A few days ago as I was heading into the office, my Blackberry picked up an email posting to AtMP-Talk, our interactive listserve. AtMP-TALK has been hosting important, enlightening and sometimes silly conversations among over 500 members for over a decade, but it had been pretty quiet in recent months. This posting caught my eye not only because it broke the silence, but also because of the writer’s name: Chris Gersten. “Gee, that sounds familiar” I thought as I walked up the stairs and unlocked the office door, then “nah, it couldn’t be him!” When my PC warmed up, I confirmed that yes, Chris Gersten is the chairman of the Fatherhood & Marriage Leadership Insititute, and yes, he has been lurking on our listserve since mid-September (not coincidentally, around the same time I last blogged about FAMLI). I posted his brief bio to the list and wondered what would happen next.
Chris’s initial message made several general statements about the value of marriage and government-funded marriage programs, including
[M]arriage is the critical building block for every civilization since the dawn of time. It is the institution that all the social science research tells us is best for children to be raised in. It is also very difficult for people in marriages to maintain strong relationships over the years. There is nothing wrong with society and government understanding that it is in the interest of the broader society for married couples to get help.
Of course, Chris works to secure not only government understanding, but big funding for marriage programs. AtMP opposes this use of funds, and invites the public to sign our petition.
Member responses came in quickly. Almost all were thoughtful, detailed, respectful and passionate about cherishing diversity, protecting children and supporting relationships. I’m really proud that AtMP has such wise members! Here is a brief sample of what AtMP members said:
FAMILIES are the critical building block. People need to be “built” in stable families in order to become adults who function well regardless of the living situation they choose. Adults who live alone aren’t destroying society. But children can’t be single; they need families.
What the social science research tells us is that children do best with a consistent, reliable family and adequate physical and emotional care. Married parents look good in research because the majority of consistent two-adult households are married ones. However, studies of other family types such as stable same-sex couples show that the important variable is not marriage but stability–having the same adults in the family throughout childhood. There are many advantages to having more than one
adult (particularly with more than one child) but single parents who intentionally became parents while single tend to do very well.
Several people echoed and expanded on the importance of family stability and relationship education.
I was going to ask about the nature of the help for married couples that is being funded, and why it wouldn’t be helpful for unmarried couples as well. You’ve explained that marriage education programs are really relationship education for all. Why not just call it that? Isn’t that a worthy goal?
Chris, if you replaced the word “marriage” with “loving, intimate, relationship” I might agree with a lot of what you say. However, marriage as a social/cultural/legal status has little to do with whether a relationship is loving or intimate! Programs should be aimed at improving love, communication, and intimacy in all relationships. Then the children would really benefit.
Others raised questions and theories about the evolution of marriage and its connection to poverty.
Jobs for women pay less and are less likely to provide health insurance. Day care is expensive, and women’s wages simply aren’t high enough. Marriage has been a building block of civilizations because women have been relegated out of society outside the home. … We should be working to raise people up out of poverty, and marriage will *not* create that change. Improving work environments for women, creating opportunity in impoverished neighborhoods, and putting a stop to the shaming of single parents and their children will greatly help improve outcomes for children of single parents.
Marriage was created as a mechanism by which to manage property. Our idea of “love marriage” is a recent invention. Marriage has historically been a partnership formed by families (most marriages were arranged in all cultures for centuries) for financial reasons.
Chris replied to most member responses, mentioning (but not formally citing) studies, percentages, experts and pastors, and stating “these are not just opinions. They are facts.” Our studious members were ready.
You know what, Chris? MARRIAGE CAUSES DIVORCE. There is a 100% correlation, and the causation is clear: Every divorced couple was married before divorce! Speaking more seriously … as best I can recall from my reading, child poverty and infant mortality have *decreased* significantly since 1960 (although there have been upticks recently, they’re not back up to pre-1960 levels), low birth weight is still a problem but hasn’t changed much, and child abuse is hard to measure reliably because of drastic changes in reporting standards.
Several members referred to Dr. Bella DePaulo’s careful analysis of marriage studies, and at least one contacted her offline to ask her to weigh in, which she did:
Chapter 9 of my book, SINGLED OUT, is about the children of single parents. There, I explain why Chris’s claims do not pass muster and how those studies are so widely misinterpreted. (Because Chris seems to value appeals to authority over a close reading of the original research, I’ll mention that my PhD is from Harvard, I have more than 100 academic publications to my name, and I’ve taught graduate courses in research methods for decades.) My chapter directly addresses some of the claims Chris makes, such as the one about the alleged drug abuse among the children of single parents. I explain, in detail, how particular kinds of studies are misrepresented; so if you make the same methodological mistake each time (such as confusing correlation with causality, as Rachel pointed out), it doesn’t matter if you have 50 studies or 50,000 studies – if they are flawed, they can’t be used to support your point.
I stay on top of studies that have appeared after Singled Out was published. Many of my critiques can be found in a recent collection, SINGLE WITH ATTITUDE. I’ve also posted some critiques at my Living Single blog at Psychology Today. Here are a few specifically relevant to the points about the children of single parents:
1. Children of Single Mothers: How Do They Really Fare?
2. It Takes a Single Person to Create a Village
3. TIME’s Misleading Cover Story on Marriage
- Bella DePaulo
Members were uniformly unimpressed by Chris’s responses, and after about 48 hours the email storm collapsed in a heap of fatigue and curiosity, with members asking “Why is a former Bush Administration official on this listserve?” and “Are you just bored and looking for someone to harangue?”
Tiresome as it may be, we can expect many more conversations like this in 2010, because federal funding for marriage programs is up for renewal this year. If you agree that anti-poverty funds should be dedicated to reducing poverty, and relationship education should help everyone regardless of marital status, then please sign our petition!