Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Allen Study on Children of Same-Sex Couples

Let's start with the under-stated question that Allen asks near the end of his recently-published study, "High school graduation rates among children of same-sex couples" --  "the question is: why?"

I begin my discussion of economics professor and Ruth Institute board member Doug Allen's study with this question because, despite explicitly asking this question and thereby acknowledging that gaps exist in this area of inquiry, many of those promoting this study act, through their promotion of discriminatory policies, as though this knowledge is, in fact, certain.

As you may remember, the National Organization and Mark Regnerus, writing at The Witherspoon Institute's Public Forum, have promoted this study uttering variations of the platitude that moms and dads matter!  That's why!

True, the soundbite itself is so broad as to be largely uninformative.

Although it suggests that pro-gay forces might actually be claiming that parents are unimportant to the lives of their children, an absurd argument that has never actually been on the table, it is premised upon the more specific notion that mothers as women, and fathers as men, each provide unique, separate, and vital traits to parenting that same-sex couples, by their very nature of excluding one gender, cannot and do not provide to children. Indeed, Allen notes this theory in a footnote by citing an episode of Modern Family in which a gay male couple take their daughter to her aunt to discuss "girl issues" because they, being men, ostensibly are physically incapable of talking about "girl issues."

That premise is going to be important for same-sex marriage advocates to understand as they read and critique this study, as it's an argument about the inferiority of same-sex parents that is gender-based, rather than sexual-orientation-based. Women, it is argued, are inferior at the act of being a father - whatever that tangibly consists of -  than men are.  And likewise, men are inferior at the act of being a mother - whatever that tangibly consists of - than women are.  (What each role tangibly consists of is rarely clearly articulated. I guess proponents of this argument "know it when they see it.")

Now that we have anti-equality advocates' "why" articulated as a context for this study, we can progress to the overarching conclusion Allen puts forth, which is that "the odds of a child with gay or lesbian parents completing high school are lower, by a considerable margin, compared to children of married opposite sex parents."

To reach this conclusion, Allen used a limited data file from the Canada Census, from which Allen selected data for a percentage of children aged 17-22 living with their parents. Sociologist Phillip Cohen estimates that the sample probably contains 85 kids of gay fathers and 194 kids of lesbian mothers. Allen himself says that Canadian law doesn't permit him to release the sample size.

In his analysis, with our "why?" in mind, we can further note Allen's terminology. Throughout, he uses the phrase "opposite sex" couples to refer to couples comprised of a woman and a man, suggesting an assumption about the purportedly "opposite" and/or "complementary" nature of women and men.

For instance, following his Table 4, which estimates population averages of certain variables, he includes this explanation in a footnote:
"For gay and lesbian households the 'father' is the survey respondent who self-identified as the household head"
Telling. But on the bright side, we do have one tangible characteristic of "being a father" clearly articulated.

In his general discussion of Table 4, Allen highlights some of the results he finds particularly "fascinating." For instance, he finds it "striking" how few same-sex couples with children within the 17-22 age range are living in Canada, estimating that such couples make up 1% of all couples with children within that particular age range.

That factoid prompts me to ask a different why: Why then are such massive amounts of resources, time, and effort to deny such a fascinatingly-small percentage of the population equal rights?

I suspect that this why is substantially related to the first why.  Namely, that same-sex marriage poses a threat to the notion that men and women are complementary, "opposite" beings who, by their very inherent nature, fulfill separate roles in marriage and parenting - with fathers, as men- being the head of it all. Secondly, it's also politically safer for researchers to espouse sexist "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus" stereotypes than for them to reference explicitly anti-gay "homosexual predators are a danger to children" stereotypes in today's political climate.

Moving along, Allen goes on to discuss his data in Table 4:
"There are a higher number of visible minority children for gay households (28 % compared to 13 % for common law couples), and a higher number of disabled children (13 % compared to 6 % for opposite sex married parents)."
Oddly, he somewhat hand-waives away the possibility that this discrepancy might be explained by gay couples choosing to adopt children who might experience more challenges, saying, "This may imply a high number of adopted children in gay households, but interestingly there are no cases of inter-racial same-sex families within the 20 % sample."

Well, sure, okay - but he still doesn't know adoption rates because that information wasn't included in his data set. So, if we ignore the whiff of racial wedge-creating in his statement, it's still true that gay couples likely adopt more frequently than male-female couples, you know, since most gay couples can't generally procreate together.  It's actually quite odd to see a researcher of Allen's ilk minimize that reality given that it's often a Top 3 Talking Point that purportedly-civil "marriage defenders" use to oppose marriage equality for same-sex couples.

What I find interesting is that Allen doesn't highlight how other large discrepancies might also be "interesting" or "fascinating" in this section- like how children living with lesbian couples and children living with single mothers are far more likely, at 91% and 88% respectively, to live in urban settings than children living with hetero married couples (78%), common law male female couples (74%), gay couples (72%), and single fathers (79%). In addition, both lesbian mothers and single parents have quite lower average incomes than other family types, ranging from $49,874 for single mothers, $88,600 for lesbian couples, and a whopping $119,172 for heterosexual married couples.

As another interesting point, he also skims over the part where, once all controls are used, children of cohabiting (ie- unmarried) male-female couples seem to do the best of all when it comes to high school graduation - even better than the much-touted "married opposite sex" so-called Gold Standard Family.

He buries that lead by acknowledging that point in a footnote diss of same-sex couples: "Compared to children of opposite sex cohabitating parents, the children of same-sex parents do even worse." Well, yes, because compared to children of "opposite sex cohabitating parents," children of all other parent types do worse. But saying that would be highly damning to prominent "marriage defense" narratives.

From an analytical/discussion standpoint, I don't see a ton to this study, and it's disappointing that Allen only raises mostly one uninspired direction for future research, writing:
"This study suggests further work is necessary to narrow down the source of this difference. This will require an exceptional data set that not only identifies sexual orientation of parents, but also has a retrospective or panel design to completely control for marital history."
Well, yes, further work is indeed necessary, as this paper seems to raise more questions than it answers, although opponents of marriage equality certainly won't treat it as such. Indeed, if I were approaching the question "why" might we be seeing any disparities between children of same-sex couples, I would be asking many questions and positing many more directions for future work.

  • Allen's sample is only of children between the age of 17-22 and who are living with their parents.  Yet, what is the average age of high school graduation in Canada? I really don't know much about the Canadian education system (so chime in here if you do!), but trusty Wikipedia notes that ages at graduation can vary by province and can range from between 17-21. Given that his data set notes an average younger age of children of lesbian couples, might it be that some children have not yet, due to their age, had the opportunity to graduate?  
  • Relatedly, let's think for a second about the population of 17-22 who are living with their parents? Would such people be more or less likely to have graduated from high school than 17-22 year olds who are not living with their parents? What would happen to the graduation rates if we included the population of 17-22 year-olds who are not living with their parents, a population that would presumably be more independent and likely to have graduated high school?  By only including 17-22 year-olds who are living with their parents, Allen's sample seems as though it would disproportionately include non-high-school graduates.
  • What are the differences among the children, when accounting for the circumstances of their birth and possible adoption? Might same-sex couples adopt children, and adopt older children, who have more challenges or disabilities than those raised by their biological parents? Might that contingency account for differences? What about children of same-sex couples who were created through alternative reproductive technologies, or who are the product of failed heterosexual unions? How do these variances impact child outcomes? 
  • How might living in a society that privileges heterosexuality and marginalizes homosexuality contribute to any differences among children of same-sex couples? It's true that Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, but given that the children in this study ranged in age from 17-22, they also lived in a country in which their parents were second-class citizens during most of the children's early, formative years. Social justice doesn't work in a way such that once same-sex couples have marriage equality 100% of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice is entirely erased from society. I question the informativeness of comparing same-sex couples to heterosexual couples in a way that erases a social context in which these families are not, in reality, given the same social, moral, and familial supports to thrive.
  • Since this study only looks at children of same-sex couples who are married, what proportion of same-sex couples in Canada, especially those with children, are legally married? Could the numbers be different if children of cohabitating same-sex couples were included? For most same-sex couples in Canada of the legal age to marry, same-sex marriage wasn't even a cultural norm, let alone allowed, until very recently. It still seems early to start drawing conclusions about same-sex couples and their children. 
  • If these differences in high school graduation rates are legitimate, what can be done to better support same-sex families, given that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people exist in the real world, establish same-sex relationships, and raise children?  What is the impact on child outcomes when organizations like National Organization for Marriage and The Witherspoon Institute publicly favor policies that promote the marginalization of same-sex families and families other than married hetero so-called Gold Standard?
  • If we take these findings as legit, what's up with children of cohabiting heterosexual parents doing better than children of the so-called married hetero gold standard?  Maybe Team Opposite Sex Is The Best should get on that finding STAT!
I'm sure others could include many more questions, as well.

As a final note, I want to draw attention to Allen's footnote 24, where he discusses how small sample sizes in previous studies result from low response rates to surveys of gay parents:
"Often the problem of small sample size comes from low response rates. Many of the fifty-two studies are silent on the question of response rates to their surveys, but when information is provided it often shows that response rates are very low. For example, in Bos (2010) the gay males were recruited from an Internet mail list for gay parents. Although the list had 1,000 names, only 36 replied and participated in the study. This amounts to a 3.6 % response rate. Other studies (e.g., Chan et al. and Fulcher et al.) have reductions in their samples similar in relative size to Rosenfeld. Response rates lower than 60 % are usually taken to mean the presence of a strong selection bias—even when the initial list is random."

I purport that when some researchers seem hell-bent on determining that same-sex couples are inferior to heterosexual couples, results that will eventually be promoted as reasons to deny same-sex couples rights and further marginalize and malign us in society, I can imagine that many same-sex couples would be reluctant to respond to surveys, thereby impacting the quality of many studies about same-sex families.

Sociologist Philip Cohen's Critique of Allen's Study
Same-Sex Marriage, Feminism, and Women
Regnerus: Same-Sex Marriage Will Change Hetero Marriage

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