Sunday, March 24, 2013

Just Maybe? “Marriage + Family = Success”?

There are signs our national elite is awakening to America’s broken home disaster. Megan McArdle of the liberal-leaning “Daily Beast” is a moderate former senior editor at the (liberal) establishment Atlantic.

McArdle has fixed on Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s critique, in Forbes, of economist and author of The Great Stagnation Tyler Cowen’s New York Times op-ed. In his column, Cowen proclaims--to much approval from his fellow economists--that economists are biased (toward “good,” but biased anyway). Gobry notes that “economists praise Cowen’s finding,” even though it “undermines economics’ claim” to be based on “scientific knowledge.”

Gobry offers an example of economists’ bias: the discipline’s relative treatment of college versus marriage as a path to success. As McArdle puts it, “College improves your earning prospects.  So does marriage.  Education makes you more likely to live longer.  So does marriage.”  So she sides with Gobry when he asks why economists strongly back initiatives to move people into college, yet rarely back initiatives to get people married.

McArdle quoting Gobry:
economists’ “cosmopolitan perspective” (as Cowen puts it) makes them not feel good at the idea of public policy that would interfere with personal choices (allowing for a second that getting married is a “personal choice” in a way that going to college isn’t). Most economists think that government should not interfere or have a stance one way or another with decisions that feel intimate to people. That is a complete value judgement. And it’s a completely defensible one.
But at the level of the economics profession, this leads to bias: much more ink is spilled on, and thought given to the college wage premium than the marriage wage premium. One is mostly praised and interpreted in a certain way, while the other is mostly ignored. And, of course, the thing that academic economics focuses on has an effect on elite debate and public policy, especially when the socially liberal, pro-higher ed biases of economists line up well with those of the rest of the elite.
McArdle offers her own reason economists ignore the value of marriage:
all economists are, definitionally, very good at college.  Not all economists are good at marriage.  Saying that more people should go to college will make 0% of your colleagues feel bad.  Saying that more people should get married and stay married will make a significant fraction of your colleagues feel bad.
An even clearer sign our elite are finally grappling with marriage’s relationship to success comes from a recent column by liberal Ruth Marcus in the liberal Washington Post. Marcus defends the latest campaign of nanny City (“No Big Gulp sodas here!”) of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this one against teen pregnancy. In addition to the poster above, Bloomberg is papering his city with ads that say, "I'm twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen," and "If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98% chance of not being in poverty."

Marcus adds other relevant facts, including children of teenagers are more likely to be born prematurely and at low birth weight, more likely to be abused or neglected, less likely to complete high school, with boys twice as likely to end up in prison as the sons of mothers aged 20 and 21, and girls three times as likely to become teen mothers themselves compared to mothers who wait until 20 or 21. Only half of teen mothers obtain a high school diploma by age 22 compared to 89% of women who did not give birth as teenagers, and less than 2% of mothers who give birth before age 18 obtain college degrees by age 30, with half below the poverty line and the family's chances of living in poverty increasing as children grow older.

Marcus believes the New York City ad campaign will work. The city’s existing anti-pregnancy effort includes making “Plan B” emergency contraceptives available in schools, the effort helping drop teen pregnancies 27% over the last decade. And in Milwaukee, which once had the country’s second-highest teen pregnancy rate, teen pregnancies have fallen five years in a row -- faster than the national average -- since the city instituted "shock advertising" similar to New York’s. Says New York City's human resources director Robert Doar, "Cultural messages do matter, whether it's smoking or drunk driving or obesity."

Who would oppose a campaign against teenage pregnancy? Marcus calls out New York State Sen. Liz Krueger ("This campaign seems laser-focused on shaming already struggling teen parents or, ludicrously, convincing teens not to get pregnant because really bad things will happen"), City Councilwoman Annabel Palma (Teenage mothers across the city will feel "shamed and stigmatized"), and most of all, Planned Parenthood of New York City, whose Haydee Morales complained the ad campaign "creates stigma, hostility and negative public opinions about teen pregnancy and parenthood."

Of Planned Parenthood’s objections, Marcus responds, “Excuse me, but we're not supposed to have a negative opinion about teen pregnancy and parenthood? Isn't that the planned part of Planned Parenthood?”

Marcus writes that saying it's a shame when a teenager gets pregnant certainly isn’t the same as shaming pregnant teenagers. Being squeamish about pregnancy does teenagers no favor. To Marcus’ credit, she goes on to criticize “undue squeamishness” about “out-of-wedlock births in general.”

Though neither Bloomberg nor Marcus directly advocate marriage before baby, a campaign to slow down children having children does move our largest city in the right direction.

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