Married, with correlation

January 31, 2014

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One of the more interesting debates to come out of the Raj Chetty study on mobility published last week is the question of whether we need “marriage promotion”. Does society need to encourage the formation of two-parent households for the good of the economy?

The facts are relatively undisputed: Chetty found that economic prospects are better in communities with more two-parent households. The question is whether there’s any causation between marriage and economic mobility, or if both are merely effects of something else.

Brad Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project, argues the former. He says the proliferation of single parenthood is a major factor in the stagnation of social mobility the US has seen in the last several decades. He takes Chetty, as well as a new study from Brookings, and concludes that “kids are more likely to climb the income ladder when they are raised by two, married parents”. He’s right that the two are correlated:

On the other side, Steve Randy Waldman calls marriage promotion “a destructive cargo cult”, referencing Pacific Islanders after WWII who did ritualistic dances at airports in hopes that would make the planes come back, completely missing the underlying cause of the aid they received. Waldman says the proliferation of single-parent households (mostly single mothers) doesn’t “seem to have much to do with purposeful rebellion against traditional family norms. No, marriage of poor women seems constrained by the availability of promising mates”.

Ross Douthat writes that while he agrees with many of Waldman’s assertions, he still thinks that Americans would be better off economically if we adopted more traditional cultural norms:

It’s worth recognizing that much of what the (elite-driven) social revolutions of the 1970s did, in law and culture, was to strip away the most explicit cues and rules linking sex, marriage, and childrearing, and nudging people toward the two-parent bourgeois path.

In other words, abandoning societal norms that push people toward marriage before sex or children has, essentially, hurt the poor. Therefore, were we to go back to a time when it was simply culturally unacceptable to be a single parent, there would be more two-parent households, and we’d all be better off.

In a later post, Waldman writes, “one cannot conclude from correlations between voluntary unions and good outcomes that more-or-less coerced marriages would be awesome”. Brad DeLong agrees, arguing that, “what social policy ought to be doing is making males ‘marriageable’”.

Matt Yglesias, who is in the Waldman/DeLong camp, nevertheless says that a lot of the practical suggestions from those advocating for marriage promotion end up being broadly beneficial solutions to social problems that actually have nothing to do with marriage. — Shane Ferro

On to today’s links:

True Truisms
Why a VC firm invested in a coffee shop: “The reason that they invested is they are investors” – Tim Fernholz

New Normal
Welcome to disinflation! The PCE index “has grown less than 1% over the past year” – Sober Look

Financial Arcana
“The credit-default swap market is quietly fading” – Mary Childs

Should you make a nested pie chart? – Wonkviz

“We now have a world economy destined to seesaw between bubbles and depression” – Paul Krugman

The economics of the thriving West African cashew trade – FT

What time Is the Super Bowl in one amazing chart – Gawker

“The impact of democracy on inequality may be more limited than one might have expected” – Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
How incomes have fared over the most recent recessions and expansions – The Federal Reserve
Uber, plane crashes, and risk – Nick Dunbar

A tale of two Frances, vis-a-vis Netflix – Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Right On
“Cyclists and walkers do not kill innocent people crossing the street legally” – Gothamist

Here’s what’s in the Republican alternative to Obamacare – Sarah Kliff

Things That Exist
An Ayn Rand-themed social network – Motherboard

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