Statistics and the Bully Pulpit

Did you ever have a moment when you discovered that something you knew all your life was just plain wrong?

For all of my voting life, I’ve believed that welfare caused more births outside of marriage, and thus contributed to the moral decline of America and its critically important family structures. I was repeatedly told, in both conservative media and in church, that the percentage of births to single mothers rose sharply as welfare increased. To secure America’s future, and secure the morality of our culture, welfare had to be ended or at least sharply limited.

As a devoted conservative, I have long been deeply troubled by what I believed that welfare was doing to our nation. This of course played into my impressions about inner city conditions, mostly among Black ghettos, and my sense that welfare was causing all kinds of problems far beyond the public assistance itself. This also played strongly into my latent racism: Blacks, and specifically single Black mothers and Black deadbeat fathers, were clearly the problem here.

It never occurred to me to dig into the actual statistics.

Fortunately, there are people who have done that.

What I Learned

Yesterday I discovered that this underlying “fact” of “welfare causes more single parent babies” was a dramatically misleading presentation of the actual data.

It is absolutely true that the proportion of births to single women rose sharply since the 1960s. However, that fact is completely misleading and incomplete without a little context.

The Data

Here are a few related facts that present a quite different picture.

From the Brookings Institute, the think tank “most frequently cited” by “media and politicians,” (per Wikipedia), is this startling data point: “In 1970 there were about 400,000 out-of-wedlock births out of 3.7 million total births. In 1990 there were 1.2 million out-of-wedlock births out of 4 million total. From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, the number of births per unmarried woman roughly doubled for whites, but fell by 5-10 percent for blacks.”

In other words, Black out-of-wedlock birth TOTALS dropped among Black women. The increase in the NUMBER of out-of-wedlock births was entirely due to white women.

But the statistic that is always quoted is some variant of this, in the next sentence: “The fraction of unmarried women rose about 30 percent for whites, about 40 percent for blacks.” (That was 1990; as of 2018, the percent of solo mothers had increased in both races to 40% for whites, 58% for Blacks.)

Here’s the critical explanation in the next sentence from the Brooking report: “The fertility rates for married women of both races declined rapidly (also, of course, contributing to the rise in the out-of-wedlock birth ratio).” This means that the rate of births per Black single mother dropped so fast that the percentages got skewed, making it incorrectly look as if Black single mothers were having more and more babies.

Contributing to this change was the sharp decline in so-called “shotgun weddings,” where it used to be universally understood that a man getting a woman pregnant was instant grounds for a wedding. The unfortunate young lady’s dad would promptly walk her lover to the courthouse at the point of a shotgun to protect her honor.

The decline in shotgun weddings, in fact, was driven by the sexual revolution, aided by the new wide availability of contraception and legal abortion. The new lack of visible proof of sexual behavior allowed a massive increase in sexual freedom. Sex became decoupled from marriage.

So in a nutshell, as contraception and abortion became widely available, women simply stopped having babies AND getting married as a result of having sexual relations. The sexual revolution changed everything about birth statistics in America.

Now, this says some troubling things about sexuality and abortion. That is something that ought to be discussed. But at the same time, this different view of the birth rate completely breaks the Republican trope of “welfare causes more single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births.”

More Analysis

The Atlantic” web magazine has a good article about this issue.

It shows that from CDC data “while the number of unmarried black women has substantially grown, the actual birthrate (measured by births per 1000) for black women is it the lowest point that it’s ever documented,” down from about 100 in 1969 to around 55 in 2013, while the unmarried white birth rate was near an all time high across the same time span, from about 10 in 1969 to about 30 in 2013. (

Further to the point, another common anti-welfare trope is of the sexually promiscuous Black man, fathering children wildly and contributing to the welfare problem.

In fact, from CDC data in 2015 discussing fatherhood by unmarried men, “The percentage of fathers with a nonmarital first birth over the past 3 decades has remained similar for Hispanic and non-Hispanic white men, but has declined for non-Hispanic black men (1980s, 77%; 2000s, 66%).” and “Fathers with nonmarital first births in the 2000s were less likely to be non-Hispanic black men (21%) than Hispanic (33%) or non-Hispanic white (39%) men.”

I have selected here just a few resources to make my point. But there is a wealth of such data available for a simple search like “number of children born to black single women.”

Put quite simply, the developing problem with morality and out-of-wedlock births is NOT largely among Black welfare moms and promiscuous welfare dads. It’s actually worse among unmarried white women and white men.

The Consequences

This issue alone hardly settles the debate about the effect of a welfare system on morality. But it’s deeply troubling that the arguments used by many a Republican candidate for political office, and the majority of pundits in conservative circles, are so blatantly misleading. Even more concerning, I have often heard such arguments from a pulpit to justify a church’s political positions.

Perhaps these politicians and pundits and preachers don’t know any better. After all, once an attractive statistic has entered the political debate, and begins to cause funding and votes to accumulate, it’s very hard to shake with truth or data. Nobody cares to question the trope, because it’s being useful. Inside that echo chamber, the truth will not be heard even if it’s clearly presented.

But the truth was not unknown within those circles. Ronald Reagan’s policy advisor Gary Bauer, in his 1986 report “The Family: Preserving America’s Future” admitted that “Statistical evidence does not prove those suppositions” (that welfare benefits are an incentive to bear children).

I have found great value in reading Ibram X. Kendi’s seminal book “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism in America.” While I disagree with a number of his political conclusions and leanings, his mastery of American history (particularly the facts that are very uncomfortable for me as a white conservative evangelical) leaves me with little doubt that my understanding has been deeply compromised and deserves a complete restudy. This book and numerous others in the last year have seemed necessary to read, so that my knowledge base is actually well-rounded and able to make a better assessment of my policy and platform choices in the political realm.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

As Mark Twain once quoted some unknown pundit, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

As an engineer by trade, much of my functional training has focused on accurate analysis and presentation of data. I can mislead people as simply as changing the scaling on a graph. I can pick a percentage instead of an absolute count to effectively lie about the data. But I find a need for absolutely honest analysis and presentation, especially as one following a religion that honors and names its supreme deity as “The Truth.” We Christians have no excuse for misrepresenting data to win political arguments. I am convinced that our Lord will not honor us for such sin, even in the pursuit of a larger good. The ends do not, in fact, justify these means.

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