Robert Putnam, Our Kids, and the Future

I have thoughts on Robert Putnam’s most recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and on the response he gave me when I asked him a question about his optimistic outlook while he signed my copy after giving a lecture at the University of Richmond earlier this year.

My first thought, and I might as well get this out of the way, was the jaw-dropping irony when someone at the lecture stood up to ask an “us-vs-them”-style question juxtaposing “the rich” against ordinary people, like those of us here in the audience. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, just that it assumed as a premise that rich people were some weird, money-grubbing, alien group far away and the students, faculty, and alumni in the room were all very different from them.

That’s an astonishing lack of self-awareness, given the fact that you can expect to cough up more than $60,000 per year to attend the University of Richmond. That’s right up there with the most expensive colleges in the country. The students at the University of Richmond come from some of wealthiest families in the country. The decadence was really off-putting for someone like me, who attended for free thanks to generous faculty benefits, and never could figure out how to fit in with the kinds of people who are chauffeured from their family’s private jet to their dorm room in a limousine.

The question was a stark contrast with Putnam’s own views. One of the primary functions of modern identity politics is the way that it absolves upper-class Americans of guilt and redirects inquiry away from any social or economic critique that could threaten their entrenched power. This is one half of the danger presented by this ideology: no matter it’s original intent or origins, it has been firmly and decisively co-opted by America’s upper class and obediently serves their interests.

The other half of the danger was best articulated in the Slate Star Codex post Against Murderism, where the threat was summarized like this:

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”

Putnam didn’t contradict his interlocutor directly, but he didn’t really need to because his book is so adamantly opposed to an identity-based view of social and economic inequality, channeling the focus instead on class. For example:

That gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts. Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, with the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing (the same pattern we discovered earlier in this inquiry for other measures, among them nonmarital births). By the opening of the twenty-first century, the class gap among students entering kindergarten was two to three times greater than the racial gap. (162-163)

And later:

What we found in our interviews is that upper-middle-class kids–even across differences of race, gender, and region–look and sound remarkably similar across the nation. The same goes for working-class kids. For example, a black working-class boy like Elijah in Atlanta share many more life experiences (parental abandonment, jail, poor school, and so forth) with David, a white working-class boy in Port Clinton, than he does with Desmond, a black upper-middle class boy in suburban Atlanta. This is not to say that race does not matter for children’s outcomes; as we say in Atlanta, both Desmond (upper-middle-class) and Elijah (working-class) face harmful prejudices and discrimination in their schools and neighborhoods. However, Desmond’s mother’s class-based parenting practices–intervening in institutions, thoughtfully building cognitive skills and self-confidence from early childhood, and even monitoring how Desmond dressed when he left the house–sheltered him from many of the harsh realities experienced by Elijah on a daily basis. (273)

Not only does Putnam refuse to allow identity politics to be used as a cloaking device for class, but he also eschews the more radical economic criticisms that equate wealth with immorality.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this is a book without upper-class villains. Virtually none of the upper-middle-class parents of our stories are idle scions of great wealth lounging comfortably on family fortunes. Quite the contrary, Earl and Patty and Carl and Clara and Ricardo and Marnie were each the first in their families to go to college. Roughly half of them came from broken homes. Each has toiled exhaustingly to climb the ladder, and they have invested much time, money, and thought in raising their kids. Their own modest origins–though not destitute–were in some respects closer to the circumstances facing poor kids today than to the circumstances in which their own kids have grown up. (229)

Aside from class, the major theme that Putnam addressed was family structure, although he also noted that the two frequently go hand in hand.

Ironically, the new research findings [into parenting strategies] tend to amplify class differences, at least in the short run, because well-educated parents are more likely to learn of them, directly or indirectly, and to put them to use in their own parenting. As we’ll see, a class-based gap in parenting styles has been growing significantly during recent decades. Simone and Stephanie both clearly love their children, but as their stories and the scientific research make clear, when it comes to parenting, love alone is not enough to guarantee positive outcomes. (117)

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression: I’m not claiming that Robert Putnam is a conservative. He’s clearly not. Nor does he suggest that race is irrelevant or unimportant. Although he’s generally skeptical of the idea that specific policies either caused the widening class-gap in the United States or could easily fix it, he does call out one particular group of policies that did “contribute to family breakdown” and thus the widening chasm in our society: the War on Drugs, ‘three strikes’ sentencing, and the sharp increase in incarceration.” (76)

So it’s not that I claim Robert Putnam as an ideological fellow traveler. He isn’t. But he’s the kind of nuanced, serious, open-minded, fact-based, honest researcher that I believe improves the conversation even when I disagree with him.

Now, let me get to my brief exchange with him during the book signing.

Putnam’s optimistic spin on all the negative statistics is pretty simple: America has been here before and it made us better. The last time things were this unequal and unfair in our society was the Gilded Age and it was eventually followed a wave of progressive reforms that remade our society and ushered in an era of unprecedented equality and social mobility. I’m not sure I buy this historical narrative, but even if I grant all of it to Putnam for the sake of argument, there’s one dark reality that overshadows his optimistic belief that we can reproduce last century’s turn-around.

You see, one of the most vital causes of our current inequality is (as I mentioned above) family structure. And on that metric more than any other, our current dismal state of affairs is not like what has happened before. It’s unprecedented. As Putnam observes:

Unlike today, desperately poor, jobless men in the 1930s did not have kids outside of marriage whom they then largely ignored. Today the role of father has become more voluntary, which means that, as Marcia Carlson and Paula England have put it, “only the most committed and financially stable men choose to embrace it.” (75)

He also draws the connection to economic prosperity and equality directly:

Given these handicaps, it is hardly surprising that recent research has suggested that the places in American where single-parent families are most common are the places where upward mobility is sluggish. (79)

So, I asked him as he signed his book, how did he think we could turn things given the erosion of the family? He gave me a direct and honest reply. First, he pointed out that he left those points (and especially the quote on page 75) in the book intentionally to rile his own political allies. Second, he criticized conservative ideas that you could directly strengthen American families through policy intervention. (Which seems reasonable to me.) Finally, given these two facts, he suggested that we just had to hope that somehow our society could rediscovery prosperity and equality without strong families.

It’s an honest answer, but a bleak one.

The longer I’ve written and read about politics—not to mention the dumpster fire that is American politics in an age of Trump—the more I’ve come to see culture as fundamental.  I have my political and economic views, sure. But they pale in importance relative to the essential question of culture. A fundamentally honest and civil culture is resilient and can tolerate an awful lot of policy mistakes. A fundamentally dishonest and angry culture is brittle and probably can’t thrive even with perfect policies.

Much as I’d like to share in Putnam’s optimism, I just can’t.

Does Family Structure Really Matter When It Comes to Poverty?

Image result for single mother

Not according to a recent op-ed in The New York Times. The authors–sociologists all–argue based on findings from their new study

that reducing single motherhood would not substantially reduce poverty. Single-mother families are a surprisingly small share of our population. Among households headed by working-age adults, 8.8 percent of people lived in single-mother households in 2013 — the most recent year we were able to analyze. The share of people in single-mother households actually declined from 10.5 percent in 1980 and has increased only modestly since 18=970, when it was 7.4 percent. True, compared with other rich democracies, America does have a relatively high portion of families headed by single mothers. Nevertheless, we still fall below Ireland and Britain and are quite similar to Australia and Iceland.

Because fewer people are in single-mother families than you’d think, even large reductions in single motherhood would not substantially reduce poverty. 

However, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox takes issue with the way the NYT piece presents the evidence. He explains,

Nobody…is claiming that reducing the number of single-mother households will lead to lower poverty rates among elderly or childless men and women. The concern among poverty scholars has always been that single motherhood leads to higher rates of child poverty. And there is no denying the close connection between single parenthood and child poverty in America.

To begin with, children living in single-mother families are about five times as likely to be poor, compared with children living in married, two-parent families. This is clear in a recent analysis of trends in the official poverty rate from our colleague Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution.

Moreover, research done by one of us, Isabel Sawhill, indicates that if the share of children in single-parent families had remained steady at the 1970 level, then the current child-poverty rate would be cut by about one-fifth, even after adjusting for the fact that single mother have different characteristics from married mothers. In other words, dramatic increases in single parenthood — from about 12 percent of children in 1970 to about 27 percent now — more recently have played an important role in fueling child-poverty rates.

Single parenthood is not the factor driving child poverty in America, but it isa factor.

What about Europe?

Well, it turns out that even in Europe children are more likely to be poor if they are living in a family headed by a single parent. Research done by social scientists Janet Gornick and Markus Jäntti indicates that children being raised by a single parent are about three times as likely to be living in a poor family as children being raised by two parents, even after accounting for generous welfare policies in Europe.

In fact, this is true even in Scandinavia. Relative to children in two-parent families, children in single-mother homes are about three times as likely to be poor in Denmark and Sweden, more than four times as likely to be poor in Norway, and nearly five times as likely to be poor in Finland, after taking into account their welfare policies.

Now, it’s true that the levels of child poverty in Scandinavia are markedly lower than those in the United States — indeed, about 75 percent lower because of their social policies. And it’s also true that the unique poverty risk associated with single parenthood generally goes away when you control for other factors, such as age, education, and employment, as Brady and his colleagues have done. What that misses is that mother-headed families are more likely to be formed as the result of an unplanned birth outside of marriage or a committed relationship, and that these unexpected births tend to occur at young ages, to interrupt a young woman’s education, and to make it less likely that she will ever marry or form a stable partnership and have the second income that such a partnership makes possible.

In other words, even today, one reason that two parents are generally better than one parent, economically speaking, is that having two parents in the home dramatically increases the odds not only that at least one parent is working full-time but also that there are two parents working on behalf of the children. And this is true even in Europe.

What’s more,

The social science tells us that children raised by single parents are significantly more likely to have children young, to drop out of high school, and to work less as young adults. Not surprisingly, the children of single-parent families are more likely to end up poor as young adults.

…Indeed, new research from economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine indicates that young adults are at least ten percentage points less likely to be poor at age 25 if they were born to married parents, as opposed to an unmarried mother. These effects are especially strong for children born to mothers in the middle of the educational and age distribution — that is, for “children of mothers with high school degrees and mothers in their early/mid-20s.” In other words, in America at least, the long arm of single parenthood seems to extend into adulthood, increasing the likelihood that children of single parents will be poor as adults, compared with adults who were raised in intact, two-parent families.

Wilcox concludes, “It’s useful to point out that family structure is not destiny. But the evidence suggests it remains important and shouldn’t be dismissed as one important factor affecting children in particular.”


Are Democrats Outdoing Republicans When It Comes to Family Values?

Not really, despite what Nicholas Kristof has recently claimed. As W. Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia explains,

Here, Kristof is indebted to a book by family scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families, which makes the case that blue states have more successful and stable families than do red states. Arkansas, for instance, has one of the highest divorce rates in the nation, whereas Massachusetts has one of the lowest.

…But this state-based argument obscures more than it illuminates about the links between partisanship and family life for ordinary families in America. Scholars and journalists who have bought into the idea that red Americans are hypocrites on family values because some red states do poorly when it comes to family stability are committing what is called the “ecological fallacy” of conflating the family behaviors of individual conservatives with the family behaviors of states dominated by conservatives.

…Indeed, when we look not at states but at counties in the United States, we see that counties that lean Republican across the country as a whole have more marriage, less nonmarital childbearing, and more family stability than counties that lean Democratic. In fact, an Institute for Family Studies report I authored found, “teens in red counties are more likely to be living with their biological parents, compared to children living in bluer counties.” So, even at the community level, the story about marriage and family instability looks a lot different depending on whether or not one is looking at state or county trends. At the county level, then, the argument that Red America is doing worse than Blue America isn’t true.

Finally, when we turn to the individual level, the conservatives-are-family-values-hypocrites thesis really falls apart. Republicans are more likely to be married, and happily married, than independents and Democrats, as Nicholas Wolfinger and I recently showed in a research brief for the Institute for Family Studies. They are also less likely to cheat on their spouses and less likely to be divorced, compared with independents and Democrats. So, Donald Trump is the exception, not the norm, for Republicans.

He continues,

When it comes to family stability, Republican parents are less likely to be divorced. In fact, Republican parents who have ever been married are at least 5 percentage points less likely to have been divorced, compared with their fellow citizens. The 2017 American Family Survey also indicates Republicans are less likely to have their first child outside of marriage, compared with Democrats and independents. So, contra Kristof, it’s actually Republicans, not Democrats, who are more likely to enjoy a stable, happy family life anchored around marriage…When American parents are separated by whether or not they have a college degree, it turns out that Republican parents have about a 10-percentage-point advantage in the likelihood that they are in their first marriage. In both college-educated communities and less-educated communities, then, it looks like Republican parents are more likely to be raising their children in their first marriage…[E]ven [when] we limit our focus to whites, we still see that white Republican parents are more likely to be in their first marriage. Specifically, 62 percent of white Republican parents are in their first marriage, compared with 54 percent of white Democratic and 44 percent of white independent parents…When we break out parents by those who attend religious services frequently (several times a month or more) versus parents who attend infrequently or never, Republicans still have an advantage in both the more religious and less religious groups. In fact, in both groups, Republican parents are more likely to be in first marriages than their fellow citizens. Moreover, even after controlling for religiosity, as well as education, race, ethnicity, region and age, the data indicate that Republican parents are still more likely to be in their first marriage, compared with Democrats.


“[B]ecause married parents are more prosperous and less dependent on government for their financial security,” he writes, “[Republicans] are less likely to gravitate to the Democratic Party and more likely to gravitate to the party of small government and lower taxes. Indeed, counties with large numbers of lower-income single parents are more likely to lean Democratic, partly because the Democratic Party supports policies designed to provide them with more financial security. The figure below is illustrative of the link between family structure and voting at the county level in 2016.”


Wilcox highlighted this last point in a City Journal article back in July:

The problem with the progressive approach to poverty is that it denies the importance of culture and character to household prosperity—especially when it comes to marriage…Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies and I recently co-authored a report, The Millennial Success Sequence, which demonstrates and quantifies the extent to which early life choices correlate with personal affluence. Though young people take a variety of paths into adulthood—arranging school, work, and family in a dizzying array of combinations—one path stood out as most likely to be linked to financial success for young adults. Brookings scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have identified the “success sequence,” through which young adults who follow three steps—getting at least a high school degree, then working full-time, and then marrying before having any children, in that order—are very unlikely to become poor. In fact, 97 percent of millennials who have followed the success sequence are not in poverty by the time they reach the ages of 28 to 34.

Sequence-following millennials are also markedly more likely to flourish financially than their peers taking different paths; 89 percent of 28-to-34 year olds who have followed the sequence stand at the middle or upper end of the income distribution, compared with just 59 percent of Millennials who missed one or two steps in the sequence. The formula even works for young adults who have faced heavier odds, such as millennials who grew up poor, or black millennials; despite questions regarding socioeconomic privilege, our research suggests that the success sequence is associated with better outcomes for everyone. For instance, only 9 percent of black millennials who have followed the three steps of the sequence, or who are on track with the sequence (which means they have at least a high school degree and worked full-time in their twenties, but have not yet married or had children) are poor, compared with a 37 percent rate of poverty for blacks who have skipped one or two steps. Likewise, only 9 percent of young men and women from lower-income families who follow the sequence are poor in their late twenties and early thirties; by comparison, 31 percent of their peers from low-income families who missed one or two steps are now poor.

…Young men and (especially) women who put “marriage before the baby carriage” get access to the financial benefits of a partnership—income pooling, economies of scale, support from kinship networks—with fewer of the risks of an unmarried partnership, including breakups. By contrast, millennials who have a baby outside of marriage—even in a cohabiting union—are likelier to end up as single parents or paying child support, both of which increase the odds of poverty. One study found that cohabiting parents were three times more likely to break up than were married parents by the time their first child turned five: 39 percent of cohabiting parents broke up, versus 13 percent of married parents in the first five years of their child’s life. The stability associated with marriage, then, tends to give millennials and their children much more financial security.

In a Hoover Institute interview, Yuval Levin commented, “Today’s progressivism–for all of its talk of communitarianism and of ‘we’ and of ‘You didn’t build that’–the purpose of it really is to liberate the individual from dependence on other people. It is in fact based on a very radical individualism that at the end of the day wants total moral individualism and is willing to abide some economic collectivism to get there.” The data above seem to confirm this suspicion.

Father Loss at the Cellular Level

Image result for father sonPrinceton molecular biologist Daniel Notterman and colleagues published a new article in Pediatric titled “Father Loss and Child Telomere Length.” According to the IFS blog,

Research tells us that father loss is linked to a broad range of negative outcomes for children, including lower rates of high school and college graduation, a higher risk of delinquency, early sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and poor mental, physical, and emotional health. Yet despite the emerging science of fatherhood, in many ways, we are only beginning to understand the significance of the biological father connection to child well-being. New research indicates that the repercussions of losing a biological father—whether to death, divorce, or incarceration—go even deeper, affecting children at the cellular level.

Notterman explains these new findings in an interview with IFS:

Telomere length (TL) has been shown in many studies to be associated with chronic stress of diverse origins in both children and adults. We reasoned that separation or loss of a father would be a significantly stressful event in the life of a young child. If that were the case, we hypothesized that father loss would be associated with telomere attrition, and that turned out to be the case. We know that chronic stress is also associated with long-term adverse effects on health, including cardiovascular and behavioral health. Whether accelerated telomere attrition is just a biomarker of these subsequent health effects, or actually plays a causal role in producing these effects is not known at present, but it is the subject of intense laboratory and clinical study. In either case, by examining telomere length, we get an early window (by age 9 years in our study) into adverse health effects that may not be realized for many years.

…Father loss was conceptualized as being of one of three types: separation of the biologic father from the child’s mother, often due to the dissolution of their relationship; incarceration of the child’s father; and death of the father before the child was 9 years of age. In addition to the associations noted in the question, we also found evidence of genetic moderation. Due to the presence of specific gene variants (called, “alleles”) in a gene called “SERT,” which is known to affect how the brain processes serotonin, a key neurotransmitter, some children seem to be more sensitive to environmental stimuli such as loss of a parent. In our study, children bearing a sensitizing allele, or variant, or SERT are much more susceptible to telomere shortening. Thus, the magnitude of telomere shortening is affected not only by the loss of a father but also by the genetic endowment received from the parents.

The death of a father is “a more potent stress because it completely ends the relationship between father and child. With separation and incarceration, it is still possible for there to be contact between father and child. Fathers who are separated from the family often maintain contact with a biological child, and incarceration may be limited in time.” And while the effects of father loss were greater for boys than girls (possibly due to fahters providing “specific role-modeling to sons”), the “study was not specifically designed to answer this question.”

Income associated with the father is a major player in one form of father loss, but less in others:

We found that father loss due to the dissolution of the relationship with the child’s mother affects telomere length mainly by reducing family income. We conjecture that this is due to the stress engendered by material hardship (worsening poverty). Father loss due to incarceration or death seems to be a much more potent stress, such that the additional contribution of income loss is relatively small.

In summary,

We think that our findings reinforce the growing understanding of a father’s importance in the life of his children. We do not think that our data support a conclusion that one type of relationship between a child’s parents is more favorable than another; rather, we conclude that a central role for the father is optimal for his child’s well-being. Furthermore, we think that this knowledge should inform public policy in providing support to families and children where the father, for one reason or another, is absent from his children.


Does Means-Tested Welfare Affect Family Formation?

Image result for marriage welfare

Do the marriage penalties of the welfare system have effects on family formation? According to a 2016 AEI/IFS report, the evidence is mixed:

  1. Our data show that the presence of marriage penalties does not affect marriage patterns among unmarried couples in urban America who have just had a baby, or among couples with children two and under whose income falls close to the lower threshold of the marriage penalty facing such couples, that is, for couples whose joint income is close to a level where they would still qualify for means-tested benefits were they to marry. Most in this latter group are in the lowest two quintiles of family income for families with children two and under (less than $48,000). We also find no evidence that marriage penalties associated with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) reduce the odds of marriage among lower-income couples.
  2. However, we do find that couples whose oldest child is two or younger whose income falls closer to the upper threshold of the marriage penalty—couples where each partner’s individual income is near the cut-off for means-tested benefits—are about two to four percentage points less likely to be married if they face a marriage penalty in Medicaid eligibility or food stamps. Most of these couples are in the second and third quintiles of family income for families with children two and under ($24,000 to $79,000).
  3. Almost one-third of Americans aged 18 to 60 report that they personally know someone who has not married for fear of losing means-tested benefits.

You can see the full report here.

The Goldilocks Theory of Marriage and Divorce

What age is just right for marriage if you want the lowest chance of divorce? Turns out it’s late 20s to early 30s. Sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger explains,

I analyzed data collected between 2006 and 2010 from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). The trick is to use statistical methods that permit nonlinear relationships to emerge (click here for more information on these methods). My data analysis shows that prior to age 32 or so, each additional year of age at marriage reduces the odds of divorce by 11 percent. However, after that the odds of divorce increase by 5 percent per year. The change in slopes is statistically significant. The graph below shows what the relationship between age at marriage and divorce looks like now. This is a big change. To the best of my knowledge, it’s only recently that thirty-something marriage started to incur a higher divorce risk. It appears to be a trend that’s gradually developed over the past twenty years: a study based on 2002 data observed that the divorce risk for people who married in their thirties was flattening out, rather than continuing to decline through that decade of life as it previously had.


Why? Wolfinger suggests a selection effect:

[T]he kinds of people who wait till their thirties to get married may be the kinds of people who aren’t predisposed toward doing well in their marriages. For instance, some people seem to be congenitally cantankerous. Such people naturally have trouble with interpersonal relationships. Consequently they delay marriage, often because they can’t find anyone willing to marry them. When they do tie the knot, their marriages are automatically at high risk for divorce. More generally, perhaps people who marry later face a pool of potential spouses that has been winnowed down to exclude the individuals most predisposed to succeed at matrimony.

…Many people who delay marriage nowadays for financial reasons marry as soon as they feel they can afford it. These are the people who wed in their late twenties, the years of peak marital stability. The folks remaining in the pool of marriage-eligible singles are the kinds of people who aren’t well suited to succeed at matrimony (irrespective of their financial well-being).

…This is all conjecture. But we do know beyond a shadow of a doubt that people who marry in their thirties are now at greater risk of divorce than are people who wed in their late twenties. This is a new development. This finding changes the demographic landscape of divorce, and lends credence to scholars and pundits making the case for earlier marriage.


age at marriage divorce

Can this be replicated? Wolfinger writes,

Replication is always crucial in the social sciences. I therefore sought to reproduce my findings with more recent data from the NSFG, the 2011-2013 survey (for details about my data analysis, click here). The primary result, depicted below, was almost identical to what I obtained from the 2006-2010 survey: the 28 to 32 age range remains the period of lowest divorce risk.

marrage age & divorce risk as of 2011-13 0 orderage divorce risk 2011 2013

When Wolfinger “controlled for respondents’ sex, race, family structure of origin, age at the time of the survey, education, religious tradition, religious attendance, and sexual history, as well as whether the respondent had a child prior to wedlock, and the size of the metropolitan area that they live in,” there was “a gentler increase in divorce risk for people marrying after their early thirties.”

marriage age & divorce 2011-13 controls

He concludes, “I have now shown the Goldilocks effect using two different data sets, the 2006-2010 and the 2011-2013 National Surveys of Family Growth, and more than 10,000 respondents. Its existence is beyond question. Explaining the Goldilocks effect, however, will require additional scholarship.”

Intact Immigrant Families



Take a hard look at the graph above. I’ve discussed marriage and family structure a lot here at Difficult Run. The social science is pretty clear: marriage matters for children’s well-being. Concerns over immigration often revolve around culture: do immigrants assimilate well? What kind of foreign cultural elements are they bringing with them? I’ve addressed cultural diversity before. And according to the data above, intact families are yet another positive contribution made by immigrants. According to researcher Nicholas Zill,

Indeed, the latest data from the Census Bureau on the family living arrangements of U.S. children show that 75 percent of immigrant children live in married-couple families, compared to 61 percent of children of U.S.-born parents. The figure is the same for immigrant children who were born in this country as for those who were foreign-born.4 Children of immigrants are less likely than native children to be living with divorced, separated, or never-married mothers: 14 percent lived with their mothers only, compared to 26 percent of children of U.S.-born parents.

Furthermore, immigrant parents stay together despite the fact that many are living below or close to the poverty line. Half of U.S.-born children of recent immigrants are in families that are poor or near poor, with nearly a quarter living in families below the poverty line. The circumstances of foreign-born immigrant children are worse: 57 percent are in families that are poor or near poor, with 29 percent living in families below poverty. The comparable figures for native children are 38 percent in poor or near-poor families, with 18 percent below the poverty line.

Zill concludes that “we should…recognize the strong work ethic and robust family values that many immigrant families exemplify. Far from undermining our traditions, they may be showing us the way to “make America great again.””

The Benefits of Healthy Marriages

Image result for disney marriage gif

A recent post at the IFS’s Family Studies blog has a nice summary of the individual and social benefits of healthy marriages. For those who have kept up with me over the years, this is a subject I spend quite a bit of time researching. Nonetheless, it’s nice to have it all in one spot. Here’s the list:

  • “[T]he presence or absence of marriage impacts economic well-being, particularly for women and children. Children raised by married parents are significantly less likely to experience poverty, whereas single-mother families are over five times as likely to be poor. Additionally, the majority of homeless families are headed by unmarried mothers.”
  • “A study by IFS Senior Fellow W. Bradford Wilcox, Robert Lerman, and Joseph Price found that larger shares of married-parent families at the state level are linked to greater economic mobility, higher family incomes, and less child poverty.”
  • “[M]arried-parent families boost the academic prospects of students, especially boys. Research has consistently confirmed that a child’s home environment (family structure, parental education, and family income) is more closely associated with student success than school resources and spending. And a new study by Wilcox and Nicholas Zill found that “the share of families headed by married couples is a more powerful predictor of high school graduation and school suspension rates than are income, race, and ethnicity in Florida.””
  • “Married-parent families also improve the safety of women and children and communities. In general, unmarried women, including those in cohabiting relationships, are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than married women. And hands down, the safest place for a child to grow up is with his or her own married mother and father, while a child living with an unmarried mother and live-in boyfriend is the most vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. In addition to safer families, violent crime is significantly less common in communities and states with larger shares of married-parent families.”
  • “We know…that girls who grow up in single-mother families are more likely to engage in early sexual activity and to experience a teen pregnancy. Conversely, children who grow up in a married-parent family are more likely to form lasting marriages as adults and to raise their own children within a married union.”
  • “We also know that family fragmentation, including divorce, is especially harmful to children. Although the suffering sometimes manifests itself in less visible ways, it deserves to be acknowledged. Importantly, the harms of divorce are not just seen in lower income families; research shows that even privileged kids suffer when families break down.”
  • “Finally, the growing marriage divide between the college-educated and the poor and working class is at least part of what’s driving economic and social inequality in our nation. Because the college-educated are more likely to get married and less likely to divorce than less-educated Americans, they are more likely to reap the benefits of marriage, including better education, higher incomes, and family stability for their kids. Meanwhile, marriage is in retreat among the less educated and working class, who are more likely to be raising children outside of marriage, and to suffer the negative effects of family instability, including poverty. Bridging the marriage divide is an important part of efforts to boost economic mobility for all Americans.”

This is why marriage is still the gold standard. Check out the rest to see their pro-family policy proposals.

Adverse Effects of Family Instability: Possible Gender Differences

“When marriage breaks down,” writes sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, “boys are more likely than girls to act up. From delinquency to incarceration and schooling to employment, a mounting body of research suggests boys are affected more by family breakdown than girls. As Richard Reeves, the co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families, recently put it, when it comes to thriving in difficult family environments, girls may be more like dandelions, while boys may be more like orchids.” He points to

research by economist David Autor and his colleagues [that] indicates that one major reason why boys are falling behind girls in school is that they are affected more by fatherlessness than girls when it comes to their behavior and academic progress. The figure below, taken from Autor’s new research in Florida, indicates that the gender gap in school absences is larger for boys from unmarried, father-absent homes than for boys born to married parents. Likewise, the gender gap in school suspensions and high school graduation in Florida is also smaller for boys from married homes. 



“Similarly,” he continues,

economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have found that young men (at age 30) are less likely to be employed if they come from single-parent families than from married-parent families. Moreover, as the figure below indicates, young men from lower-income families do relatively worse than their female peers if they hail from single-parent families. But young men from married, lower-income families do relatively better than their female peers. In other words, Chetty’s new research suggests that young men’s labor force participation is affected more negatively by single-parenthood than young women’s employment prospects, especially when both are raised in a lower-income family.



However, “it’s also possible that family instability and single parenthood affect girls and young women in ways that are not directly related to antisocial behavior, which is a classic male expression of emotional turmoil. In other words, perhaps both boys and girls are orchids in the face of family instability, but their vulnerability is simply expressed in different ways.” Wilcox then draws on the 2016 American Family Survey conducted by YouGov for Deseret News/BYU. The findings?

  • “[A]dult women are much less likely to report that their current relationship is “in trouble” if they come from a stable married home, and the advantage they enjoy from stability is clearly larger than the advantage that man from a stable home enjoy in this domain.”
  • “[T]oday’s women are much less likely to find themselves in a financial crisis if they hail from an intact, married family, as the figure below indicates. If the results of this survey are replicated in other data sets, they suggest that women may be affected by family instability more than men when it comes to their relationship success and freedom from economic distress.”




Wilcox says that the “survey suggests women have greater difficulty in forging and maintaining strong relationships as adults when they have been exposed to family instability or dysfunction as children. This, in turn, may lead to more relationship “trouble” and also to a higher incidence of single parenthood as adults. A higher incidence of single parenthood, in turn, may help explain why women with unstable families are more likely to report financial distress. Finally, if the absence of a stable, married home has a bigger impact on girls’ future relationship trajectories than boys, it may also explain why the gap in relationship trouble and financial distress by family stability looks bigger for women than men in this new survey.”

Fatherhood: Unique Contributions to Child Health

Image result for dad roughhousing

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a new clinical report this past June detailing “the unique contributions of fathers to healthy child development” as well as “encourag[ing] pediatricians to make an extra effort to support and involve dads more. It is the first clinical report on fathers the AAP has released in over a decade, and it includes an extensive review of theemerging research on fatherhood.” Defining fathers rather broadly–including biological fathers, stepfathers, foster fathers, grandfathers–the report’s findings include:

  • Father’s playtime or “roughhouse play,” which “decreased externalizing and internalizing behavior problems and enhanced social competence” among preschoolers.
  • Communication style, which usually includes bigger words (compared to the common maternal style of speaking at the child’s level) Research finds that, “at 3 years of age, father-child communication was a significant and unique predictor of advanced language development in the child but mother-child communication was not.”
  • “The report cites the vast body of research that shows father-presence can reduce anti-social behaviors in boys, and is linked to a decrease in early puberty, depression, early sexual activity, and teen pregnancy in girls.”

In summary,

Ultimately, the AAP report concludes: “The message is clear: fathers do not parent like mothers, nor are they a replacement for mothers when they are not at home; they provide a unique, dynamic, and important contribution to their families and children.”

This long overdue message on the irreplaceable role of fathers is not only vital for child healthcare providers to understand and communicate, but also for parents, teachers, and policymakers who want to promote child wellbeing for every family. As the AAP report demonstrates through the large and growing body of research on fatherhood, dads matter as much as moms to children’s health, and they matter in unique ways. Hopefully, more pediatricians will work harder to educate both parents about this truth, and to encourage and facilitate father involvement during every stage of child development.