When I hear the word “culture” . . .

Yesterday I mentioned that attention-getting New York Times story from last week which blamed inequality on single mothers, which Katha Pollitt effectively demolished. The worst thing about that story is that it’s led to a new round of concern-trolling about single mothers. And right on schedule, at Concern Troll Central — sorry, I mean Slate magazine — here we have a piece noting, in that classic concern troll “I really hate to break it to you, I come more in sorrow than in anger” guise, that, oh my gosh, “The Kids Are Not Really Alright. It’s worse to be raised by a single mother even if you’re not poor.”

The piece is a response to an earlier Slate article by Katie Roiphe, which rightfully took the Times to task for its tedious moralizing. Now you know that anything that forces you to side with a despicable professional antifeminist like Katie Roiphe is going to be pretty bad, and sure enough, it is. The piece is by W. Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist and the director of something called the National Marriage Project. Just so we’re clear about where Wilcox is, ideologically, he’s a frequent contributor to the National Review and the Wall Street Journal. He’s also been affiliated with something called the Institute for American Values, which is a propaganda outfit that Maggie Gallagher, known for her anti-gay marriage advocacy, was associated with for many years.

The National Marriage Project, the organization with which Wilcox is currently affiliated, has a well-defined agenda to promote traditional marriage, and all of the research it reports always casts marriage in the best possible light and always puts the worst possible spin on divorce, single parenthood, and nontraditional families and gender relationships. Their research is not peer-reviewed and their methodology has frequently been taken to task; University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen has referred to their reports as “non-peer-reviewed essays with a lot of substantially misleading and erroneous content.” Here’s his critique of a particularly shoddy study the Project on Marriage produced, one that purported to show that that church-going is causally related to marital stability. Another critique of the Project on Marriage’s research, this time from a different source, can be found here.

Oh, and one more thing about W. Bradford Wilcox — he’s a big fan of Charles Murray. ‘Nuff said.

So are we clear about who this guy is? Good!

Now to the article. Wilcox claims that research shows that kids in single parent families have worse incomes, even after you control for independent variables like parental income and education, race, etc. I’m on deadline here and haven’t had time to look at the research he cites, but I’ve linked to evidence above that demonstrates that Wilcox is not an honest broker when it comes to reporting and analyzing the data about these subjects, so I don’t trust what he has to say. That said, there is certainly some reason to believe that, even when you control for income and everything else, a two-parent family would probably be better, all else equal. Among other things, just having an extra person around makes everything so much easier on a practical level. Having two people around to provide care, drive kids to soccer practice, etc., undoubtedly has its benefits.

But here’s the thing: in real life, it’s never ceterus paribus, and there’s the rub. The research on the effects of divorce and single parenthood, which I have looked at albeit not lately, is notoriously complex, because it’s pretty much impossible to sort out causation and correlation. You can’t determine whether how the kid turned out is the product of single parenthood or the product of the rest of the stuff that’s often attached to single parenthood, such as low incomes, or a high-stress marriage, or whatever. Nor can you conjure up an alternate reality to find out what would have happened to the kid if the mom and dad had never divorced, or had gotten married in the first place. So I am intensely skeptical of any research that claims that kids’ outcomes are the results of their parents’ marital status. The research I saw about this stuff was extremely ambivalent as to causal relationships, and in the cases where it did look like the relationship might be causal, the effects were small.

The other part of Wilcox’s argument that is highly problematic is the idea that declining marriage rates among working class Americans is what is driving inequality:

The retreat from marriage in America, a retreat that Roiphe seems keen to defend, has led to “diverging destinies” for children from less-educated and college-educated homes. Children from poor and working-class homes are now doubly disadvantaged by their parents’ economic meager resources and by the fact that their parents often break up. By contrast, children from more-educated and affluent homes are doubly advantaged by their parents’ substantial economic resources and by the fact that their parents usually get and stay married.

This is a dangerous argument, because he’s got the causality direction completely wrong here. Inequality is what is driving the decline in marriage rates among lower income folks, not the other way around. As Shawn Fremstad at the Center for Economic and Policy Research has pointed in this useful post, in the original Times article, Jason DeParle distorted the research about the relationship between family structure and inequality. The research suggests that it is earnings insecurity rather than family structure that is driving inequality. And indeed, in a follow-up post, Fremstad pointed to an additional piece of research that showed that high rates of teen births are associated with states where there are high rates of economic inequality.

Not only does the research strongly support the theory that low marriage rates among low-income people are the result and not the cause of inequality, it also makes a lot of sense on an intuitive level. The dream of marriage and a two-parent family dies hard for most people. I do think it is something that most people would like to have. However, the economic prospects of blue collar men have been in free fall for the past several decades, and this has made them much less desirable as marriage partners. Women want the men they marry to contribute something of value to the marriage; they don’t want their husband to be just one more burden, another person they have to support. But until working class folks see a significant improvement in their economic prospects, they are not going to be marching down that wedding aisle anytime soon.

That’s why, the sexism aside, the woman-blaming detour that our national conversation about inequality has taken is so dangerous. It is a huge distraction. More marriages for the single moms of America are not going to lead to anything more than a stampede to divorce court unless American families can regain the financial stability they once had. I don’t see any way of us getting there short of a mass political movement to demand change, combined with a huge organizing drive by the labor movement to unionize significant numbers of new workers. We have to make fundamental changes to our political system and our economic system, so that we once again have a functional democracy and an economy capable of providing a decent living for all. The right doesn’t want to have an honest debate about those changes, so it’s trying to change the subject by resorting to its time-honored tactics of woman-blaming and culture wars.

Didn’t somebody once say, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun”? I know how he felt.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee