Unhealthy Half Truths
Scandinavia marriage is dying.


Stanley Kurtz

M. V. Lee Badgett, professor of economics and gay and lesbian studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has a Slate piece that purports to refute my work on same-sex unions and marriage in Scandinavia. It doesn’t. Badgett’s case is built on statistical sleight of hand. And his claim that “heterosexual marriage looks pretty healthy in Scandinavia” flies in the face of a broad scholarly consensus.

The idea that Scandinavian marriage is dying is not my invention. Have a look at this 2000 piece from the Los Angeles Times. Scandinavians, the Times reports, “have all but given up on marriage as a framework for family living, preferring cohabitation even after their children are born.” According to the Times, “the 1990’s witnessed a resolute rejection of marriage, even among couples having children.” Whether they praise or blame the Scandinavian family system, scholars agree.

Badgett’s odd claim that Scandinavian marriage is doing just fine is built on a statistical trick. According to Badgett, roughly four out of five couples with children in Denmark and Norway are married. That’s true, but it’s also incomplete and deeply misleading. What Badgett doesn’t tell you is that her “couples with children” figure includes only couples who are living together. Children who live with single parents or step families are omitted from Badgett’s report.

In Norway, those children of broken families are put in a huge category called “other type of family.” That category includes single adults as well as single parents and step-families. Separating out the subcategories, Norwegian demographer Christer Hyggen reports that by January 2002, only 62 percent of Norwegian children were living with married parents–far lower than Badgett’s 80 percent.

Badgett’s figures conveniently sidestep the central point. Cohabiting parents are 2-3 times more likely to break up than married parents. That’s why parental cohabitation is a problem. Since cohabiting couples break up at a high rate, many of their children end up with single parents or in step families. By leaving those children out, Badgett disregards the true cost of the Scandinavian system.

And the problem is getting worse. In Norway, cohabiting families are the fastest-growing family type, while married couples with children are the fastest shrinking family type. The proportion of Norwegian children living with married parents dropped 16 percent from 1989 to 2002 (from 78 percent to 62 percent).

Badgett’s figures are deeply misleading. But break even those down by region, and the results are revealing. Even restricting ourselves to parents who are living together, in Norway’s religious and socially conservative southwest, only one child in ten lives with cohabiting parents. But in the socially liberal north (where the idea of gay marriage has been most completely accepted) fully four children in ten are living with unmarried parents (who still reside together). Add the children of single parents and step families, and we are surely at over 50 percent of children living with unmarried parents in Norway’s liberal north. If that sounds high, consider that in 2002, 83 percent of first-born children in the northern Norwegian county of Nord-Troendelag were born out of wedlock, as were 58 percent of subsequent children.

You can read more in this summary from Statistics Norway. Notice what Norway’s own national statisticians take to be the big story in the numbers–the rise of cohabitation and the decline of married couples with children. That’s a far cry from Badgett’s claim that “heterosexual marriage looks pretty healthy in Scandinavia.”

Badgett’s statistical cherrypicking also distorts her claim about the Netherlands, as blogger Justin Katz has already noticed. Badgett says that in 2003, 90 percent of Dutch couples with kids were married. What she doesn’t tell you is that there were almost twice as many single-parent households in the Netherlands as cohabiting-parent households in 2003. So in reality, married couples now make up only about 75 percent of the families with children, not 90 percent. And that 75 percent figure represents a drop of about seven percent since the campaign for gay marriage kicked into high gear in the Netherlands.

Even these numbers don’t tell the real story. The important point is that registered partnerships and gay marriage have brought sharply higher rates of parental cohabitation to the Netherlands in just the last few years. (For more on this, see my new piece, “Going Dutch?“) Since the surge in Dutch unmarried cohabitation is only seven years old, it will take some time before the higher breakup rate for cohabiting couples has its full effect on the single parenting statistics. But Dutch marriage is waning, and the fast-rising rate of unmarried parenthood sets kids up for even more trouble in the future. So Badgett’s claim that heterosexual marriage “looks pretty healthy” is built on statistical half-truths.

Badgett ignores key points from my work on Scandinavia. I’ve shown in detail why higher marriage rates do not mean a marital renaissance in Scandinavia. Badgett quotes the usual statistics, while saying nothing in reply to my arguments.

Badgett also ignores another one of my key points–that there is an important difference between out-of-wedlock births to first-born’s, and to subsequent children. In the early stages of parental cohabitation, the first child is treated as a test of the relationship. Many couples break up shortly after the first child is born, but many also marry. Yet as parental cohabitation grows more popular, people lose the impulse to marry at all. They have two and even three children without marrying, and many stop marrying altogether. This second stage spells the end of marriage itself. That’s why it has to work against deeper cultural resistance than “experimental” first-child out-of-wedlock births.

What’s happened in Scandinavia since gay marriage is that couples have moved from the first to the second stage. They’ve started to shift from treating the first child as the test of a possible marriage, to giving up on marriage altogether. In the liberal northern counties of Norway, prior to the enactment of registered partnerships, most first children were born outside of marriage. Yet most subsequent children were born to married couples. Since registered partnerships have been established, even most second and third children are now born out-of-wedlock in these districts. The Norway’s liberal north, marriage is literally disappearing. The other key change since registered partnerships is that parental cohabitation is growing, even in the once traditional and religious districts of Norway’s southwest.

So to compare the quick early rise of the Norwegian out-of-wedlock birthrate in the 1980s to the rate of increase in the last decade or so is like comparing apples and oranges. As I’ve said from the start, out-of-wedlock birthrates may have risen more sharply in Scandinavia prior to registered partnerships, but now they’re moving through the toughest parts of cultural resistance.

If I’m right that out-of-wedlock birthrates necessarily rise more slowly when they get to very high levels, then introducing gay marriage to a country with low out-of-wedlock births could kick off a much more rapid rise in the rate. That is exactly what has happened in the Netherlands. Until recently, Holland was vastly more traditional about marriage than Scandinavia. The Dutch had very low rates of parental cohabitation, and very low rates of out-of-wedlock birth. But since registered partnerships and formal gay marriage were introduced in the Netherlands, parental cohabitation has spread widely, and the out-of-wedlock birthrate has been moving up at a fast pace.

This is exactly what Badgett says needs to happen in order to prove that registered partnerships and gay marriage really do encourage parental cohabitation. The Netherlands does in fact meet the causal test Badgett sets. Gay marriage came in, and the out-of-wedlock birthrate shot up.

When Badgett points out that countries with registered partnerships or gay marriage had just as much of a rise in their out-of-wedlock birthrates as countries without gay unions, she is again confusing two different stages of parental cohabitation. Those two groups of countries were at two very different points in the process. The countries with registered partnerships are already nearly maxed out on “experimental” first births out-of-wedlock. They’ve moved rapidly through the “easy” part of the rise in out-of-wedlock births and are now moving more slowly through the tough final stages of the destruction of marriage. It’s like the difference between slicing through the meat on a drumstick and trying to cut the drumstick off of the turkey.

I’ve explained how I think the larger causal process works, but Badgett has ignored what I’ve said. I do not argue that gay marriage is the sole cause, or even the main cause, of parental cohabitation. It is one of several causes. Gay marriage is one part of a new stage of marital decline that contains three basic elements: parental cohabitation, legal equalization of marriage and cohabitation, and gay marriage. My claim is that these three factors are mutually reinforcing. When any of these three factors emerges, the others tend to follow. And they draw out the initial factors still further.

In Sweden, parental cohabitation came first, followed quickly by legal equalization of marriage and cohabitation, and later by gay marriage. In the Netherlands, cohabitation and marriage were legally equalized in the 1980’s, yet Dutch parents still got married. It wasn’t till gay marriage was added to the mix that parental cohabitation became popular in the Netherlands. So Badgett is right to say that parental cohabitation often comes first, and itself causes gay marriage. I’ve said as much myself. But gay marriage reinforces and intensifies parental cohabitation. And in a case like the Netherlands, gay marriage actually preceded parental cohabitation, and had a key role in encouraging the practice. I’ve shown this in “Going Dutch?” and I will shortly be publishing a piece that isolates the causal effect of gay marriage in the Dutch case even more clearly.

Badgett makes much of the various legal and economic incentives that encourage Americans to marry, but all that is now in danger. The influential American Law Institute has already proposed legal reforms that would equalize marriage and cohabitation. And we’ve seen at least the beginnings of European-style parental cohabitation here in the United States. If the cultural changes stimulated by gay marriage draws these trends out, then the legal and economic incentives to marry in America will fall away.

Badgett points out that there are no moves by conservative governments in France or the Netherlands to repeal registered partnerships or gay marriage. That’s true. Yet the conservative government in France is strongly opposing formal gay marriage right now. The more important point is that it does indeed become difficult to repeal these changes once made. The truth about the decline of Dutch marriage is only beginning to come out. Yet as the real effects of gay marriage on the Netherlands emerge, it will be next to impossible politically to do anything about it. The power of “possession” changes things. If we legalize gay marriage here in the United States, we’ll meet the same fate.


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