Bill Black: AEI Pushes Government Propaganda Telling Women to Marry Schlubs

Yves here. This post may seem a bit wide of normal NC fare, but it serves as a reminder of how economists increasingly stick their noses in social policy. And the class/race bias is apparent, and is virtually Victorian: those people dare to have children out of wedlock? They must learn to conform and live in tight nuclear families, as if the problem is one of character. As Black points out, ironically, the problem is actually is economic, but one that AEI ideologically is not willing to admit exists.

By Bill Black, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Published originally at New Economic Perspectives

I wrote a two-part column on the joint report by AEI and Brookings on poverty reduction.  Part two of my column focused on the policy that report pushed most prominently – a government program of propaganda urging pregnant women to marry.  My first article, however, criticized Eduardo Porter’s February 2, 2016 column in the New York Times for ballyhooing the supposed wondrous nature of Brookings and AEI working together.  Porter portrayed them as “leading thinkers on opposite sides of the ideological divide.”  I pointed out that a majority of the group had hard-right views and that the group had an exceptionally weak member pushing a single idea – marriage propaganda.  I also pointed out that Brookings had, for decades, played the same very junior partner role of giving AEI cover for “joint” proposals with Brookings to cripple financial regulation.

Porter’s original column did not stress the wonders of AEI and Brookings agreeing to push for government marriage propaganda, but it does indicate in three separate passages that he was aware of that AEI proposal.

They strongly endorsed marriage….

The collection of proposals — from promoting strong and stable families to improving the quantity and quality of work — actually adds up to a coherent approach to improving an anti-poverty strategy that has fallen far short of its goals.

Many liberals are still skeptical that encouraging marriage will do much to help the poor, but most have come to accept that the children of intact families have a better shot in life.

Porter’s tone was clearly supportive of AEI’s push for governmental marriage propaganda directed at pregnant women.

I write today in fairness to Porter, for his March 22, 2016 column returned to, focused on, rigorously critiqued, and strongly opposed the marriage propaganda proposal.  I discuss only one of his conclusions because it anticipates the hostile response from two members of AEI and Brookings group favoring a government program of marriage propaganda.  I know that these quotations from Porter’s second column make multiple points, but I will show that they add up to one decisive analytical failure by the propaganda proponents.

There’s no question that children generally do worse in single-parent families. They engage more in risky behavior.

And yet despite years of research to identify how changes in family structure hurt children, there is much less agreement on the “why.”

Selection is clearly at work: Single mothers and the fathers of their children are generally less educated than married parents. They tend to have lesser-paying jobs and more mental health issues. They would have a tough time raising children in a healthy environment even if they stayed together.

“Family disruption is not a random event,” wrote Sara McLanahan of Princeton, Laura Tach of Cornell and Daniel Schneider of the University of California, Berkeley, in a study assessing efforts to disentangle the effect of selection from that of family structure. “The characteristics that cause father absence are likely to affect child well-being through other pathways.”

Then, of course, there is the issue of resources. Families headed by single mothers are poorer.

Studies in Britain suggest that children in single-parent homes suffer because they are poor, or because of the shortcomings of their parents — not because their parents do not live together.

Given the evidence, marriage promotion might even backfire. Encouraging a mother to stay with a father who deals in drugs, can’t hold a job and beats her can actually lead to worse problems for the children, according to Sara R. Jaffee of the University of Pennsylvania.

But the strongest case against a policy to deliver strong marriages and stable families is that the government has no clue how to do that.

All of this analysis comes down to one key conclusion.  The purported rationale for marriage propaganda is that kids do better on average in stable families with two parents.  But that is not a logical basis for proposing that the government adopt a marriage propaganda program.  The logic gap is the assumption that people that choose not to marry each other are just like people who choose to marry each other.  All adults know from their personal lives that this assumption is nonsensical.  We choose not to marry people with whom we have been intimate for a vast number of reasons, but most of them come down to the belief that marrying them would be a terrible mistake that would ruin our lives.  In particular, a pregnant heterosexual woman or mom often chooses not to marry the birth father because she fears that he would endanger the child.  That harm may be economic, psychological, or physical.  Alternatively, of course, mom might want to marry the birth father or lesbian partner – and he or she may not want to marry her.  That’s the point about marriage that makes it so special and effective – it requires both partners to believe jointly that they, and any children, will be best off through marriage.

The passages I quoted from Porter add up to this key analytical failure made by proponents of marriage propaganda.  He starts with the point that propaganda proponents incorrectly consider decisive – partners who agree to marry produce (on average) better outcomes for kids.  Porter then explains why the propaganda proponents are wrong.  People who do not marry their partners are not the same as the couples that do marry.  The differences are not “random” – people choose not to “select” people they view as schlubs to marry.  A wide range of factors make people unmarriageable.  “Single mothers and the fathers of their children are generally less educated than married parents. They tend to have lesser-paying jobs and more mental health issues.”

Porter then reinforces a point that I stressed – women often choose not to marry a sexual partner because they fear that the partner could endanger mom and her children.  The consequences of this analysis is that marriage propaganda is likely to fail because moms are making informed decisions given the severe constraints that they are subject to when they decline to marry a partner.  That is exactly what the studies show – marriage propaganda fails.

Porter then concludes, as I did, that the true key to poverty reduction (and increased marriage) is good jobs.

There is good reason to believe that it was the demise of the solid blue-collar job — squeezed out by globalization and technological change — that played the principal role in putting an end to the stable working-class family. Perhaps men with poor job prospects feel unprepared to marry. Perhaps women will not marry men who cannot provide.

Porter’s column led to a letter to the editors by Ronald Mincy and Robert Doar, two members of the AEI/Brookings panel opposing his conclusion.  Unfortunately, they simply repeat that marriage among those who wish to marry each other is a good thing, a point that is true and irrelevant to their promotion of marriage propaganda.  They ignore Porter’s (and my) detailed analysis of why you cannot assume that getting people who do not want to marry each other to marry each other will produce good results.  They conclude on this unfair note.

Throwing up our hands and giving up on reducing the high rate of nonmarital births, as Mr. Porter advises, would be nothing short of abandoning low-income Americans.

Porter (and I) did no such thing.  Both of us stressed the need to provide good jobs.  A job guarantee program like those designed by my UMKC colleagues is ideal for the purpose of improving the economy, reducing inequality and poverty, and increasing marriage and happiness.

Mincy has made many of the points that Porter and I have stressed that reveal the logic gap in his support for marriage propaganda in an interview with Columbia University’s media services.

According to Mincy, one third of all American children (70 percent of African American children) are born to unmarried parents. Yet 80 percent of the parents in the study thought their chances of marrying were between 50/50 and certainty at the time their child was born. “But if they want to marry, why don’t they?” he questions. The main reason very few marry (only 15 percent do so within 12 months), he says, is relationship quality, measured by factors such as the ability to compromise during disagreements and the man’s support for the woman during pregnancy. Race also matters, as do employment and culture.

African American women are unlikely to marry unemployed men, he notes. Thus the formula for black men’s success requires jobs that pay a living wage.

Note that Mincy does not claim that people decide not to marry because the government lacks a propaganda campaign extolling the apparently unknown virtues of marriage.  They choose not to marry for perfectly understandable reasons.  Mincy agrees that jobs are the key.  His statistics show that people choose not to marry particular prospective partners precisely because they believe that doing so would make their life miserable and perhaps endanger the children economically, psychologically, and even physically.

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43 comments

      1. Art Eclectic

        In theory, that’s the obvious answer. But it’s also the one least likely to happen.

        The fact is that the modern, technology driven world has a decreasing need for low-skill labor. Couple that with the obsession with profit at all costs and what you have is a global underclass of workers fighting over a decreasing number of jobs that will provide for a family.

        How we socially provide for a growing class of people who are, for all practical purposes, unemployable is the true debate behind politics these days that no one wants to be honest about.

        1. reslez

          Propaganda swallowed hook line and sinker. There is plenty of work to be done that is not done because rich people will not pay for it. The work includes educating children, caring for the elderly, environmental remediation, energy efficiency build outs, repairing crumbling infrastructure. On and on and on. The problem for the rich is to decide what to do with people they have decided are surplus to needs. Currently they simply propagandize and blame the victims.

        2. Left in Wisconsin

          I’m not sure how you define skill but certainly the US and the world have no lack of caring work to be done, and many of the “low-skill” laborers being displaced elsewhere are certainly capable of performing said work. It is true that most of these jobs that currently exist will not provide for a family, and many more potential care work “jobs” are currently unpaid informal arrangements. But these are problems with political solutions.

          1. washunate

            Yeah, that’s the question. What is the political solution?

            Black references job guarantee programs, but he neither summarizes the design of such a program himself nor links to a program summary by Wray, Tcherneva, or others at UMKC.

            So while I find Art Eclectic’s use of the neoliberal skill frame extremely unfortunate, I do think there’s a legitimate point to be made there. The question is the how. That is a question that requires details, specifics, concrete advocacy of actual programs, not just vague calls for a job guarantee. The MMT JG is irrelevant until it actually addresses how it would work, how it would solve the political problem that our leadership class likes how things are working presently.

            It’s not an accident either that we have millions of crap jobs or that we have millions of people who are functionally illiterate when it comes to English language proficiency, basic computing, personal finance, and so forth. It’s public policy, from the two-tiered justice system to the assault on public education to the lack of universal healthcare and universal unemployment insurance.

            1. polecat

              Technology is not the be all/end all with regard to decent human existence……just look where much ‘modern tech’ has led us to, up to this point……alienation, social disruption & dislocation, poverty of formerly well employed workers via global wage arbitrage, third-world pollution as a result of said arbitrage, malfeasance & deceit by people of authority via security state apps,…oh…and the ‘internet of all things stupid’……I could go on, and on, and on…..So A. Eclectic..don’t be so smug and condescending!

              1. washunate

                But that’s the thing. It’s not being smug and condescending to deal with the reality that, as things stand given the system in place, we have large numbers of people that are for all intents and purposes unemployable in gainful employment for a whole range of reasons. Furthermore, those reasons are almost entirely driven by public policy, not individual failure. In other words, mass unemployment can be argued not to be the disease itself, but rather a symptom of a different disease.

                Pretending that a little bit of training or work experience will turn a convicted felon or someone with a chronic mental illness that can’t afford therapy and medications or someone who can’t do arithmetic or can’t read a job application into someone that a private sector employer would want to hire into a job paying a decent wage with decent benefits and decent working conditions is nonsensical to the point of being purposefully obtuse.

                And that’s not just theory. It’s practice; we know this empirically. We have been doing this in our safety net (and prisons) for years, and it has entrenched the mass of poverty, despair, dehumanization, racism, hopelessness, and general preventable suffering and premature death that is all around us for anyone who cares to see it.

                After all, if work experience was such a panacea, then why aren’t the tens of millions of people in low-wage jobs with minimal benefits and dehumanizing working conditions getting offered great jobs once they prove their worth? The experience of crap jobs directly refutes the notion that jobs in and of themselves would solve our social problems.

      2. washunate

        That demonstrates the problem quite well. One word is inusfficient. The word job has become like the word terrorism. The notion is so nebulous with so many different projections attached to it that as a descriptive term the word has effectively become irrelevant.

  1. Michael Hudson

    All the AEI and other pro-marriage theorizing is controverted by German experience. less than half German partners (including with children) are formally married. The reason is tax considerations, and also the pure bureaucracy involved. (The Southern Catholic region may be different.) In Europe, marriage is viewed as purely economic.
    The same applies to Scandinavia.

    1. James Levy

      My Icelandic friend Birgir has four brothers and sisters and his parents have been together for over 30 years. He has no idea if they are technically married, doubts it, and couldn’t care less, and neither does anyone else he knows there.

      The US government disincentivized marriage by cutting welfare benefits to households with an unemployed male. Now they complain that people responded rationally to this stupid policy by not getting married, thereby preserving benefits for their children. Meanwhile, it’s always a good time to blame the victims of all this government stupidity. Idiotic.

      1. Art Eclectic

        That “government stupidity” is driven by the ethic of one particular political party who hates the idea of supporting people who “will not work”. Trying to to feed children had to balanced by their refusal to economically support unemployable males.

        That’s how the sausage of public policy is made.

    2. susan the other

      ubermenschen uber alles until evolution correction… what if jamie dimon is the ultimate schlub? oops… things are changing…

  2. debitor serf

    This is a very complicated issue. It’s not just economic, but is also cultural. The one man / one woman marriage ideal is western judeo-christian ideal that our laws, particularly in the US, unfortunately try to enforce morality. The fact of the matter is that in the days of the hunter gatherers, there was the men’s tent, and the women’s tent, and it took a village to raise a child because no one knew with any certainty who was the father of their children. Our laws – especially child support laws, unfairly burden men with obligations that used to be taken care of by the community as a whole. Is it really fair that a woman has to ‘turn her baby daddy in’ to the government in order to receive SNAP benefits? And then the state starts a generation long process of garnishing 20% or more of the ‘obligor’s’ paycheck for 18+ years (more with college support), thus not only condemning himself to poverty, but doing the same for his baby momma’s family who will only receive meager benefits to live. The fact of the matter is that many women today have children from multiple men and trying to enforce the child support system flies in the face of the way people live. Compounding the situation is the lack of jobs, and the fact that the men who have the most children out of wedlock are also the least likely to have a good paying job (and I know this after spending a decade of my life enforcing child support orders in court), the Obligor has absolutely no incentive to ‘work’ or find a good paying job when up to 65% of his gross paycheck will be deducted to repay the state for child support and SNAP benefits paid to his baby mommas.

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘The Obligor has absolutely no incentive to ‘work’ or find a good paying job when up to 65% of his gross paycheck will be deducted to repay the state for child support and SNAP benefits paid to his baby mommas.’

      I saw that scene play out in a courtroom one day. The Obligor is brought in by bailiffs in shackles, having been arrested for non-payment of child support.

      The judge comments that his unpaid obligations have reached “telephone book numbers.” Then His Honor remands him to jail, on the proviso that he can leave jail during the day to work … IF he can find a job within walking or bus ride distance, since the state had revoked his drivers license as punishment.

      Not mentioned was whether the Obligor had had a professional license, which the state also would have revoked as further punishment.

      Stripping Obligors of both the ability and incentive to earn a living is not productive social policy. It’s just institutionalized vengeance. It keeps the Gulag thriving, though! :-)

    2. tony

      There were thousand, maybe millions, of hunter-gatherer cultures, with various arrangements. Monogamy was enforced because under a stratified agricultural society, its altenative is polygyny. The Church and the state, such as it was, did not like it because it meant large amounts of men with no family or investment into the society, and women who were pushed into poverty with their children. That makes for an unstable society.

  3. Vatch

    It could be worse. In some Islamic countries, a woman who has a child outside of marriage might be stoned to death. Even if this doesn’t happen, under sharia law the child will be denied opportunities available to others. I found this weird web site:

    http://www.al-islam.org/philosophy-islamic-laws-nasir-makarim-shirazi-jafar-subhani/question-15-why-illegitimate-children

    A selection from the article:

    Illegitimate children inherit bad manners, breaking of laws and sins from their parents. For them the ground for sins and crime is more feasible. As compared to others they are more prepared for sins and if they personally get wrong training or if the environment is not good, then it is enough for them that their polluted soul, like sparks beneath the ash become fire and burn their good fortune.

    . . .

    Although the rebellious nature of illegitimate children (which have more interest and are more inclined to break the laws and commit sins) makes it difficult for them to avoid sin, and it is also difficult for them to perform their duties, but if they go against their desires and follow the orders of Almighty and right principles they will be given the best of the rewards.

    That is why Islam reproaches illegitimate children. It is so, to make them aware that they are facing a dangerous situation; they should fulfill their duties, remain away from sins and take precautions. It doesn’t mean that knowledge and training has no effect on them and they will certainly go to Hell.

    In other words those children who are illegitimately born are like those children who are born to the parents having diseases (T.B, and sexual disorders). These children have more chances of contracting these diseases and if they are not cured as early as possible they are more likely to get these diseases. This is the reason that to protect the interest of the people, those children who are possible to contract the disease of T.B. should not be given whatever food and other things are available.

    Like the ill parents, illegitimate children are also prepared to break the laws and fall into crime if their training and studies are not provided in the right environment and healthy intentions. It is possible they may fall into a great depth and ally with the criminals. For those reasons, in order to protect the social cause, precautions should be taken that they remain away from some posts.

    1. James Levy

      To be fair, when the New Testament states that Joseph did not want to expose Mary to the law, it meant stoning her to death. And Jesus had to stop a mob from stoning Mary Magdalene to death. This insanity may be moribund in Jewish Law, but it most certainly still is there.

      1. Vatch

        There’s wingnut cruelty in just about every religion. In some parts of the world, the nuts are easily winning the culture wars, but in other places, reason has a chance.

  4. TomD

    Old as dirt philosophy with new dressing. There’s a reason Reagan’s welfare queen resonated so much, and it was just as much about a woman having the temerity to try to make a life without a man as anything else. If don’t we use economics to force women to rely on men who knows what could happen.

  5. RMO

    OK, let’s take their report as being valid for the sake of argument:

    Observation: Children in stable, supportive two-parent households tend to do better in life.
    Action: Tell everyone repeatedly that they need to get married and stay married.

    Bloody brilliant! We need to apply this amazing insight to other areas!

    Observation: Wealthy people tend to do better in life than those in poverty.
    Action: Large scale programs telling everyone that getting rich is good for them.

    Observation: Passengers on airliners which do not crash are much happier and frequently less dead than those who are on an airliner which does crash.
    Action: Pilot training seminars informing them that crashing is a sub-optimal way of completing the flight and the posting of a placard in the cockpit reading “CRASHING THIS AIRCRAFT IS PROHIBITED”!

    There’s NO END to the list of problems we can solve thanks to the genius-inspired insight from this report. No wonder the AEI and Brookings people are so well compensated.

  6. Phase One

    A gender skew female in a population is strongly correlated with relationship instability, so the obvious culprit is the policy of mass incarceration that has taken a staggering fraction of young black males out of circulation. The most obvious way to encourage stable marriages would be to end that policy.

    I’m sure AEI and Brookings will get right on that one.

  7. Northeaster

    Having children is expensive, and usually having good paying jobs to support them is key, let alone good parents. Those are probably the last thing people having sex think about because, well, who the hell doesn’t like sex?

    In other news, water is wet.

  8. Gaylord

    Birth control will soon become irrelevant as it is replaced by population control through mass death. The petri dish of planet earth is reaching exhaustion and the effluent disposal capacity of the ecosystem is saturating, causing loss of habitat and extinction of complex life forms. We humans are not immune. Economic and social stability will be undermined by chaos and this will impact all strata of society. They can’t eat their gold, and super storms and super viruses don’t respect borders or gates or guns.

  9. washunate

    Of course AEI is stupid and backwards and blah blah blah. That’s their role, to appear crazy to make the rest of the crowd look reasonable in comparison. Overton window and all that jazz.

    The more delicate issue is why do so many Democrats/liberals/leftists/whatever enable these same kinds of policies? The drug war, for example, is a war on both families and science that would not exist but for the sustained support of the Democratic establishment in law, medicine, academia, journalism, politics, and so forth.

  10. Synoia

    They must learn to conform and live in tight nuclear families

    Nuclear families are unnatural and their promotion part of the problem.

    How about a wage that enables ne parent to maintain a household?

    I really don’t understand not paying mothers to be mothers. I’m certain all our lawmakers had mothers, and I’m, willing to be that most of out lawmakers were raised in a household where the mother’s full time occupation was raising the children,

    Parent should have the choice, economically, to have one parent raise their children. The economic system which forces both promotes a nuclear family, and required both parents to work to work is cruel, both to the parents and to the children children.

    My bottom line:Stay at home parenting should be encouraged, and fiscal policy changed to encourage the activity (and yes I do mean pay a parent when staying home). The job is paid by the government and is “child raising”.

  11. ke

    Politics solutions…Ivory Tower economics is just religion without God, leaving the position open for experts, for your salvation from your genetics, like any other moron on the street corner or in the office; you are helpless without a political savior, artificial crises as learning opportunity, creating demand and supply. After all, left to your own devices in a completely artificial economy, you are not capable of effective reproduction, hence public healthcare and public education, with rights conferred by psychologists. Calling economists salespeople is a injustice to the Door to Door salesperson.

  12. flora

    There’s something about the AEI marriage propaganda that has more than a whiff of Cargo Cultism.
    See, if only women and men would marry before having children then the “golden age” of the 50’s (for white people at least) would return with good jobs, good stable incomes, and stable family structures. See, the “golden age” of the 50’s was brought about by marriage – not by good stable jobs and good wages and unions and tax laws that encouraged owners to invest in factories and jobs in the US.
    So now, if only the women and men will marry, then all those good things will return. Cargo Cultism.
    OK, AEI doesn’t explicitly say that, but they imply it. Is AEI advocating 50’s level taxes and tax structures and tax incentives? Is AEI advocating increased spending on education, transportation and infrastructure?
    No. Didn’t think so.
    Thanks for this post.

  13. Jim

    Something to contemplate:

    “The left believes in progress, technology, education, enlightenment. It believes that people ought to be uprooted from tradition and liberated from provincial superstitions and constraints. It believes in cosmopolitanism and critical thought. It believes in socialism…revolutionary or social democratic…It believes in science and scientific method and the scientific spirit. The reason the left is no longer a very useful category, is that the best people on the left have been questioning every one of these dogmas and finding furthermore, that there really isn’t much room on the left for the kind of questioning that really is serious. The left hasn’t come to terms with the critique of bureaucracy, centralization, technology, science, progress, modernity, feminism, androgny. It hasn’t even listened,
    since it already knows that criticism of these idols is reactionary. To label a position reactionary naturally settles the issue.” (Letter of Christopher Lasch to Victor Navasky, 1983).

    Questions about how and why family, personhood, and culture have deteriorated even further under the hegemonic neoliberal capitalism of the 21st century–need desperately to be debated and clarified.

  14. Harry

    I don’t understand. It’s almost as if the person writing this piece was not an economist schlub. Those of us who are economist schlubs know without outside help, how are economists schlubs going to get married?

  15. Jay M

    Real world experience is no longer obligatory in order to populate the propagandistic channels of the Brookings and AEI. Generalizing from the upper 10% passes for intellectual acuity these days.

  16. ke

    I came up out of a trash can at nine years old, to making six figures, to have government confiscate 100% of my income, for no cause at criminal law. Who the duck cares about he said she .said in 1996?

    There isn’t much I haven’t seen of this crowd.

    That’s how I REALLY feel, and obviously, I am not alone. Duck might makes right. Assuming you want to know.

  17. ambrit

    Mr. Cynic here.
    This entire process of agitation in favour of “family values” looks suspiciously like the beginnings of a campaign to cut all benefits to the ‘working classes.’

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