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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Poverty in America

America suffers from a poverty crisis—but not the sort that can be alleviated by food stamps or free healthcare. America’s poverty lies within the family—a poverty of belonging in marriage between fathers and mothers.  The biggest cause of poverty is rejection (splitting apart) between fathers and mothers.

According to the latest census report, 8.6 million families were in poverty in 2015. Poverty is principally the problem of non-intact family structures.  Five times as many female-headed families (no husband present) and almost three times as many male-headed families (no wife present) as married-couple families were in poverty in 2015. Although welfare may artificially reduce poverty statistics on paper, in reality it compounds at least two significant obstacles to the poor: first, welfare replaces personal agency with government reliance, thereby robbing individuals of their feeling of self-worth; second, it artificially covers deeper wounds and allows them to fester.


Research shows that family intactness, along with high school graduation rates, play the largest role in diminishing child poverty. Men raised in intact families work 156 hours longer and earn $6,534 more than their counterparts raised in single-parent families. Married men—especially those with children—earn 26 percent more than their non-married counterparts. They have higher incomes, more net worth, and greater year-to-year net worth growth. Marriage is also an important driver of economic mobility.

In addition to improving financial hardships, intact married families simultaneously treat children’s physical, mental, and spiritual privation. Children raised in married families tend to have higher educational achievement and attainment, have a better relationship with their parents, are less likely to commit crime, and are less likely to have a teenage pregnancy. Children who grow up in non-intact families are more likely to suffer from poorer physical and mental health, abuse drugs and alcohol, and partake in sexually promiscuous behavior. 

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Hillary Clinton accurately stated that “The true measure of any society is how we take care of our children.” However, our children’s wellbeing cannot be measured solely by the dollar sign tied to their family in a census report. As Mother Teresa famously said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” MARRI data shows that 54 percent of youth experience the rejection of a non-intact family by the time they reach age 18. Even more disconcerting, only 17 percent of black youth grow up with their married mother and father. Whereas family intactness fosters an environment of belonging among youth that increases their likelihood of excelling in education, health, and economic security, family brokenness creates a sense of rejection that can impede proper growth.

A nation is only as strong as the relationship between its citizens, and a lack of strong families weakens human, social, and moral capital, which in turn directly affects the finances of the United States. A holistic and effective long-term plan to reduce material and relational poverty in America must encourage intact married families.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Cohabitation is NOT the Same as Marriage

The media got it wrong again. A well-conducted study by Sarah Mernitz and Claire Kamp Dush of Ohio State University shows that transitions into relationships, especially direct marriage, alleviate emotional distress. But reporters cherry-picked data to claim the study shows that cohabitation is no different from marriage. This is false.

Four findings from this study, which does the best it can with rather limited measures, were not reported by mainline media:
  1. Not surprisingly, transitions into all romantic unions give an “emotional lift” (Note that an “emotional lift” is not the same as love—a distinction the authors fail to make).
  2. Marriage gives bigger emotional lifts.
  3. Both men and women gain significant emotional lifts; sometimes the women more than the men, sometimes the men more than the women.
  4. All romantic unions gain an emotional lift from having a baby – sometimes for the fathers more than the mothers. 

Bottom lines: 
  1. Marriage is best if you are looking for an emotional lift.  
  2. Newborns give an emotional lift, especially with second partners. 
  3. The poor need lots of help: no relationship seems to relieve their distress. 

Most disturbing is the plight of the poor.  We know from many other studies that many of the poor (if not most) come from a long line of alienated parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.  We need geniuses or saints to show us how to help them.

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There are two important methodological considerations to accurately interpret this study. First, it focuses on relationship transitions. It measures mental health at the initiation of a new relationship (cohabitation, direct marriage, or marriage after cohabiting), and does not indicate the long-term stability or well-being of relationship types. Second, Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s study evaluates emotional distress only, and does not give a holistic assessment of well-being or relationship quality.

Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s research shows that women benefit emotionally more than men when transitioning into any type of first union relationship; however, women benefit more from marriage and most from a direct marriage. This finding is not surprising. New relationships--no matter what the type--tend to be fun and exciting, thereby reducing emotional distress.

Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s study also confirms the emotional lift gained by having children. For men transitioning into their first romantic union (cohabiting or direct marriage), having a child has a stronger emotional impact than having full time employment or a college degree. Women who enter a cohabiting relationship or first marriage also experience an emotional lift from childbearing. Interestingly, the sex differences are flipped for individuals in their second union. For women entering a cohabiting relationship, having a child decreases emotional distress more than having full time employment or a college degree. Women who enter a direct marriage or marry after cohabiting also reap significant benefits from having a child. Although males in their second union also obtain emotional benefits from having a child, their emotional benefits are not as significant as women’s.

Interestingly, this study raises some important considerations for poorer communities (as indicated by those with less than a high school degree), where intact married families are rare. Poorer women experience less emotional distress when they directly enter marriage for their first romantic union, whereas poorer men experience less distress when cohabiting. For second romantic unions, both men and women experience the least emotional distress if they enter a cohabiting relationship. These sentiments are problematic for the poor community. Research shows that marriage encourages economic mobility, and decreases government dependency. The anti-marriage bias of the welfare system revokes assistance for couples who marry. Therefore, the government imposes stressors for those who marry.

It is important to note that Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s study does not measure love. Love transcends emotional highs and lows and is first really tested when emotions turn sour.  Emotional status is a good indicator of temporary well-being, and has a place in examining transitions into relationships. However, for journalists and reporters to categorically declare that cohabitation is equivalent to marriage is untrue of the study and is shoddy reporting at best. Moreover it totally ignores repeated and compelling research that illustrates the superior benefits of stable marital unions.

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For those interested, what follow is a more detailed summary of the study’s findings:

For First Romantic Unions:
  • Women emotionally benefit more than men from transitioning into a relationship. 
  • Women and men both benefit the most from entering a direct marriage (compared to entering a cohabiting relationship, or entering marriage after cohabiting).
Controlling for Education
  • Across all education levels, women who enter a direct marriage experience more emotional benefits than women who transition into a cohabiting relationship or enter a marriage after cohabiting. There is one exception: women with more than a college degree have the best health benefits when they enter a marriage after cohabiting.
  • Men follow less of a pattern: men with less than a high school degree benefit the most from entering a cohabiting relationship; those with some college benefit most from transitioning into marriage from cohabitation; those with a college degree benefit the most from entering a cohabiting relationship; and men with more than a college degree benefit the most from marrying after cohabiting.
Controlling for Employment
  • Men who are unemployed, men who are employed full time, and men who had a child all emotionally benefit the most from entering into a direct marriage.
  • For women the results are more mixed: women who are unemployed emotionally benefit the most from marrying after cohabiting; women who are employed full time benefit most from entering a cohabiting relationship; and women who had a child benefit the most from entering into a cohabiting relationship.
For Second Romantic Unions:
  • Men emotionally benefit more than women from entering into a cohabiting relationship.
  • Women benefit more than men from directly marrying.
  • Men benefit more than women from marrying after cohabiting.
  • Both men and women emotionally benefit the most from marrying after cohabiting.
Controlling for Education
  • Men and women with less than a high school degree experience the least emotional distress when they enter a cohabiting relationship.
  • Women who have some college, a college degree, or more than a college degree experience the greatest emotional benefit from entering into a direct marriage (sometimes tied with marrying after cohabiting).
  • Men who have some college, a college degree, or more than a college degree experience the greatest emotional benefit from entering into a direct marriage.
Controlling for Employment
  • For women who are unemployed, entering a direct marriage produces the best emotional benefits; for women who are employed, entering a cohabiting relationship produces the best benefits.
  • For men who are unemployed, entering a direct marriage produces the best emotional outcomes; for men who are employed, marrying after cohabiting produces the best outcomes.
  • For women who had a child, entering a cohabiting relationship decreases emotional distress the most; for men who had a child marrying after cohabiting decreases emotional distress the most.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Confusing Research on the Impact of Religion on Children's Altruism

A recent study by Jean Decety of the University of Chicago and his collagues sets up an experiment based on sticker-sharing and fake pushing among religious and non-religious children to arrive at a pretty hefty conclusion: “[The findings] call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

One might say that this conclusion is laughable, but the media reaction was disturbing. The web was bombarded with headlines claiming “Religious Kids Tend to Be Mean and Selfish Little Jerks,” “Religion Makes Children More Selfish,” and “Religious Children are Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts.” But despite these claims, rigorous social science has shown that religious practice delivers incomparable benefits to society. It is normal and healthy for academics to disagree on the impact of religious practice on different aspects of life. Over the long haul, this helps to clarify reality. However, it is an entirely different pursuit, and not an intellectually honest one, for researchers to intend to knock down religious beliefs and practice. Decety et al. may be doing the latter; their future research will tell. In this study, their handling of the known literature on religious practice and their poor method raises concern that, rather than seeking to add clarity to knowledge, they are only adding confusion.

Past research has repeatedly confirmed the overwhelmingly positive impact that frequent religious practice has on societal outcomes. The Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) has shown that 44 percent of adults who attended religious services monthly or more as an adolescent have volunteered in charitable activities within the past year, whereas 33 percent of those who attended monthly or never volunteered. Arthur Brooks, then a researcher at Syracuse University and now president of the American Enterprise Institute, conducted the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (SCCBS) that drew almost 30,000 observations from fifty U.S. communities, and used rigorous regression to control for political beliefs, income, education level, gender, age, race, marital status, and area of residence. Brooks found that, when all controls are applied, religious people are 23 percent more likely than their secular counterparts to donate money, and 26 percent more likely to volunteer. On average, a religious person gives $1,388 more than a secular person, and volunteers on 6.5 more occasions.

Moreover, Brooks points out that “Religious people are more generous than secular people with nonreligious causes as well as religious ones.” Religious people are 7 percent more likely than their secular counterparts to volunteer for neighborhood and civic groups, 20 percent more likely to help the poor or elderly, 26 percent more likely to volunteer in school/ youth programs, and 10 percent more likely to give to charitable causes.

Just last year a major German-Swiss study investigating issues similar to Decety’s summarized:

The question of whether religiosity is linked to prosocial behavior is currently hotly debated in psychology. This research contributes to this debate by showing that the nature of individuals’ religious orientations and their relationships to prosociality depend on their country’s social enforcement of religiosity. Our analyses of data from more than 70 countries indicate that in countries with no social pressure to follow a religion, religious individuals are more likely to endorse an intrinsic religious orientation (Study 1), engage in charity work (Study 2), disapprove of lying in their own interests (Study 3), and are less likely to engage in fraudulent behaviors (Study 4) compared with non-religious individuals. Ironically, in secular contexts, religious individuals are also more likely to condemn certain moral choices than non-religious individuals (Study 2). These effects of religiosity substantially weaken (and ultimately disappear) with increasing national levels of social enforcement of religiosity.

Let us look a bit more closely at the Decety study. Here are some of the primary mistakes in it:

1.  The reputation of religion now rests on stickers and bumping. Essentially, researchers assessed the altruism of religious and non-religious children by the children’s willingness to share stickers. Each child was presented thirty stickers and told to choose his/ her ten favorite. Next, researchers told the child that there weren’t enough stickers for all the children, and asked the child to anonymously place any stickers he/ she would be willing to share in an envelope. Christian children placed an average of 3.33 stickers, Muslims placed 3.20, and non-religious children placed 4.09.

Next, researchers measured how judgmental religious and non-religious children are by showing each child a series of dynamic scenarios in which one person is pushing or bumping another person (either purposefully or accidently), and assessing the child’s reactions. Muslim children labeled the interpersonal harm as meaner than did Christian children, and Christian children judged the actions to be meaner than non-religious children. Muslim children gave harsher ratings of punishment for the pushers, while there was no significant difference in punishment ratings between Christian and non-religious children.

The response that comes to mind: Give me a break.  That this rather simple study be flaunted to the lay public as proof of the impact of religion is an insult to the academy and to the profession of journalism. 

2. They use an unrepresentative sample. Lead researcher Jean Decety assessed 1,170 children between the ages of 5 and 12 years from six countries to represent the actions of religious children across the world. In the sample, 23.9 percent identified as Christian, 43 percent as Muslim, 27.6 percent as not religious, and 5.2 percent as either Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, or other (0.3 percent are unaccounted for). There are a number of problems with this sample that the authors do not address.

First: Children were selected from Chicago (United States), Toronto (Canada), Amman (Jordan), Izmir and Istanbul (Turkey), Cape Town (South Africa), and Guangzhou (China). It is peculiar, to say that least, that, in a study assessing how religious sentiments are manifested in behavior, researchers include countries that do not allow the free practice of religion. That alone skews and invalidates the results, as the German-Swiss study shows.

Second: The child samples seem to be opportunity samples (or snowball samples). The co-authors are all psychologists, and therefore accustomed to extrapolating from numbers not nationally representative, much less globally representative. The children seem to be from the cities where the different co-authors work.  That is far from nationally random and far from representative.

Third: The breakdown of religions in the sample does not reflect the world’s breakdown of religions. In the study, 23.9 percent are Christian and 43 percent are Muslim; in actuality, 31.4 percent of the world is Christian and 23.2 percent is Muslim.

Four: The sample consists of children ages 5 to 12 years old—a period of major developmental change for children, including significant changes in notions of justice. For academics, experiments help clarify the psychological aspects of altruistic behavior of children in mid-childhood. Only after years of research that control for an increasing number of variables will these experiments yield insights. 

Five:  The study broadly concludes that religion is bad for altruism.  If that conclusion were granted, an even bigger challenge remains for the authors: What is it about religious practice that, in the years between childhood and adulthood, flips the results so that suddenly religion encourages prosociality (as it does for adults)? From academics hostile to religion (and hostility to religion is overrepresented in academia) the response can be anticipated: Religion has nothing to do with people being good. This very argument seems to be the objective of Roy Sablosky’s “Does Religion Foster Generosity?

3. The measures used seem far removed from reality. These researchers determined that generosity in our world is best understood by sticker-sharing and contrived acts of meanness. However, that fails the common-sense credulity test.  The professors need to come up with more realistic experiments.

Professor Luke Galen of the University of Nebraska has spearheaded much of the research debate on these issues, especially in his 2012 publication, “Does Religious Belief Promote Prosociality? A Critical Examination.” The conclusion of the abstract states:  “These factors necessitate a revision of the religious pro-sociality hypothesis and suggest that future research should incorporate more stringent controls in order to reach less ambiguous conclusions.”   

Galen is correct. Religious practice and teachings have an intricate impact on the everyday functioning of society, and should be further investigated. Religion has nothing to fear and everything to gain when the social sciences tease out the variables in play. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Religion and Politics

Every election cycle there is often an exploration of the religious affiliation of the candidates running for office. This election cycle is no exception. The New York Time published an article this week entitled, “Donald Trump Attacks Ben Carson, and Highlights His Religion”, illustrating how crucial religious affiliation has become in politics, especially to Republican voters. However, it is not an issue just for Republicans and Republican candidates.  This week the Washington Post delved into the ambiguity of Democratic Candidate Bernie Sanders’ religious beliefs.

Some argue that religion should not play a role in the election process, while others will not vote for a candidate who does not share at least some aspects of their religious beliefs. This interest in religious affiliation is well grounded, as much can be inferred about one’s worldview and policy decisions from their stated faith. But perhaps the American people aren’t asking the right question. The question we tend to ask is, “what is your belief?” Yet there is a more revealing question, one that social science brings to the forefront: “How often do you attend religious service?” 

From a social science investigation, there is not as much that can be known from a statement of faith as the frequency of religious worship or practice. For example, individuals who attend religious worship weekly, compared to those who never attend religious worship, are most likely to be better educated, have fewer sexual partners, and be compassionate. They are also the least likely to use hard drugs, marijuana or commit adultery. In every category measured in the U.S. data system the more people worship the more likely they are to do what is right. This is likely to hold for politicians too.

When looking at candidates in the coming election, it would be prudent to ask, not only, “Do you believe in God?”, or, “What faith do you ascribe to?” but also, “How often do you attend religious service?”  Actions speak louder than words --- across all faiths and denominations.

Friday, October 23, 2015

God and Romance

Frank Fincham, from Florida State University’s Family Institute, conducted research on the effect of prayer on college romances. He found that prayer caused a decline in premarital sex and an increase in a sense of belonging.  This was found to be the case not just with  typical “self-report” measures but in blind ratings by outsiders. Read about this wonderfully designed piece of research by an eminent Rhodes Scholar.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Obergefell and Non-Profits

The American philanthropic community is in danger. The recent 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in support of same-sex marriages creates the potential for vast and encompassing regulations to take hold of the most foundational elements associated with 501 (c)(3) non-profits; namely their tax exempt status. Without the ability to maintain a conscientious objection right, Christian non-profits and individuals alike will become a jeopardized segment of the population at large. While “promises” have already been made, stating, “the IRS does not intend to change the standards that apply to section 501(c)(3) organizations by reason of the Obergefell decision,” the writing on the wall indicates that 501(c)(3)’s could be stripped of their tax exemptions.

Dr. Henry Potrykus, a Senior Fellow within the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) at the Family Research Council, is currently conducting a study that will examine the impact of regulations on the Christian non-profit community. The study, which will characterize the non-profits tracked by the IRS, especially the more than 84,000 Christian non-profits listed by GuideStar, will inform and empower efforts that are already well underway both inside and outside the philanthropic community to ensure Christian non-profits are afforded their tax exempt status. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Look at the Black Family

Only 17 percent of African American youth who reach age 18 have always lived with their married mother and father. In the District of Columbia, this number drops to 9 percent. Any policy initiative or social movement to ameliorate the plight of the black community must first address the deterioration of the black family. Contrary to popular public opinion, violent crime, drug abuse, and mass incarceration among African Americans is not a matter of race, and positing it as such fatally distracts from the root problem of family breakdown.

Across every race, the non-intact family poses significant challenges and development barriers to youth. The prevalence of non-intact families in the black community is especially high. As shown below, the black family is the least intact of all races/ethnicities. Almost four times as many Asian adolescents are raised by their married parents as black youths. Because black youths are least likely to come from intact families, the public frequently confounds the role of race and family intactness in shaping adolescents. 


As Kay Hymowitz pointed out in her Atlantic article this week, although racism has significantly decreased since the 1960s family brokenness has significantly increased. Between 1950 and 2012, the percentage of black youth raised by their married parents was cut in half. Rather than rejection stemming from race, black children now face rejection stemming from their parents’ relationship, and resulting in their family being broken. Put a lot of these families together and you get a broken community. As shown in the Violence in Baltimore report, non-intact families tend to foster frequently detrimental environments for children. According to the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect:

Compared to the intact married-parent family, the rate of physical abuse is:
    • 3 times higher in the single parent family
    • 4 times higher if the biological parents are cohabiting
    • 5 times higher in a married stepfamily
    • 10 times higher if one biological parent is cohabiting with a partner


Compared to the intact married-parent family, the rate of sexual abuse is:
    • 4.8 times higher in the single-parent family
    • 5 times higher when the biological parents are cohabiting
    • 8.6 times higher in a married step-family
    • 19.8 times higher if one biological parent is cohabiting with a partner

Children frequently respond to this rejection in externalizing behaviors like aggression and crime. State-by-state analysis indicates that, in general, a 10 percent increase in the number of children living in single-parent homes (including divorces) accompanies a 17 percent increase in juvenile crime. Compared with children raised in intact married-parent families, the rate of youth incarceration is 2 times higher in mother-only families, 2.7 times higher in mother-stepfather families, and 3.7 times higher in father-stepmother families.

The link between family structure and crime and abuse rates is well-established, and downplaying its significance is detrimental to our youngest citizens. As Ms. Hymowitz states, “Waving all of this away as 'respectability politics' ignores this history; it ignores anthropology; and it ignores many decades of research. It also risks neglecting the real suffering of black children and their communities.”