian Services announced that it would not be renewing its accreditation to do international adoption. As one of the largest providers of international adoption services in the U.S., this is quite a blow. But Bethany’s leadership has seen the writing on the wall. In 2018, there were only about 4,000 intercountry adoptions to the U.S. That’s compared with a high in 2004 of almost 23,000.

These drastic changes are partly the result of other countries like Russia shutting down their adoption programs and partly the result of our own State Department making international adoption more difficult, as I wrote last year. The bureaucratic headaches and expenses have multiplied. According to the State Department, adoption service providers charged a median price of $6,000 in 2008, compared with a median of over $30,000 in 2018. A lot of this money is going for lawyers or to grease the palms of bureaucrats in other countries. And it doesn’t even include, say, the cost of hotels where families have to stay for days if not weeks in another country waiting for paperwork to go through. (As Mark Montgomery and Irene Powell point out in their book Saving International Adoption, what’s amazing is that none of this money can ever go to a birth mother—even to pay for the education or healthcare of her other children.) It is not uncommon for families to borrow money from family or friends or to raise money through their church community to help defray these expenses.  

Given how difficult and expensive it is to adopt internationally, it is not surprising that Bethany has determined its resources could be put to better use. And Bethany is not alone. In the past few years, other adoption agencies, including Adoption Matters, Inc. and Christian Family Services, have also relinquished their accreditation. 

Bethany is trying to put the best face on this decision that they can. Their statement read in part: 

Bethany began serving children in South Korea because orphanages were overwhelmed with vast numbers of healthy infants. Today, many children who can’t be cared for by their own families are being adopted into loving homes in their country of birth. This is a good thing, and we praise God for it. We look forward to building on the foundation and relationships made by Bethany’s international adoption programs to help those same kids and many more within their home countries.

It is certainly true that it would be better if children could be adequately cared for in their own countries and that some countries have become more open to the prospect of taking in strangers’ children. But frankly, that’s still a rarity in most of the world. Yes, as Montgomery and Powell explain, it is often possible to get people to take in a child if you offer them enough money, but other countries don’t necessarily have the same conception of adoption as we do. The child that they take in is not considered their “real” child in the long term. An adoptive child would be unlikely to inherit, for instance. 

Other cultures might be more open to what we think of as adoption but never across racial lines the way Americans do. Harvard Professor Elizabeth Bartholet has chronicled the “disgusted” reaction she received in Peru from a pediatrician when she adopted a dark-skinned child. 

And then there are the children with special medical needs, whose home countries do not have the resources to care for them. Maybe Bethany and other organizations can use their funds to provide the kind of medical care that these children would need in order to fix cleft palates or partial blindness. But for other kinds of issues that require long-term treatment, it is hard to imagine how countries with families already mired in poverty and dysfunction are going to start taking in strangers’ children that require this kind of intensive intervention. There’s a reason that these children end up in orphanages in their home countries to begin with. All of which is to say that for the tens of thousands of American parents who would welcome an infant of any race and with all kinds of problems, but even more so for the children who will be left to languish, the collapse of international adoption is a tragedy. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  

Mon, 17 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
Friday Five 313 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

What Do Parents Need to Know About Teens and Sexting?
Samuel Ehrenreich, Nevada Today

The Evolution of Fathering Research in the 21st Century: Persistent Challenges, New Directions
Sarah J. Schoppe‐Sullivan and Jay Fagan, Journal of Marriage and Family

Dating Across the Aisle is Difficult in the Age of Trump
Daniel A. Cox, American Enterprise Institute

How Does Parental Work-Family Conflict Impact on Children’s Mental Health?
Andisheh Vahedi, Isabel Krug and Elizabeth Westrupp, Emerging Minds

Recognizing Family-Centered Social Media: The 2020 Family Is Awards
The Richard and Linda Eyre Family Is Awards


Fri, 14 Feb 2020 08:00:00 -0500
When Wants Conflict with Needs: A Response to David Brooks by Scott Stanley (@DecideOrSlide)

Editor’s NoteThe following essay from Scott Stanley is the sixth response in the Institute for Family Studies' week-long symposium on David Brooks' new essay on the nuclear family

In a provocative article covering an array of societal challenges, David Brooks declares that “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake.” I share many of his concerns, but I believe he errs by implying that, in a maelstrom of change, the nuclear family is the villain in our story. 

From the standpoint of biology, sociology, psychology, or of different faiths, it is widely accepted that little humans have advantages if they are looked after by two adults sharing a bond. Although scholars can argue the reasons why, and there are plenty of exceptions to the general case, a strong commitment between two parents is a fundamental good. That will often take the form of a nuclear family, which may or may not be further connected in a community. 

Brooks acknowledges the benefits of two-parent families and of marriage, refining his focus from the sweeping accusation of the title to detached nuclear families. Disconnection and isolation are his real targets. To me, the nuclear family seems like a passenger along for the ride in a car leaving the scene of the crimes Brooks describes—when the car is driven by us. By us, I mean most of us, motivated by our desires for autonomy and freedom. 

In fact, Brooks states, “We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families.” That is a profound truth, and it describes what gets too little attention from Brooks. He says the market wants us to live in greater isolation, but maybe it’s us doing the wanting. He is especially disturbed that autonomy and separated living are so clearly displayed in countries with the most concentrated wealth. A lot of the problems we see may be caused by what most people want—even if those things also have downsides for individuals and society. 

I remember being in a room of scholars 20 or more years ago when family historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead argued that much of the increase in family fragmentation then observed was driven by growing affluence. She was not referring to wealth inequality but to the growing affluence across America that gave wings to autonomy. 

Brooks points to how many fewer elderly Americans now live with kin than in the past. An unasked question is, how many elderly Americans want to have less autonomy and live with their kin? Many elderly adults in America are isolated and at increased risk. More than a few want increased connection with family and a growing number simply have no kin. But many others cling to their autonomy and will fight to keep it until reality forces them to do otherwise. In the past, few people had the option to preserve autonomy in this way. Some forms of living that Brooks extols as better in the past were quite likely, and largely, driven by poverty, fear, and necessity. 

David Brooks errs in making the nuclear family the fall guy for very real and complex problems in family inequality and individual opportunity.

I am not arguing that there is virtue in isolation and atomization. I do think we are losing, or letting go of, common spaces for connection in our lives. Many of us want what may not actually be best for us or those around us. Paul Amato and colleagues wrote an insightful book on the growing trend for couples to isolate and be Alone Together. It’s Bowling Alone for two. This trend toward isolation has many causes, and, as Brooks notes, the consequences are different for those with and without means. As Sarah Halpern-Meekin has written, those in poverty are not merely suffering from economic poverty but also from Social Poverty. She suggests this is a growing problem for all with particular challenges for those struggling with economic hardship. 

What do people seem to want? You can infer the most about what people truly desire when they have more options and fewer constraints. As a group, those with higher education and incomes—those with the most options—are now over-represented among those with stable marriages and nuclear families. Although it might have changed since they first wrote on the subject, Katherine Edin and Maria Kefalas found that the desire to marry exists among the poor despite barriers in reaching that goal. People have preferences, the expression of which is affected by their quality of opportunity.

Not only are those with more education choosing marriage, they are also increasingly sorting into two-parent families with the best odds for a stable family life. Many scholars, including Andrew Cherlin and Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang, have remarked on the resulting chasm between the haves and have nots. Not everyone wants marriage, and fewer adults than ever before desire to be parents, but those with the best options seem to be the most likely to choose a marriage-based, nuclear family. As Cherlin suggests and Brooks implies, this fact is becoming a multiplier of income and wealth inequality, but I do not think that having fewer nuclear families is going to lead to having more extended families with connections. Brooks errs in making the nuclear family the fall guy for very real and complex problems in family inequality and individual opportunity. 

It helps no one to imply that a common form of family that many people desire and benefit from is at the root of society’s problems, but I agree with Brooks that isolation is winning out over community. Along with detailing various types of government efforts that be believes may help in the broader context, he brings his essay home by focusing on ways we can work toward creating more social connection. This is, in part, the province of commitment on a personal level. While we naturally eschew constraints in favor of freedom, commitment is making a choice to give up some choices—it is choosing to be constrained for something better. There is more than one way to forge connectedness rooted in commitment. 

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies (@DecideOrSlide). 


Wed, 12 Feb 2020 12:00:00 -0500
David Brooks is Urging Us to Go Forward, not Backward by Andrew Cherlin (@AndrewCherlin)

Editor’s NoteThe following essay from Andrew Cherlin is the fifth response in the Institute for Family Studies' week-long symposium on David Brooks' new essay on the nuclear family. We will be publishing more responses to David Brooks throughout this week, so stay tuned.

In The Atlantic, David Brooks presents his thought-provoking proposal for addressing the ills of the American family—what he describes as forming “forged families”—as if it were a return to the family patterns of the past. It’s more accurately seen, however, as an embrace of newer forms of family life that have been developed by particular groups—African Americans, LGBTQ individuals, remarried people, and so on. They are the innovators in developing kinship-like relationships that go beyond the bond of biology and the legally-recognized ties of marriage and are sometimes referred to as families of choice.

As Brooks acknowledges, these groups have been blazing the trail that he now wants more Americans to follow. For African Americans, the destruction of family ties under slavery and the discrimination faced since then have made reaching out to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins imperative. For LGBTQ individuals, the rejection they sometimes face from their families of origin and, until recently, their exclusion from the institution of marriage have led them to build their own families, where they combine any biological kin who may accept them with partners and close friends whose long-term relationships take on the character of kinship. For divorced and re-partnered individuals, multi-partner fertility and stepfamily ties necessarily take them beyond the nuclear family. 

But in the past, white families were rarely centered on large family groups. To be sure, there were more “corporate” families, as historian Steven Ruggles calls them; yet these were primarily farm families in which an older parent might be present but that rarely included more than one married child or any uncles or cousins. When British historian Alan Macfarlane went searching through centuries of records for evidence that large extended families commonly existed in the English past, he could not find any. In the United States, although the greater extended clan might gather for holidays, weddings, and funerals, they were not a presence in everyday life. The large extended family existed as a sentimental ideal that was rarely achieved—what sociologist William J. Goode once called “the classical family of Western nostalgia.”

Brooks is to be commended for arguing to conservatively-minded observers that a large-scale return to the nuclear family is unlikely except among the privileged, while also maintaining that the alternative families defended by liberals have worked out poorly for the unprivileged.     

Still, Brooks is right to recognize that nuclear families today work best for adults who can find stable employment at decent wages—a shrinking group that includes most college-educated people but a decreasing proportion of those without college educations. And he is correct to note that the cultural tide of individualism has eroded the formation and maintenance of life-long marital ties. He is to be commended for arguing to conservatively-minded observers that a large-scale return to the nuclear family is unlikely except among the privileged, while also maintaining that the alternative families defended by liberals have worked out poorly for the unprivileged.     

As a way out of this dilemma, Brooks is asking mainstream Americans to broaden the scope of their families—not because they must but because alternatives, such as nuclear families and single-parent families, are too limited to succeed in today’s economic and cultural milieu. He urges Americans to undertake the work of creating and expanding kinship as a way to make their families stronger and more resilient. He is, in effect, asking them to learn from the kinship work done by Americans who are outside of the mainstream and who have had no choice except to innovate.  

But one must recognize that forged families have some limitations. These kinship ties are easier to break because they are voluntary; neither strong norms nor laws stand in the way of ending them. They also take continual work to maintain: Although your sister is always your sister and your spouse is always your spouse, your close friend is part of your forged family only as long as you and she actively support each other.  

Nevertheless, Brooks’s intriguing proposal deserves our consideration. It could provide a way forward for the many working-class and lower-middle-class individuals who want strong, stable family bonds but who can’t maintain—or at least believe that they can’t maintain—the model nuclear family of the past.

Andrew Cherlin is Chair of the Department of Sociology and Director of the Program on Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Love's Labor Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America.

Wed, 12 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
David Brooks Is Correct: Both the Quality and Quantity of Our Relationships Matter by Richard V. Reeves (@RichardVReeves)

Editor’s NoteThe following essay from Richard Reeves is the fourth response in the Institute for Family Studies' week-long symposium on David Brooks' new essay on the nuclear family. We will be publishing more responses to David Brooks throughout this week, so stay tuned.

It’s embarrassing to admit, since I work in a Center on Children and Families, but I had never really thought about the word “relative” until I read the  new Atlantic essay from David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” 

In everyday language, relatives are just the people you are related to. But what does that mean? Sometimes, we prefix the term to make it clearer still, referring to blood relatives, as opposed to those, say, to whom we are “related” through marriage. The in-laws are relatives, too. So the question is: what relationships make a relative? 

Scholars working in this field usually start with a social structure like “the family,” and then study the relationships within them. Marriages and parent-child relationships are the most obvious examples here. 

Brooks turns this approach on its head. He starts with relationships and then examines the circumstances in which they form and flourish. By assessing the history of the family through a relational rather than a structural lens, he breaks free of some of the fetters that cramp many contemporary debates on the family. 

Rather than obsessing over specific structures—in particular the “traditional nuclear family” which, as he points out, is rather a modern invention—we should instead focus on our relational life. Specifically, we can look at the quality and quantity of our relationships. 

Relationship Quality

In “Family is Family,” Kacey Musgraves sings

Family is family, in church or in prison/You get what you get, and you don't get to pick 'em/
They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys/
Yeah, friends come in handy, but family is family.

But, as Brooks points out, the quality of family relationships is far from guaranteed. All of us know plenty of blood relationships that have been sour, or even abusive. “Chosen” families may provide better, more committed, more loving relationships; friends may often be much more than handy. We can form close ties between us that go beyond blood, that are closer to the idea of a clan than a family. The echo of this kind of relationship is in the description of someone as a “kindred spirit.”

The idea of a “chosen” family is consistent with the development of modern liberalism, in which relationships are contingent rather than coerced. There is no legal requirement, for example, for children to take care of their parents (only the other way round). We can, then, create “fictive kin,” and create our own families.

Relational pluralism is visible in the language used by those drafting policies or legislation for family leave. In the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1516) Section 5 b) 3, for example, paid sick leave would cover “an absence for the purpose of caring for a child, a parent, a spouse, a domestic partner, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship” (my italics). There are similar phrases in law and corporate policies across the land

The definition here of who counts as “family” relies on a certain relational quality that is seen as the “equivalent” of a family relationship without therefore being restricted to it. While the language can become tortuous here, the intent is correct—to allow people to define family for themselves. This does not mean that most people are going to abandon their blood family and join a Californian commune of some kind. Liberal societies don’t result in a mass exodus from family responsibilities. It turns out that the overwhelming majority of people do, in fact, feel close or at least committed to the other members of their family and don’t need to be forced into family. 

By assessing the history of the family through a relational rather than a structural lens, Brooks breaks free of some of the fetters that cramp many contemporary debates on the family. 

Relationship Quantity

Brooks also applies an important quantitative test to relational life. The question is not just how good our relationships are, but how plentiful. This is why he argues in favor of the extended family, as opposed to the “detached” or “decentralized” nuclear version. You can’t have an extended family without plenty of extensions. As Brooks writes: 

An extended family is one or more families in a supporting web. Your spouse and children come first, but there are also cousins, in-laws, grandparents—a complex web of relationships among, say, seven, 10, or 20 people. If a mother dies, siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents are there to step in. If a relationship between a father and a child ruptures, others can fill the breach. Extended families have more people to share the unexpected burdens—when a kid gets sick in the middle of the day or when an adult unexpectedly loses a job. A detached nuclear family, by contrast, is an intense set of relationships among, say, four people. If one relationship breaks, there are no shock absorbers.

Again, what counts here is not the specific structures but the extent to which they are connected to one another. In an extended family, boundaries are porous. One of the two main advantages of a porous, connected, extended family, according to Brooks, is social insurance—the “shock absorber.” This seems right. Witness the number of children being raised by grandparents as a result of the opioid epidemic.

Brooks argues that a series of changes—more geographical mobility, larger and more comfortable houses, mothers being at work rather than at home—have hardened the boundaries between families, whether neighbors or kin. (It is worth noting, however, that rates of geographical mobility have fallen sharply in the last couple of decades—which suggests the web may be less stretched than in the past). 

The second major advantage is to share the work of socializing children. If it “takes a village” to raise a child, we probably should not leave it to one or two parents. Here socialization is seen as a shared, diffused responsibility rather than a narrow, privatized one. Again, this seems right: the privatization of childrearing puts huge pressure on parents. In this sense, we need socialization of the means of reproduction. 

An important implication of the relational frame is that this is partly a simple numbers game. This is a case where, everything else equal, more is just better. More people equal many more relationships. But as Brooks points out, the proportion of households with five or more people has halved since 1970 (from 20% to 10%).

It is striking that he opens the essay with a reference to Barry Levinson’s movie Avalon, featuring the stories of five siblings. By today’s standards, that is a big family. It is a feature of networks that the number of relationships rises exponentially with the addition of more nodes. In a group of three people (say, two parents and a single child) there are just three relationships. In a group of four, there are six, five has 10, and so on. Even the two-generation nuclear version of the Levinson (two parents, five kids) contained 21 relationships.

One of the fears of some sociologists is that as families shrink, older people will get lonelier, simply because they will have fewer children or grandchildren. Brad Wilcox has highlighted the plight of older men and women without family, a group the Chinese have labeled “bare branches.”

Again, the numbers matter a lot. If you have three children who each have three children, you’ll end up (if they all survive) with 12 offspring across the two generations. But if you have one, who has one, well, you’ll have just two. In some ways, this all seems so obvious, it scarcely seems worth saying. But if Brooks is right that what matters is not only the quality but the sheer quantity of our supportive relationships, the math starts to matter a lot. 

If it’s true that the quality and quantity of our relationships are what really matter—and I think Brooks is right to suggest this—the challenge for all of us is to create a culture where relationships of all kinds have the time, spaces, and resources to form and deepen. 

Richard V. Reeves is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he co-directs the Center on Children and Families.

Tue, 11 Feb 2020 12:00:00 -0500
Yes, David Brooks, the Nuclear Family is the Worst Family Form—Except for All Others by Kay Hymowitz (@KayHymowitz)

Editor’s NoteThe following essay from Kay Hymowitz is the third response in the Institute for Family Studies' week-long symposium on David Brooks' new essay on the nuclear family. We will be publishing more responses to David Brooks throughout this week, so stay tuned.

For the past several years, David Brooks has made the decline of American communities and social isolation central themes in his writing. For those of us who share his alarm over these trends, he has been an indispensable voice.

So, it comes as a surprise to read “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” Brooks’ new essay featuring a flawed history that negates both its argument and its solutions for a society that is, as I fully agree, “too detached, disconnected, and distrustful.”

Like other skeptics of the nuclear family, Brooks describes the arrangement as a recent historical aberration replacing the more long-standing extended family. In his telling, by stranding parents and children on their own little island without the organic safety net of grandparents, that shift attenuated social connectedness and support. Wealthy people may be able to afford to purchase child care, prepared foods, and many other services once freely provided by grandparents and other relatives. But for the rest, he argues, the nuclear family has been “a disaster.” His solution is “forged families” made up of self-selecting individuals instead of blood and marriage kin.

However, the premise of this narrative can’t survive the cold light of history. Scholars now pretty much agree that the nuclear family household has been the “dominant form” in Western Europe and the United States since the dawn of the industrial era. In fact, demographic realities made extended families an impossibility. Brooks, citing family historian Steven Ruggles, states that “[u]ntil 1850, three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their kids and grandkids.” That’s true, but it slides past the fact that there simply weren’t many 65-year-olds above ground; U.S. life expectancy stood at only 40 in 1850.  In data published in a 1994 paper, Ruggles estimated that as of 1880, more than two-thirds of white couples, the large majority with children, lived in independent households. The anomaly was the extended family, not the nuclear family.

What about the black family, often held up by nuclear family doubters as a resilient alternative to the nuclear “white family?” True, after the Civil War, extended families made up a larger percentage of black households than they did white. But those families were still the minority: Ruggles estimates that extended families were only 22.5% of black households in 1880; the number climbed till about 1940, but it never went above 26 percent. Far more prevalent among blacks was the nuclear model: 57% of black households were married couples, the large majority of them with children. 

The inextinguishable human urge for pair bonding (and its associated childbearing) helps explain both the persistence of the nuclear family and the problems that plague its alternative communal forms.

As demographics changed, the dominant family form did not. Rising life expectancy and falling fertility starting in the latter half of the 19th century meant more surviving grandparents available for a smaller number of couple households. But the share of households with extended families stayed more or less the same. It seems that people preferred the privacy and independence of the nuclear form—despite all its disadvantages. 

Brooks doesn’t talk about marriage in “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” yet the inextinguishable human urge for pair bonding (and its associated childbearing) helps explain both the persistence of the nuclear family and the problems that plague its alternative communal forms. Because humans can’t seem to resist pairing up, couples who break up will likely look for new partners. The partner who moves out will be mourned and newcomers will have to be incorporated into the pre-existing family, whether it is nuclear, extended, or forged. Children will lose crucial daily rituals and contacts—generally with their fathers—and adult networks will be short-circuited. Jealousy, anger, hurt, inconvenient attractions, doubts, and changing allegiances will be no easier to weather in forged, chosen families than they are in nuclear families. In fact, it’s a good guess it would be harder.  

Some of the alternative arrangements Brooks describes, such as in-law apartments and common areas in otherwise conventional apartment buildings, still depend on a solid base of nuclear families. Others, like co-living buildings, are temporary arrangements for singles until the right partner comes along. 

The more radical commune-like experiments he cites have a dismal historical record for some of the reasons I described above. Fruitlands, a "con-sociate" farm founded by the father of Little Women author, Louisa May Alcott, in the mid 19th century lasted seven months before succumbing to food shortages and infighting between and within the two primary families. The kibbutzim of the early Zionists were deliberately designed to free children from the hothouse of the bourgeois family, but this also died a slow death as parents demanded the domestic intimacy they were supposed to forswear. Children who were raised on the kibbutz left in droves. The large majority of the back-to-the-land communes of the 1970s were equally unsuccessful.

The disaster confronting less prosperous Americans is not the nuclear family, but the erosion of socio-economic conditions that help them sustain lasting pair bonds. To do something about the disconnection and instability infecting American life, we need to start there. 

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.

Tue, 11 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
David Brooks Is Right—The Nuclear Family Was Destined to Die by Rod Dreher (@roddreher)

Editor’s NoteThe following essay by Rod Dreher is the second response in the Institute for Family Studies' week-long symposium on David Brooks' new essay on the nuclear family. We will be publishing more responses to David Brooks throughout this week, so stay tuned.

In The Atlantic today, David Brooks says the nuclear family has actually been falling apart for a hundred years. Carle C. Zimmerman would have agreed with him. In his unjustly forgotten 1947 book Family And Civilization, the Harvard sociologist said that Americans had built a culture that conspired against family formation—the very thing that makes our civilization possible. Zimmerman wrote:

There is little left now within the family or the moral code to hold this family together. Mankind has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well. Whatever may be our Pollyanna inclination, this fact cannot be avoided. Under any assumptions, the implications will be far-reaching for the future not only of the family but of our civilization as well. The question is no longer a moral one; it is social. It is no longer familistic; it is cultural. The very continuation of our culture seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.

Zimmerman did not foresee the Baby Boom, which was just beginning as he published, but otherwise, he was on target. Though not a religious believer, Zimmerman observed that the Christian churches of the 1940s collectively represented the only force resisting the disintegration of the family. 

It must have seemed that way once, but it has not been the case for a very long time. As Mary Eberstadt argued in her 2013 book, How The West Really Lost God, the very continuation of the church also seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.

In talking with my own Christian friends struggling in their marriages, it is clear that in almost all cases—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—the institutional church is not a meaningful part of shoring up their commitment to marriage, except in an abstract sense. For most, congregational life is the thinnest of communities. Catholics, for example, lament that their parishes are impersonal “sacrament factories.” Evangelicals tell me that their congregations may be somewhat thicker, but like all other American Christian churches, are so saturated by individualism that they can’t persuasively frame marriage as much more than a lightly sacralized contract between willing parties. There is no escaping modernity. 

We will not have a revival of the family without a revival of religion—and not just sentimental, therapeutic Christianity, but a rigorous, disciplined, countercultural form of the faith that can impart to people the hope they need to embrace suffering and choose life amid the dissipation and decadence of the world.

Why are the churches so absent, or at least so impotent, in the task of forming and defending families? Brooks writes:

Eli Finkel, a psychologist and marriage scholar at Northwestern University, has argued that since the 1960s, the dominant family culture has been the “self-expressive marriage.” “Americans,” he has written, “now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.” Marriage, according to the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, “is no longer primarily about childbearing and childrearing. Now marriage is primarily about adult fulfillment.” 

So is religion! And it became so at the same time that marriage and family were changing, under the same atomizing pressures. As early as the mid-1960s, the sociologist Philip Rieff identified the profound therapeutic shift in American culture, and the self-deceptive eagerness of the clergy to pretend it wasn’t happening. 

Brooks explains that people today are experimenting with new forms of family-like communal living—“forged families” as he puts it—who are trying to find something to replace what we have lost. One can only hope for their success, but no reader of Zimmerman can be optimistic that family systems can recover absent real religious commitment. The same experimentation is beginning to happen here and there in Christian life. The renunciation of the contemporary concept of marriage and religion as about self-fulfillment, and the rediscovery of both as self-sacrificial, firmly grounded in the divine, is the only way out of this dark wood.

This is, obviously, a narrow and unappealing path, and not many will take it— until they learn, as the pilgrim Dante did at the start of his arduous journey, that all other ways forward are closed. 

Family And Civilization is a work of historical sociology in which the author explains how the rise and fall of Greek, Roman, and medieval European civilizations depended on changing family forms. Zimmerman makes a case that the “atomistic” family—what we call the nuclear family—is always the final form before civilization collapses, having lost to hedonism and radical individualism what is needed to hold society together. 

Zimmerman concluded his great book by reiterating that we know why civilization is falling apart—“the lack of a basic belief in the forces which make it work”— and we know that eventually, “the necessary remedy” will be applied. 

Zimmerman’s tragedy is that he, as a man of social science and not of faith, could not admit the conclusion to which his premises lead: that civilization will not recover until it collectively rediscovers religion—one that, like early and medieval Christianity, puts family and fertility close to the center of both its authoritative belief system and lived experience.

We will not have a revival of the family without a revival of religion—and not just sentimental, therapeutic Christianity, but a rigorous, disciplined, countercultural form of the faith that can impart to people the hope they need to embrace suffering and choose life amid the dissipation and decadence of the world. It has been said before, and it remains true: we really are waiting for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

Rod Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservative and author of  The Benedict Option (Sentinel, 2017).

Mon, 10 Feb 2020 12:00:00 -0500
What Do We Know About Extended Families in America? A Response to David Brooks by Wendy Wang (@WendyRWang) and W. Bradford Wilcox (@WilcoxNMP)

Editor’s NoteThe following by Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox is the first response in the Institute for Family Studies' symposium on David Brooks' new essay on the nuclear family. We will be publishing more responses to David Brooks throughout this week and next week.

In his new Atlantic essay, David Brooks contends that the model of “a married couple with 2.5 kids” was an anomaly in the 1950s and 1960s, and that this nuclear family model is no longer working for many Americans, especially those who are less privileged. To address our family crisis, Brooks argues we need to break out of the nuclear-family-is-best mindset and “thicken and broaden” family relationships by incorporating extended families and “families of choice” (e.g., friends, co-religionists, and other voluntary groups living together) as better ways to raise children.

We do not know much about forged families given the limited data, but today, Brooks’ strategy of relying on extended family appears to be most appealing to Americans who have not been able to forge a stable marriage of their own. According to our new analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Pew Research Center, men and women are most likely to live with and rely upon their own parents when they are divorced or have never married. And, contrary to the more optimistic gloss Brooks puts on such multi-generational arrangements, adults who live with extended families are not necessarily happier. 

Here are three data points on extended family relationships in America today:

1. A majority of Americans with children who live with extended families are not married. 

The demographic profile of multi-generational families with kids suggests that a majority of adults with children in this arrangement (65%) are either never married (46%) or divorced, separated or widowed (19%), according to our analysis of Census data. 

Adults with children who live with their parents are also disproportionately non-white. About 41% of parents who live with extended families are white, compared with 58% of parents who do not live with their parents. Education levels of parents in multi-generational families are somewhat lower: 19% of parents in this setting are college educated, compared with 37% of parents who do not live with extended families. 

Raising children with extended families is not common in America. Overall, 8% of Americans ages 18 to 50 with children live in the same household as their parent(s). The share of never-married parents in this living arrangement is much higher than others. Nearly a quarter of never-married adults with children (23%) live with their parents, compared with 4% of married couples. 

Multi-generational living also differs by race/ethnicity. Minority families with kids are about twice as likely as whites to have grandparents in the house. At the same time, parents living in a multi-generational household is rare among those with a college education (4%), but more common for those with a high school or less education (11%).     

 2. Intergenerational transfers happen more often between never-married adults and their parents.  

A plurality of never-married Americans with parents ages 65 and older (42%) said that they are currently responsible for caring for an aging parent or elderly family member, according to our analysis of data from a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. Among married adults with older parents, only 30% said so. The share among divorced adults or those living with a partner is also lower.

The responsibility for elder care varies by race/ethnicity. Among adults whose parents are 65 years or older, Hispanics (41%) and blacks (38%) are more likely than whites (29%) to say they are responsible for caring for an aging parent or another elderly family member. (The sample size for Asians was too small to analyze).  

Gender also makes a difference. Women are more likely than men to say that they are the caregivers for their aging parents or other elderly family members (35% vs. 28%).

On the other side, adults with children often benefit from the help provided by their parents, especially in terms of child care. In this case, never-married adults with children are more likely to get child care help from their own parents than other adults with children. One- third of never-married parents said that their parents have helped them with child care in the past 12 months, compared with 26% of married parents, 24% of cohabiting parents, and 22% of parents who are divorced, separated or widowed. 

Receiving child care from grandparents varies by the education of the adults, but in a different direction. College-educated adults with children (33%) are more likely than those with high school or less education (20%) to have received child care help from their parents in the past 12 months. 

3. Adults who live with their parents are less happy than others. 

For adults with parents ages 65 and older, the same Pew Research Center survey also asked whether their parents (or stepparents) lived with them in their home for most of the year. Our analysis shows that adults who live under the same roof as their parents are less happy in general and not as satisfied with their family life as others who do not live with their parents.

The sample size of adults whose parents live with them is not big enough for us to break down by demographic characteristics. But this initial finding suggests that, at least from the adults’ perspective, living with an elderly parent may be challenging. Or it could be that adults who are more distressed are more likely to live with their elderly parents.

The story may be different for young adults ages 18 to 34, the group who moved back home during the recession but is now more likely to live with their parents than to live in their own home (with either a spouse or cohabiting partner). We don’t currently have data on how young adults feel about living with their parents, but other research has suggested that parents are generally happier when their adult kids move out of the house. In general, then, the data does not indicate that multi-generational living is linked to more happiness. 

This review of demographic and attitudinal data gives just a glimpse into extended families where children are being raised and how generations of modern-day Americans interact and feel. The data suggest two conclusions about David Brooks’ article, “The Nuclear Family Was Never Going to Last.” First, unmarried and especially never-married men and women with children are disproportionately more likely to live with and depend upon their older parents (never-married adults are also more likely to shoulder the responsibility of caring for their aging parents). But it would be a mistake to conclude, at least from the data we currently have, that this extended family model is necessarily a happier one than the nuclear model. 

Wendy Wang is the director of research for the Institute for Family Studies. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Mon, 10 Feb 2020 09:05:00 -0500
Symposium: Was the Nuclear Family a Mistake? by Institute for Family Studies (@FamStudies)

Editor’s NoteThis week, the Institute for Family Studies is hosting a symposium in response to David Brooks’ essay on the nuclear family, which was published online today in The Atlantic. Respondents include Richard Reeves, Andrew Cherlin, Kay Hymowitz, Scott StanleyRod Dreher, and Andrew T. Walker, along with IFS research director Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox. To kick off the symposium, an excerpt from the essay is included below. 

The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake
David Brooks, The Atlantic

The scene is one many of us have somewhere in our family history: Dozens of people celebrating Thanksgiving or some other holiday around a makeshift stretch of family tables—siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts. The grandparents are telling the old family stories for the 37th time. “It was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen in your life,” says one, remembering his first day in America. “There were lights everywhere … It was a celebration of light! I thought they were for me.”

The oldsters start squabbling about whose memory is better. “It was cold that day,” one says about some faraway memory. “What are you talking about? It was May, late May,” says another. The young children sit wide-eyed, absorbing family lore and trying to piece together the plotline of the generations.

After the meal, there are piles of plates in the sink, squads of children conspiring mischievously in the basement. Groups of young parents huddle in a hallway, making plans. The old men nap on couches, waiting for dessert. It’s the extended family in all its tangled, loving, exhausting glory. This particular family is the one depicted in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film, Avalon, based on his own childhood in Baltimore. Five brothers came to America from Eastern Europe around the time of World War I and built a wallpaper business. For a while, they did everything together, like in the old country. But as the movie goes along, the extended family begins to split apart. Some members move to the suburbs for more privacy and space. One leaves for a job in a different state. The big blowup comes over something that seems trivial but isn’t: The eldest of the brothers arrives late to a Thanksgiving dinner to find that the family has begun the meal without him.

“You cut the turkey without me?” he cries. “Your own flesh and blood! … You cut the turkey?” The pace of life is speeding up. Convenience, privacy, and mobility are more important than family loyalty. “The idea that they would eat before the brother arrived was a sign of disrespect,” Levinson told me recently when I asked him about that scene. “That was the real crack in the family. When you violate the protocol, the whole family structure begins to collapse.” 

Continue reading at The Atlantic . . . .



Mon, 10 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
Friday Five 312 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

National Marriage Week: February 7-14, 2020
National Marriage Week USA

The Crisis of Men Without Work with Nicholas Eberstadt
The National Affairs Podcast: Episode 10, American Enterprise Institute

Americans Are Having Fewer Kids. Evangelicals Are No Exception
Liuan Huska, Christianity Today

Family Perspectives (student journal)
Brigham Young University's School of Family Life

UK Has the Fastest Fall in Divorce Rates Across Europe
Harry Benson, Marriage Foundation

Fri, 07 Feb 2020 08:00:00 -0500
The Hollywood Family Paradox: How Moguls’ Morals Dictate Media Content by James L. McQuivey (@jmcquivey)

This Sunday, February 9th, the movie industry will gather to participate in the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, along with a U.S. audience of approximately 30 million television viewers. There will be many things on display—elegance, talent, and creativity among them. But one thing will be conspicuously absent from most of the art being celebrated: the depiction of happily married families. Only one of the films nominated in the best picture category, Little Women, features a happy, stable marriage. 

Hollywood vs. America is film critic Michael Medved’s 1992 book describing the tension between what we see on the silver screen and the lives that most Americans want to live. Nearly 30 years later, the movie content that Medved decried—especially the sexual content—has only increased. 

In that same span, we've not only seen an increase in gratuitous TV and film nudity and sexual content, a la Game of Thrones, but also a lack of depictions of happy, stable families. Thus, the line from Murphy Brown through to today’s Grace and Frankie runs only in one direction. As W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang of IFS described in National Review, the critically-acclaimed hit, Marriage Story, is the most recent in this line of depictions of couples who can’t seem to make marriage work. This, despite the fact that the fancy zip codes in and around Hollywood are as likely or even more likely than the average U.S. neighborhood to feature married households with children. 

Why is Hollywood so taken with portraying lives that many of those who work in the industry choose not to live? While at Syracuse University, I conducted research to explain precisely this paradox. At the time, people claimed that film and TV were full of sexy content because “sex sells.” In a paper I presented at the International Communication Association in 1997, I showed that there was no relationship between box-office receipts and sexual content. Instead, I found a relationship between sexual content and the number of Oscar nominations and awards a film received. 

This is consistent with the media sociology theory of media content. The theory, as proposed by my doctoral advisor, Pamela Shoemaker, explains that decisions about media content are not only made with the audience in mind, but also under the influence of the norms and preferences of media professionals. This includes norms that lead a news producer or TV writer to create content that earns the respect of their industry peers, respect that is confirmed by awards like the Oscar statuette. 

Still, that doesn’t explain why film producers would produce content that portrays families so unlike the actual families in America. After all, if most Americans want to marry and have stable families, and most people in and around Hollywood do, too, shouldn’t that affect the content they expect their audiences and peers to enjoy?

That would be true were it not for the fact that the people in Hollywood with the most power are, for the most part, less likely to have the stable families that the zip codes around Hollywood feature. True, most people in California want to have long-lasting marriages. But as we often see in polygynous empires like the Mogul empire of 16th-century India, a small number of very powerful people often choose not to pair bond but to have a plethora of lovers. It is appropriate that Hollywood power brokers are still referred to using the borrowed term “media moguls.”  

The reason that people in Hollywood so eagerly produce content that does not reflect American lives is that they must impress the moguls to whom they report—moguls like Harvey Weinstein, to be sure. But it’s not just despicable men who dictate moral values in Hollywood. Try to think of a major star in a long-term, stable, faithful marriage. While there are a few notable exceptions, like Tom Hanks, Hugh Jackman, or Denzel Washington, they are a minority among Hollywood actors and actresses and movie producers. 

Consider Jennifer Aniston and her mogul Friends. The six stars of one of the most successful sitcoms ever were part of a show that approving scholars said proved that, “ the face of heterosexual failure and familial dysfunction, all you need are good friends.”1 As moguls who could then ask for $100,000 per episode, these actors are among the small number of power brokers that others in Hollywood want to work with. How are their family lives? Let’s consider them in alphabetical order:

  • Jennifer Aniston, aka Rachel Green. Married in one of the most celebrated weddings of 2000 to Brad Pitt, their marriage was considered a “rare Hollywood success.” That is, until Angelina Jolie showed up, triggering a paparazzi-pleasing divorce scandal. In 2015, Aniston married another Hollywood type, this one behind the camera. In 2017, they were divorced. At present, the final count stands at twice divorced with no children.
  • Courteney Cox, aka Monica Geller. Married to fellow actor David Arquette in 1999, they have a daughter, born in 2004. The separated in 2010 and finally divorced in 2013. A year later, Cox announced an engagement to musician Johnny McDaid, only to call off the engagement soon thereafter when McDaid moved back to England. After a six-month hiatus, they got back together and are happier dating without being married, living on two continents. Final count, one divorce, one child.
  • Lisa Kudrow, aka Phoebe Buffay. Married to Michael Stern in 1995 after dating for six years; the couple had a son in their fourth year of marriage. They are, drumroll please, still married and by all accounts are a happy couple. Final count, the one and only Friends' marriage still in effect, graced by one child.
  • Matt LeBlanc, aka Joey Tribbiani. Married to Melissa McKnight, a model, in 2003. Their daughter was born in 2004. The couple divorced in 2006, and despite some other relationships, LeBlanc remains single and dating. Final count, one divorce, one child.
  • Matthew Perry, aka Chandler Bing. Never married, though he dated Julia Roberts and Yasmine Bleeth, and has no children that we know about. His bouts with addiction are well-known. Let’s not kick a man who’s down. Final count, no marriages, no children.
  • David Schwimmer, aka Ross Geller. Married in 2010 to Zoe Buckman at the age of 44, and their daughter was born in 2011. In 2017, they announced they were taking some time apart from each other, leading ultimately to divorce. Final count, one divorce, one child.

Of six people, we have one continuing marriage, five total divorces, and four children. If the U.S. population was adequately represented by the cast of Friends, we’d have just 17% of adults currently married instead of 45%, and we’d have a population replenishment rate of 1.33, far below the replenishment rate of 2.1 that most demographers think a country needs for population stability.

These actors are wonderfully talented and have earned their fame and success. But let’s face it: it’s not systemic “heterosexual failure and familial dysfunction” that has landed them in their romantic and family outcomes. Kudrow’s rare success as a happily married mogul shows that the choice to have a stable marriage was available to the rest of them. 

Now imagine you’re an up-and-coming writer hoping to pitch a project to Aniston’s agent: you sense a hunger in the country for a movie that features hardworking, stable families that stick together and provide for their children come what may. How do you pitch that? You probably don’t. That’s what my 1997 study and media sociology theory suggests. And it’s what the constant deluge of award-winning movies and TV shows—hardly any of which feature stable marriages—continues to confirm.

James L. McQuivey (Ph.D., Syracuse University) has taught at Boston University and Syracuse University. He is a consumer behaviorist and analyst who is regularly sought for commentary by publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His research into family studies focuses on human mating strategies and the role of parents in determining positive life outcomes. He is the author of the book Why We Need Dad

Editor's Note:  The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

1. Sandell, J. American Studies 39:2, 1998, 141-55.

Thu, 06 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
No College Degree? Don’t Move to a Big City by Robert VerBruggen (@RAVerBruggen)

Numerous developments over the past few years have drawn attention to the plight of small-town America. The opioid epidemic, though well in progress, burst onto the national radar about half a decade ago. Studies have documented that freer trade with China left behind many places that relied on manufacturing employment. And, of course, there was the election of Donald Trump.

The question of what to do with struggling localities has produced a lot of suggestions, but a recurring one is that people should simply leave places where there's no work. On the wonkier side of things, Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders once proposed allowing people who lose their jobs to cash out their future unemployment benefits to fund a move. And on the more rhetorical side, two of my National Review colleagues had an interesting spat a few years back: Michael Brendan Dougherty, then working for The Weekasked what conservatives had to offer to someone struggling in Garbutt, New York. Kevin D. Williamson replied: "Get the h*** out."

But where does one go from Garbutt?

It used to be the case that low-skilled rural workers could earn a lot more if they moved to a big city. But that advantage has declined over the years. And as the cities have filled up and resisted becoming even denser, housing costs have skyrocketed. A new study from Philip Hoxie of the American Enterprise Institute and two coauthors puts these two together—less of a wage premium, higher rents and mortgages—and finds that workers who never went to college actually earn less in denser areas after the cost of housing is subtracted.

This study joins a growing and troubling line of research suggesting that highly productive big cities, through policy choices that limit density and drive up housing costs, are making it harder for the poor and sometimes even the middle class to move in and better themselves. This is not an excuse for staying somewhere where work has dried up, as I'll explain in a bit, but it's certainly a reason to stay out of San Francisco.

Hoxie et al. look at Census Bureau data on working 16-64-year-olds from 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and the 2011-15 period. They separate workers with at least some college from those with none, calculate the workers’ earnings in each of 722 "commuting zones," subtract the cost of housing, and rank the zones based on how dense they were in 1970. 

Here's the key chart from the report based on those breakdowns. It implies that the benefit of moving to a denser area has steadily eroded for lower-skilled workers, and indeed recently turned outright negative. In other words, moving to a denser area actually costs money for those who don't have the education needed to get a high-paying job.

Now, one might nitpick the methods a few ways. In an analysis where the college/non-college distinction is so crucial, I would probably focus on the "prime working age" group of 25-54 rather than including people as young as 16. And there are some ways in which applying that distinction across such a large time period forces one to compare apples with oranges.

According to my own analysis of the Census data, among those who were 16-64 and employed, noncollege workers were the least educated 73% of all workers in 1970 but only the least educated 41% in 2011-15; immigration has also driven substantial demographic shifts in the past half-century, and women’s labor-force participation has risen considerably. Finally, looking within years, the analysis doesn’t control for demographic differences across cities that might cause differences in earnings regardless of density (such as the share of “non-college” workers who lack even a high-school degree, and the precise credentials earned—or not—by workers who attended college), or for differences in the level of social services provided to the working poor, which might offset housing costs.

But whatever marginal differences one might make by tweaking these details, that's one scary chart, and it sends a strong message both to policymakers and individuals thinking about moving.

On the policy front, this is just one study in a long line of such studies pointing out that the nation's biggest, most productive, and most economically vibrant areas have shut out lower-skill and sometimes even middle-class workers through various regulations, from density restrictions in urban cores to single-family zoning in the suburbs

To take just two of the most recent studies, one last year found that housing constraints “lowered aggregate US growth by 36 percent from 1964 to 2009,” and one in 2017 blamed those constraints, in part, for the fact that incomes in different regions are converging less quickly than they used to. These places could grow in size, collect more taxes, provide more opportunities to those born elsewhere, and become even more fearsome economic powerhouses just by letting folks respond to a market demand for more housing. That's basically the fabled $20 bill lying on the sidewalk that no one bothered to pick up yet, though, of course, there are plenty of special interests lined up against making cities and their suburbs even denser than they already are.

But what about the individual level? Certainly, this study shows that low-skilled Americans looking for new opportunities shouldn't seek out density, per se. And it clearly shows they can be frustrated by the lack of opportunity in the biggest cities. Yet the study doesn't quite answer the Garbutt question posed earlier. Maybe someone leaving a downtrodden town shouldn't head to New York or Los Angeles, but that doesn't mean they should stay put.1

Take another gander up at that chart from the study, and remember I said there were 722 commuting zones in the analysis. Each dot obviously doesn't represent a single commuting zone; instead, numerous zones are "binned" together,2 which makes the plot more readable but also obscures the immense differences among places in the U.S.—even places that have the same density.

I obtained the underlying data from the authors and used it to make the following chart, which depicts the after-housing hourly wages of non-college workers in the 2011-15 period. Each dot here represents a single zone, with the sizes representing the places' working-age populations (which, like density, the authors measured as of 1970). For simplicity, I present wages after housing in simple dollar amounts rather than logarithms.

Note: Author's analysis of data provided by Philip Hoxie.

For a person living somewhere at the bottom, there are definitely lots of better places to head. At the extremes, one might find somewhere in which non-college jobs pay 50% more, taking housing into account. (Though remember, that not all "non-college" workers have exactly the same education and other traits, and these data aren't adjusted to account for such differences.) In other words, don't move to density; move to somewhere that similar people thrive, with their earnings covering their dwellings with some money to spare.

As Americans, we do need to ask ourselves how to balance the role of government and the role of personal initiative. But in this case, there's plenty of room for both.          

Robert VerBruggen is an Institute for Family Studies research fellow and a policy writer for National Review Online.

1. If you're curious about Garbutt in particular, in this study it's part of a larger commuting zone that includes Rochester, and where wages after housing for non-college workers amount to roughly $10 an hour. This is pretty typical, so maybe Garbutt isn't so bad if you're willing to commute somewhere nearby for work. I’ve never been there, myself.

2. This is a common but somewhat controversial practice.

Wed, 05 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
When It Comes to Family Life, Hollywood Should Preach What It Practices by Michael Toscano (@MichaelTToscano)

Jane Fonda’s hit show “Grace and Frankie,” now in its sixth season, is about two gals, Grace and Frankie, who raised hell in the 1960s, got rich and settled down, but in their 70s, suddenly, their husbands come out of the closet and get married.

The ladies are hurt, but recovery comes quickly, and nothing, not even in the hearts of their children, is really broken. They move in together, crack jokes, and form a family of sorts, staying close with their exes, who, in their new role as besties, come by often. It is a springtime of freedom to explore men, sex, and an evolving definition of family.

As Hollywood plots go, it’s just one more example of how the industry depicts marriage as optional and family as bendable to one’s pleasure. Yet despite Hollywood’s reputation for live-and-let-live libertinism, many in the industry are stably married or are well on their way to becoming so.

That’s no surprise: As our new Institute for Family Studies report, “State of Contradiction,” shows, marriage levels for college-educated parents like these are about 20 percentage points higher than for less-educated Californians. Using American Community Survey (Census) data, we can see this divide even street by street. Take Los Angeles. Many South and Central LA neighborhoods, like Westmont and Inglewood, have few married households—less than 15 percent.

Continue reading at The New York Post . . . .

Tue, 04 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
Cohabitation: Safety Net or Stability Threat? by Mariah Sanders, Julie H. Haupt, Jeffrey Dew and Timothy Smith

In June 2019, acrobats Nik and Lijana Wallenda walked across a 1,300-foot long high wire placed 25 stories above Times Square without a safety net. Though most of us will not find ourselves in that same position, sometimes the uncertainties of life can leave us feeling as though we are walking a wire of our own. To combat such uncertainty, we often look for “safety nets” that can provide cushions of security from potential disasters.  

The world of romantic relationships can feel much like a balancing act. Over the past few decades, many have come to view cohabitation as a safety net for marriage relationships under the belief that it affords couples the security of testing things out without the pressure of binding commitments. Cohabitation is often viewed as a way to either strengthen a couple’s bond or recognize incompatibilities—thus acting as a “safety net” that might help prevent divorce.

However, research has consistently shown that the cords of the cohabitation “safety net” do not hold up under pressure, nor do they typically last long term. In fact, studies have demonstrated that cohabitation prior to marriage actually puts couples at greater risk for divorce.  Furthermore, one of the nation’s foremost experts in this area states that cohabitation has been “consistently associated with poorer marital communication quality, lower marital satisfaction, [and] higher levels of domestic violence. . .”

Some studies have asserted that such negative consequences of cohabitation could be declining as society becomes more accepting of cohabiting. However, other researchers find that while newer samples of couples who cohabitated before marriage may demonstrate lower break-up rates in the first few years of marriage than those who did not cohabit, “the marital stability disadvantage of premarital cohabitation emerges most strongly after 5 years of marital duration and has remained roughly constant over time and over marriage cohorts.” In other words, couples who lived together before marriage may have an advantage initially as they may have fewer changes and less adaptation in comparison to those who did not previously cohabit. However, premarital cohabitation may threaten the stability of a relationship after these early years have passed. Thus, while the “safety net” might appear to provide support in the beginning, its material may not hold across time, leaving these relationships tenuous.  

Research has consistently shown that the cords of this cohabitation “safety net” do not hold up under pressure, nor do they typically last long term.

Not only does cohabitation fail as a divorce-prevention safety net, it may also be associated with increased marital infidelity. The iFidelity survey, funded by the Wheatley Institution, was conducted by YouGov in late 2018 to understand American’s attitudes and behaviors regarding fidelity. An analysis of the ever-married participants in the iFidelity data found that cohabitation may increase the likelihood of marital infidelity. Participants reported on whether they had engaged in emotional (i.e., had a secret emotionally intimate relationship), or sexual infidelity while married. The infidelity could have taken place online or “in real life.”  

As seen in the chart below, those who had cohabited two or more times in their life before marriage were 15 percentage points more likely to have been either emotionally, sexually, or electronically unfaithful to their spouse than those who did not cohabit (to view the results when limited to physical infidelity only, please see Appendix). There was no statistical difference between those who had never cohabited and those who had cohabited only once.

These findings support previous research, as noted in The New York Times by Meg Jay, who explains that “. . . serial cohabitators, couples with differing levels of commitment and those who use cohabitation as a test are most at risk for poor relationship quality and eventual relationship dissolution.” Perhaps more to the point, these findings also support research linking cohabitation to a higher risk of marital infidelity in older samples.

If cohabitation is not the best path to a stable, faithful relationship, what can provide security and stability for marriage relationships? 

One option may be premarital education. Couples taking classes together may strengthen their bond as they learn to recognize ways they can strengthen their relationship together as a team. Further, this premarital preparation does not have to occur in a formal classroom setting. It can also include simply taking the time to talk with a significant other about expectations for marriage, finding a mentor couple, or focusing on thinking about “we” instead of “me.” In short, there are plenty of ways to be intentional in preparations for a life together, and by being intentional in those preparations while dating, couples may be less likely to find themselves sliding into a serious relationship that they may not truly desire. 

Taking simple steps of preparation can communicate commitment to one’s partner, allowing such preparations to act as balancing poles in marriage, providing greater stability and resistance to obstacles couples may face along their journey. When couples feel the time is right, they can take the step toward marriage without cohabiting first. By doing so equipped with adequate preparation and commitment, couples may find, just as Nick Wallenda, that “the first step is the hardest one” but that they have a lifetime of steady support and companionship as a result. 

Mariah Sanders is a senior undergraduate student in the Human Development program at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and worked as a summer intern with the iFidelity project. Julie H. Haupt is an Associate Professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Dr. Jeffrey Dew is an associate professor in the School of Family Life at BYU, a fellow at the National Marriage Project, and a visiting fellow at the Wheatley Institution. Timothy B. Smith, PhD is a professor of counseling psychology at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.


Mon, 03 Feb 2020 07:30:00 -0500
Friday Five 311 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

More Children Live With Half-Siblings Than Previously Thought
Brian Knop, U.S. Census Bureau

What Does the Research Say About the FAMILY Act Provisions?
Alex Gould-Werth, Washington Center for Equitable Growth

Relationship Maintenance (Excerpt)
Eds. Brian G. Ogolsky and J. Kale Monk, Cambridge University Press

Disadvantaged Children Who Are Beating the Odds
Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Princeton University

Suicidal Ideation and Self-Directed Violence — United States, January 2017–December 2018
MMWR, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention



Fri, 31 Jan 2020 08:00:00 -0500
No “One Size Fits All”: Parents’ Preferences for Work and Child Care by Wendy Wang (@WendyRWang)

Earlier this month, the democratic presidential debate put the issue of child care back in the national spotlight. Universal child care, as Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) argued, would be helping millions of families and get women back on the career track. And Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) stated, “Every psychologist in the world knows 0 through 4 are the most important years of human life intellectually and emotionally, and yet our current child care system is an embarrassment.” 

There is no doubt that the cost of child care is too high in the United States, and many families with young children are struggling to find suitable child care arrangements. But what is the best arrangement for a family with pre-school aged children? And is it true that all mothers with young children want to work and be back “on track?” 

In a recent survey of adults ages 18 to 50, we asked the question “What do you think would be the best arrangement for a family when there is a child under 4”?


Apparently, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to paid work and child care. In fact, no single arrangement won the majority of Americans who have children under age 18. Some 29% of parents favored “the man works and the woman takes the main responsibility for home and children;” 22% picked “both parents work roughly the same hours and share the responsibility for home and children equally;” and 14% chose “both work, but the woman works part-time and takes the main responsibility for home and children.”

The most popular choice was an approach where, “the parents divide up paid work, housework, and child care however works best for them.” About one-third of parents in the survey thought this was the best arrangement.

Findings are similar when we look at only parents with young children under age 4 at home, the group that is most likely to be in need of full-time child care. And views from the general public are also identical. Among all adults ages 18 to 50 (including non-parents), a similar share (35%) think that parents should arrange child care in whatever way works best for them. Meanwhile, about equal shares of respondents believe either that it is best for the man to work and the woman to manage the home (23%) or that the 50/50 approach is best, where both parents work about the same hours and share the responsibilities equally (25%).  

As far as mothers and work, polls have consistently shown that American mothers are not especially attached to full-time work. In the same survey, we find that 37% of mothers with children under age 18 prefer part-time work, and 21% prefer not to work outside the home at all. Only 32% of mothers prefer full-time work. This has to do with the fact that a majority of mothers with children under age 18 (67%) are married. Married mothers (28%) are much less likely than unmarried mothers (46%) to say full-time work is the ideal situation. But even among unmarried mothers, half do not prefer full-time work.

One might argue that given the lack of paid family leave and universal child care in the U.S., parents, and especially mothers, do not have choices at all. As Claire Cain Miller pointed out in a recent NY Times article, “The question is how women’s choices might change if their options were different.” 

So let’s take a look at mothers’ preferences in countries where parents do have more access to paid family leave and subsidized child care. With the available data from Canada (which has generous paid leave and where one province, Quebec, has universal child care), the UK, Ireland, and France, our new survey finds full-time work is not the popular choice for mothers in most of these countries. 

For example, in Canada, where Quebec's program is considered a “model” for universal child care, only 35% of mothers with children under age 18 say working full time would be their ideal situation. And the share is 23% in Ireland and 27% in UK, where subsidized child care was enacted in more recent years. One exception is France, where over half of mothers prefer to work full time (55%), and 42% view either working part-time or not at all as the ideal situation for themselves.   

At the same time, just like in the U.S., a larger share of mothers in most of these countries favor either part-time work or not working for pay at all, even when generous paid leave is offered and childcare is free or easily affordable.

The debate about whether or not American mothers have choices also misses one crucial point. In 1995, Harriet Presser, a professor at the University of Maryland, asked: “Are the interests of women inherently at odds with the interests of children or the family?” Her question remains relevant today. Why is it that we focus primarily on mothers’ choices when it comes to child care? Shouldn’t fathers be part of the picture, too?

In fact, fathers are eager to be more involved. American fathers today spend about three times as much time caring for their children as fathers in the 1960s.  And there have been a growing number of fathers who choose to stay at home and care for their kids. And when asked about their “ideal situation,” 17% of American fathers say they prefer to either work part-time (10%) or not work at all outside the home (7%). Even though a majority of fathers still prefer full-time work, we should not ignore the millions of fathers who want to be more involved in the day-to-day care of their children. 

Parenting is one of the toughest and most rewarding jobs in the world. When comparing time caring for children vs. time at work,  time diary research confirms that parents feel that time spent taking care of their children is more exhausting than paid work, yet they also find child care activities more meaningful and rewarding. 

By the same token, American parents value parenthood much more than the work they do for pay. In the survey, we asked respondents to rate the importance of different aspects in their life, including having a successful marriage, being a good parent, work, and their faith or religion. 

As the figure illustrates, fathers and mothers are remarkably similar in what they value most: some 62% of mothers and 56% of fathers in the survey say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life. A good marriage also ranks high on the list: 45% of mothers and 41% of fathers said so. However, when it comes to the importance of work, only a fraction of parents say it is one of the most important things in their lives. The same pattern also applies to working parents after we limit the analysis to only those who are employed.

We should not devalue the work that women and men do at home when they care for their children. This unpaid work supports children, the most precious resource for our future. At the same time, the preferences of mothers and fathers who do prefer to work full time and who need help caring for their children, whether it is via day care centers, families, or friends, should also be respected. And we must not lose sight of parents who have fewer choices and therefore need the most support. They may have special needs children, or may be single moms or dads, or work at minimum-wage jobs. Their needs and desires should be acknowledged.  

In the same way that we appreciate diversity in many aspects of our lives, we need to respect the diverse views and desires of American parents about work and family. Instead of mainly focusing on child care options that help mothers get back on the career track, our policies should seek to empower both mothers and fathers to choose the best child care arrangement for their families, whether they want to return to work, work part time, or stay at home full time. 

Thu, 30 Jan 2020 07:30:00 -0500
Whither Hypergamy? by Kay Hymowitz (@KayHymowitz)

It was once a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman would be in want of a prosperous husband. This is not to say that women wanted to “marry for money.” But it is to concede that when women are unable to earn their own livelihood, as they have been unable to do through much of human history, husbands determine a family’s economic and social status. Hypergamy—the tendency of women to try to marry “up”—was, in part, a natural response to this dependency. Marriage was the only way a woman determined her status in life.

These realities led many observers to surmise that the gender revolution that began in the mid 20th century would bring about the end of hypergamy. It made sense. Women with their own paychecks and bank accounts should have a different calculus when choosing a mate than those with neither. Indeed, under those conditions, a woman might decide not to choose a mate at all. Twenty-first century women have been able to successfully prepare themselves to be their own man, as it were. They now have more education than men. They have joined the labor force in massive numbers. The Department of Labor recently announced that in the U.S. women are the majority of nonfarm payroll employees. That’s happened only once before— in 2010 during a historically severe recession that hit men especially hard.  

So, does that mean hypergamy has become a thing of the past? New evidence suggests the answer is no.

True, if you consider education alone, at least in developed countries, hypergamy could be said to be just about obsolete. Up until the mid-20th century, married men typically had more education than their wives. Today, that norm has reversed: when it comes to diplomas, women “partner down” more than men do. And whereas in the past, hypogamous couples —wives with more education than their husbands—were at greater risk of divorce, this is no longer the case. A number of researchers concluded that this showed that younger cohorts were adapting well to “the changing realities of the marriage market” and evolving gender relations. Some experts predicted that growing gender egalitarianism would lead to rising fertility rates as men took on more responsibility for housekeeping and child care.

But hypergamy turns out to be a stubborn thing. It seems that the highly-credentialed alpha female still prefers a mate above her pay grade. In one of the most widely-cited papers on the subject, demographer Yue Qian compared couples in the 1980 Census and in 2012 American Community Survey. She found that during the intervening decades, though wives became more likely to marry down in terms of educational achievement, “the tendency for women to marry men with higher incomes than themselves persisted.” In fact, women with the same or more education than their husbands were more likely to marry up.

The latest entry to the hypergamy literature, published in the December 2019 issue of The European Sociological Review, confirms Qian’s findings and adds some suggestive details. Using Swedish register data for people born across several decades, the two authors, Margarita Chudnovskayaof Stockholm University and Ridi Kasrup of Oxford, divided couples into three groups: 1) couples where a woman is more highly educated than her husband, 2) those in which the husband is more highly educated, and 3) couples where both partners are highly educated. Arguing that social life exists across “multiple dimensions of status,” they also looked at the social origin, occupational prestige, and income for the three groups. And they limited their analysis to couples before they had children so as to rule out the regrettably termed “motherhood penalty.” 

It seems that the highly-credentialed alpha female still prefers a mate above her pay grade. 

The results? On several dimensions, status was consistent with education levels: the partner with higher education (male or female) also had higher occupational prestige and social class. But when it came to income, hypergamy re-asserted itself. In every union type, including those with a more educated female partner, “men are the most likely to be the main earners.” That Sweden’s commitment to gender egalitarianism is close to a state religion and that women have been partnering with less-educated men for decades only adds to the salience of the findings.

One reasonable guess is that men’s income advantage is due not to the persistence of hypergamy but rather to the gender wage gap, which sits at about 14% in Sweden. To test this hypothesis, the researchers conducted a simulation by randomly matching couples within the observed educational categories. Here, contemporary mating does take on more nuance. Couples with similar education levels, and those with a more highly-educated male partner, actually had more equal incomes than would be predicted if couples were matched randomly. However, in couples where the woman had the education advantage, random matching predicted that more women would be the higher earner than actually were. As in Qian’s study, highly-educated women appear to have an especially strong preference for men who out-earn them. If the Swedes are any indication, couples are blase’ about gender equality, but not about hypergamy. 

That generalization finds some support in “Mismatches in the Marriage Market,” another 2019 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The authors analyzed the socio-demographic characteristics of couples who married between 2008 to 2012 and between 2013 to 2017. That data allowed them to create a profile of marriageable men for women with varying racial, economic, and educational levels and compare them to the actual population of unmarried men at national, state, and local area levels. Their findings were not promising for single women interested in finding an “economically attractive men.” The already married men had 58% higher income than the men currently available and were 30% more likely to be employed. As in previous studies, the mismatch was larger for minority and especially African-American women than white. 

Of course, it’s possible the persistence of hypergamy is only a sign of what Arlie Hochschild calls a “stalled revolution.” The share of American women earning more than their husbands or cohabiting partners has increased steadily over the years, hitting 28% as of 2017. Although the data doesn’t include a generational breakdown, it’s likely that the numbers are higher for younger cohorts. According to the World Values Survey, younger men and women are far more likely than their elders to believe that hypogamous unions will not “cause problems.” 

But it’s also possible that women, being the ones who bear and nurse the children, will continue to prefer men who earn at least as much as they do. This impulse may help explain why, contra the hopes of some experts, the gender revolution has not given us rising fertility rates, but the opposite. The groups with the lowest proportion of “marriageable men” are the ones whose fertility rates have declined the most

And that seems like a “Pyrrhic victory” for women and men.

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.

Wed, 29 Jan 2020 07:30:00 -0500
Marrying Despite Marriage Penalties by Amber Lapp (@AmberDavidLapp)

A few years ago, I attended the wedding of a couple who were forgoing civil marriage for financial reasons. They wanted to be married in the eyes of God, but a legal marriage would mean that the woman, a working single mom with diabetes, would no longer be eligible for Medicaid, which would  render her unable to afford her insulin and supplies. Since then, I’ve heard several of my married neighbors with children half-joke that they should get divorced (in name only) in order to qualify for the government assistance that they could get as single mothers. 

Research shows that a substantial number of poor, working-class, and lower middle-class people could be affected by these types of marriage penalties in the welfare system, with the largest penalties existing for those who make between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. Although research is mixed as to how much this affects decisionmaking, most studies suggest that marriage penalties are associated with lower rates of marriage and higher rates of cohabitation, and may be particularly salient for Americans without a college degree and those with young children.1

Ashley and Ryan are one such engaged couple, living in southwestern Ohio. They are getting married this month, but they worry about losing Medicaid coverage and SNAP benefits, as well as rent increases in Ashley’s public housing. Ashley’s work delivering pizzas combined with Ryan’s job at a local recycling plant puts them in the income range that is particularly vulnerable to a marriage penalty. 

Ashley and Ryan started talking on Facebook earlier last year after mutual friends introduced them. One of the earliest things he told her was that he wasn’t looking to just date or have fun. He wanted to find someone to marry. After two previous long-term relationships that stalled when it became clear that the guy had no plans to propose marriage, Ashley was relieved to find a guy like Ryan. Unlike others she’d dated, he does not experiment with drugs or even smoke pot. He has kept the same job for several years now and makes about $16 an hour. He, too, has been in failed serious relationships, losing custody of his kids after the breakups, and he wants the real thing this time around. “The old-fashioned way,” he told my husband David and I months later, while we were out to dinner on a double date. He said that from early on he knew that he and Ashley both wanted something similar: to get married, get a house, and have a baby. 

The proposal was momentous for Ashley, though casual: a conversation one November night. Ryan kept repeating the question, as if he couldn’t really believe her answer the first time. They were giddy, taking the kind of lovestruck selfies that people do when they are mesmorized by each other and oblivious to most everything else. They set a wedding date for May. When Ashley got pregnant, they moved the date up to the end of January. 

“With me being pregnant, I didn’t want to have another kid out of wedlock,” she told me, something she has done twice before with two different men. She explained she hates the way his father’s absence affects her teenage son. In the last decade or so, she has noticed a change in attitudes about having kids outside of marriage: when she gave birth to her oldest son, she felt judged, but not anymore. It’s so common to not be married and have kids that it just seems normal, she told me. Her decision to get married with this pregnancy has less to do with fear of being judged by others, and more to do with judgments she has made based on her life experience. “Marriage is still a higher commitment,” she added. 

Ryan’s parents recently celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary. “I always wanted what my mom and dad had,” he said. “Just seeing how a happy marriage was supposed to be…. Being faithful, loyal. Building a bond.”

As for the potential cost, Ashley is worried, but also resigned. “I’m going to have to get off of assistance at some point anyway. If it happens, it happens, and I’ll figure it out,” she said.  “Always have.”

Ryan agrees with her. “Don’t let [money] stop you from getting to your goal. If you love that person, just do it,” he said. “In the end, it will work out. You just got to take it day by day.”

For them, love is not a thing to be calculated, and marriage is not a monetary matter. Yet, the cost hurts. “The government should not penalize me for trying to do better,” Ashley told me.

I am humbled by Ashley’s determination to get married regardless of the financial stresses she faces, and I admire her belief in marriage as a good thing for her unborn child, as well as for herself and her soon-to-be husband. 

What are the alternatives? In his October 2019 post on this blog, Willis Krumholz suggests increasing the safety-net eligibility threshold for poor and working-class married couples. A similar approach in the tax code has eliminated marriage penalties for most upper-income families. Other ideas, including detailed recommendations for reform for many of the largest tax and means-transfer programs, are outlined in a new report by IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox and published by the Department of Health and Human Services.   

Ryan and Ashley said they like the idea of a graduated phaseout, or a grace period in which they would still qualify for a program but are given advance notice—say a year—of the end date. “Because then, you’ve got that date set to where you can build that plan, go over options, talk to outside insurance companies,” Ryan explained. Ashley likes the idea because she doesn’t want to rely on means-transfer programs for the long term. “I do understand that I need to get off all assistance,” she said. “But as of right now, I still need the help.” 

Ashley thinks it would be helpful to have a social worker in the county office whose job it was to help people get off of welfare—a person she could call when she had questions (instead of the answering service and callbacks from some anonymous social worker she gets now). Ryan thinks that a Health Savings Account could be part of the preparation for people looking to transition off of Medicaid. He had one in the past that was partially matched by an employer, and it felt good seeing his savings build.


In the weeks since I first talked with Ashley about the stress she felt over possibly losing benefits, she quit her job at the pizza restaurant. She old me that being in her first trimester of pregnancy, she was just too sick to get out of bed in the morning. Instead, she signed up to become an InstaCart driver in the afternoons, which, so far, is not paying well. 

Though she did not say this, I wonder if another factor was that her work was devalued by impending marriage penaltes. Being pregnant and in the first trimester myself, I know how difficult it is to get out of bed when dealing with morning sickness. It would be even more difficult if I knew that the work I was sacrificing to do essentially meant that I’d be disqualified from Medicaid and food stamps. It’s a demoralizing feeling I’ve heard others describe: that just as you are starting to get stable, some of the key supports stop, and although you are working harder, even getting a raise, you are penalized rather than rewarded.  

The silver lining in Ashley’s underemployment is that the marriage penalties she and Ryan face will be fewer. Whether or not they take any comfort in that is tough to say. A few months ago, the couple was dreaming about a honeymoon to Gatlinburg. But due to unpaid bills, those plans have long since been dismissed in unspoken agreement. Any wedding gift money will now go towards catching up on bills.

This makes me sad, mostly because I keep comparing their experience to my own—a wedding my parents paid for right after I graduated college, a two-week honeymoon after that, and stable jobs lined up for when we came home. But I am also humbled by Ashley’s determination to get married regardless of the financial stresses she faces, and I admire her belief in marriage as a good thing for her unborn child, as well as for herself and her soon-to-be husband. 

“I’ve always said I want to get married and stay married,” she recently told me. “I don’t want no divorce. And he’s always said the same thing. He’s like, you’re not going to be able to divorce me. There’s no way.”

A honeymoon is a lovely way to start a marriage, but it is not essential to its meaning. The spillover effects of stress to marriage are real. But Ashley’s comment about commitment cuts to the heart. She knows what she is doing and why. Let’s hope that needed reforms will soon mean that such marital commitment is no longer undermined but supported by our welfare system.

1. Brad Wilcox, Chris Gersten, and Jerry Regier, “Marriage Penalties in Means-Tested Tax and Transfer Programs,” Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, January 2020,

Tue, 28 Jan 2020 07:30:00 -0500
Has the ‘Global War Against Baby Girls’ Come to America? by Nicholas Eberstadt and Evan Abramsky (@EvanAbramsky)

In a 2011 study titled “The Global War Against Baby Girls,” one of us (Nicholas Eberstadt) presented troubling evidence that new and biologically unnatural imbalances in sex ratios at birth were emerging in Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and elsewhere. In one country after another, demographic data were registering a surfeit of male infants—excesses far above what would have been expected from the universal norm of roughly 103-105 baby boys for every 100 baby girls observed in large human populations throughout history. These ominous new trends, we theorized, were explained by mass female feticide: a phenomenon driven by the collision of ruthless parental son preference, low fertility levels (whereby the gender outcome of each birth took on added import for parents), and the advent of widespread and inexpensive prenatal gender determination technology in the context of easily available or unconditional abortion. 

We noted that rising levels of income and educational attainment did not preclude abnormally high sex ratios at birth (or SRBs)—to the contrary, in some countries SRBs seemed to be rising along with national affluence. And we warned there was no reason to think this disturbing practice could not come to Western countries: rather, initial research on the situation in the U.S. and the UK at the time of that report suggested the possibility that sex-selective abortion may be common to other subpopulations in developed or less developed societies, even if these do not affect the overall SRB for each country as a whole.

As we begin the 2020s, this may be a good time to revisit the issue of unnatural SRBs and the question of whether America has become a battlefield in “the global war against baby girls.” Such an inquiry is all the more timely thanks to revisions in U.S. official vital statistics protocols, which now offer more detailed natality data than were available for the aforementioned study. 

These new data are worrisome, if not alarming—for they demonstrate that large-scale female feticide has been taking place among certain U.S. sub-populations over the past decade. Yet we may also see some measure of reassurance in these numbers, for the problem of unnaturally elevated SRBs appears to be peculiar to particular immigrant groups and circumstances, with no indications that it carries over to second generation parents born in our country.

Overall trends in U.S. sex ratios at birth for 2010 to 2018 (the most recent year for which such data are publicly available) may be seen in Figure 1. 


In the 2010s, as in previous decades, the overall SRB for the Unites States hovered near 105. This overall average, though, masked differences according to maternal race or ethnicity, as defined and measured by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. SRBs for non-Hispanic Whites, for example, were consistently just over 105, fluctuating only within a very narrow range. SRBs for Hispanic mothers were lower—about 104—but likewise were quite steady from year to year, while SRBs for Black mothers trended around 103 boys for every 100 girls.

Asian-American SRBs are another story altogether. For one thing, variations in SRBs are higher for this group than for other ethnicities in America. Most important, SRBs for Asian-American mothers were strangely high in the 2010s—averaging 106.6 boys per 100 girls. This is a curiously elevated level—and with over two million births to Asian-American mothers over those nine years, the finding cannot be dismissed as an artefact of small sample size. It merits further scrutiny and deeper analysis.

We provide a more detailed disaggregation of SRBs between 2010 and 2018 for Asian-American mothers in Figure 2. 

Since 1992, U.S. birth statistics have broken down the overall Asian-American population into several major sub-categories by mother’s ethnicity, including Chinese, Filipino, Indian (not to be confused with Native-American), Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and “Other.” Furthermore, since 2014, U.S. natality data distinguish between native-born and foreign-born mothers. Thus, we can show annual SRB trends by nativity for the six largest Asian-American ethnicities for recent years (omitting the catch-all “Other” category, whose SRBs for 2014 to 2018 were unexceptional for foreign- and native-born mothers alike, each of these falling between 104 and 105).

As Figure 2 demonstrates, there is considerable annual fluctuation in SRBs for these sub-populations: a result one might expect given the small sample sizes in some of these cases. With respect to “outlier” SRBs, one of these sub-populations in particular stands out. This is foreign-born ethnic Chinese mothers: between 2014 and 2018, their SRB was consistently above 110. The second grouping of interest is foreign-born, ethnic Indian mothers, for reasons that momentarily will become apparent, even though their overall 2014 to 2018 SRB was a considerably lower 106.0. (Some of the other SRB trends in Figure 2 may also raise eyebrows, but we are not confident these are statistically meaningful, as we will soon see.)

In China, India, and elsewhere, research has demonstrated that abnormally high SRBs nowadays tend to be more extreme at higher “parities” (that is to say: birth order), indicating that parents in societies where mass female feticide occurs are much more likely to opt for sex-selective abortion if they already have a child or two, especially if those previous births were daughters. In Figure 3, we show SRBs for foreign-born, Asian-American mothers for 2014 to 2018 by birth parity. 

What jumps out, of course, is the SRB trajectory by live birth order for foreign-born mothers of Chinese and Indian ethnicity. Note there is no obvious “parity effect” among foreign-born mothers from other Asian ethnicities—indeed, for Korean and Japanese mothers, SRBs appear to be slightly lowerfor third births than for first births. 

For foreign-born, Indian mothers, on the other hand, the SRB for third and higher-parity births between 2014 and 2018 was an unnerving 115.3. The corresponding figure for foreign-born, Chinese mothers was a shocking 122.8: but for first and second-parity births, SRBs were, respectively, 107.8 and 110.1—uncomfortably high levels, too.

How many newborn girls are “missing” from these two American sub-populations? We cannot say for sure—but we can offer illustrative estimates, drawing from the data in Table 1. 


If we posit a hypothetical “norm” of 105 for the “natural” SRB for foreign-born mothers, the data in Table 1 would imply over 1,700 “missing” births of newborn girls between 2014 and 2018 among third and higher-parity deliveries for foreign-born mothers of Indian ethnicity. By the same token: such calculations would hypothesize over 6,700 “missing” newborn American girls to foreign-born, Chinese mothers between 2014 and 2018 (summing all birth orders). By such an illustrative reckoning, the scale of the “missing female newborn” group in these two sub-populations would have been on the order of 8,400 for 2014 to 2018 alone. The obvious inference is that many thousands of baby girls were “missing” due to parental interventions: i.e. sex-selective abortion—though it is equally obvious that we have no means of telling exactly how many sex-selective abortions took place among these groups over those same years, much less in which countries or states such procedures would have taken place. 

Regardless of whether one identifies as pro-life or pro-choice, readers may be highly unsettled by these findings. Our figures suggest all but incontrovertibly that the “global war against baby girls” has opened a front in the United States of America. 

We say “almost incontrovertibly” because there is always a possibility in statistical analysis that the results under consideration have been arrived at purely by chance. But it is important to understand how utterly astronomical the odds would be for a random occurrence of such SRBs. Given the number of births under consideration between 2014 and 2018, the SRB for third-parity births to foreign-born, Indian mothers could have been random: but if the “norm” for this population was truly an SRB of 105, the odds of observing an SRB of 115.3 by sheer chance would be 23 million million millionto one. Similarly, if 105 were the actual “norm” for SRBs for foreign-born, Chinese mothers, the odds against the observed SRB from 2014 to 2018 of 110.4 would be 7 million million million million million millionto one. (By way of comparison, demographers estimate that something like one-tenth of a million millionhuman beings have been born since the dawn of our species.) Statistical techniques, to repeat, deal only with probabilities. That said: our findings look to come just about as close to certainty as any social science results can claim. 

This is the bad news—and that bad news is truly distressing. But there is arguably good news to be seen here as well, and we show it in Table 2. 

This table presents sex ratios at birth by ethnicity and nativity for Asian mothers for the 2014 to 2018 period, and examines the likelihood that the reported SRBs differ from our expected level of 105 simply by chance. 

As may be seen, SRBs for Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese mothers cannot be meaningfully distinguished from our posited norm—and that holds for foreign- and native-born mothers alike. Moreover, our analysis provides no “statistically significant” evidence that SRBs for US-born, Asian-American mothers of any ethnicity actually exceed such a “norm”. 

In other words: even though some of these sub-populations (in particular, native-born, Filipino and Vietnamese mothers) reported SRBs in the 106 to 107 range for 2014 to 2018, it is impossible to reject the hypothesis that these were simply chance occurrences—and for the other Asian-American ethnicities (Chinese-, Indian-, Japanese-, and Korean-Americans), native-born mothers reported SRBs of 105 or lower during those same years. 

The situation with regard to abnormally elevated SRBs in the United States merits further and continuing scrutiny. Some groups (such as foreign-born, Filipino mothers) had suspiciously high SRBs over the 2014 to 2018 period: we would be well served to monitor future trends here, for example. 

But abnormally high SRBs appear to be delimited in the US to foreign-born populations hailing from countries beset by that same problem today. While we cannot be conclusive about this matter, we do not find evidence of such SRB imbalances among Asian-Americans born in the USA. One explanation for such a distinction in SRBs would be that assimilation and acculturation are helping to bring this concerning practice to an end. That is not be the only possibility, but it is a plausible and rather hopeful one. 

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, DC. Evan Abramsky is a Research Associate at AEI. 

Mon, 27 Jan 2020 07:30:00 -0500
Friday Five 310 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

Why Your Marriage Needs a Supper Club
Courtney Rohrdanz, iMom

Marriage Penalties in Means-Tested Tax and Transfer Programs
Bradford Wilcox, Chris Gersten, and Jerry Regier, Administration for Children and Families, DHHS 

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" is Not a Plan: Give me a Lever
Scott Stanley, Sliding vs. Deciding

State Marriage and Divorce Rate Statistical Testing: 2008 and 2018
U.S. Census Bureau

Marital Interventions: Participation, Helpfulness, and Change in a Nationally Representative Sample
Thomas J.E. White, Stephen F. Duncan, Jeremy B. Yorgason , Spencer L. James, Erin K. Holmes, Family Relations

Fri, 24 Jan 2020 08:00:00 -0500