The Rise of Secular Gender Egalitarianism?

Originally posted on Kinda Kind with Ashley Lauren.

Recently, I’ve noticed two interesting cultural trends in the United States. On the one hand, the U.S. is becoming increasingly secular. That is, a growing proportion of the U.S. population claims no religious affiliation. On the other hand, the U.S. is becoming increasingly gender egalitarian. I’m left wondering: could these trends be related? If so, what might explain their relationship?

The Evidence.

I noticed these trends when digging through data from the General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS contains data that represents the attitudes, opinions, and demographics of the entire U.S. population. The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has administered the GSS biennially since 1972. During each wave of data collection, the GSS asked respondents if they were affiliated with a particular religion. According to prior research, these affiliations can be roughly organized into the following categories: Black Protestants, Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, other religious affiliations (such as Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.), and the religiously unaffiliated. I’ve charted the proportion of the U.S. population that is affiliated with each, from 1977 to 2014 (see below). The chart demonstrates that the population of Mainline Protestants has declined (purple), while the population of religiously unaffiliated individuals has grown substantially (black). Much of this growth occurred after 1991.Chart1

The GSS has also asked respondents a number of questions about the role and status of women in the U.S. Many of these questions were not asked during every wave of data collection. However, four interesting questions were asked during data collection in 1977, and then onward from 1985 to 2014. These questions are: “Tell me if you agree or disagree with this statement: Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women”; “A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship wither her children as a mother who does not work”; “A preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works”; and “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”.

In a 2011 study, Cotter, Hermsen, and Vanneman aggregated the responses to these questions into a scale measure of gender egalitarianism among the U.S. population. High scores on the scale indicated that respondents thought women were capable of working in politics or outside of the home, and could do so without harming their children (if they have any). Lower scores represented the opposite. I replicated this scale and charted the average score on it among the general U.S. population and each religious affiliation discussed above. This chart demonstrates three interesting facts (see below).Chart2

First, it demonstrates the U.S. population (blue) has become increasingly gender egalitarian since at least 1977. That is, the U.S. population has increasingly thought that women are capable of the same work as men, and that women can engage in this work without harming their relationship with their children (again, if they have any). Second, this chart demonstrates that the trend toward gender egalitarianism stagnated and reversed during the 1990s, and then regained its upward momentum after 2002. Finally, this chart demonstrates that the religiously unaffiliated population of the U.S. has been characterized by more gender egalitarian attitudes than religiously affiliated populations since at least 1977.


With respect to these trends, I return to my original questions: is the trend toward gender egalitarianism in the U.S. related to the growth of the religiously unaffiliated population? If so, what might explain their relationship?

The evidence present here certainly suggests as much. Indeed, the movement toward gender egalitarianism after the year 2000 is correlated with the rampant growth of the religiously unaffiliated. There is good reason to suspect that this correlation is significant. Sociological research has often demonstrated that religious individuals, particularly Evangelical Christians, are partial to traditional gender norms that place the man at the head of the family, and as the sole breadwinner in the household. Thus, as individuals turn away from religion, they may become more receptive to gender egalitarianism. Nevertheless, further research is necessary to confirm the significance of the correlation observed here. I plan to carry out this research with Dr. Shannon Davis at George Mason University in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I will be posting more interesting data on religion and public attitudes in the U.S.

Stay tuned!


Does Religious Commitment Foster Stronger Marriages?

Originally posted ad Kinda Kind with Ashley Lauren.

I’m not a particularly religious person. However, through my research on religion in the United States, I’ve found that high levels of commitment are typically associated with strong family bonds, greater levels of marital stability, and greater levels marital happiness. In fact, studies have shown that high levels of religious commitment among spouses can reduce the odds of marital infidelity. Moreover, several studies have found that high levels of religious commitment among spouses can reduce the odds of divorce.

The argument advanced by these studies is fairly simple: when couples share time together at religious services, they also build a stronger interpersonal connection with one another. Moreover, this interpersonal connection becomes stronger when it is enshrined in a belief system that frames marriage as a sacred bond between two people. It is thought that the strength of these bonds protects against affairs and divorce.

A wrinkle exists in this research, though. The wrinkle is this: few studies have considered the role that religious commitment plays in a marriage after extramarital sex has occurred. Thus, the following question can be asked: do high levels of religious commitment reduce the odds of divorce following an affair?


In 2013, sociologist Alfred DeMaris used data from the Survey of Marital Instability Over the Life Course (MILC) to address this question. The MILC contains nationally representative information on more than two thousand married individuals in the U.S., with the specific goal of studying the stability of their marriages, and the factors associated with that stability, as their marriages progress. Through his study, DeMaris found that very religious couples were more likely to divorce after an affair in comparison to less religious couples. He suggested that this was probably due to the elevated sense of marital desecration that very religious couples experienced, which made it difficult to recover their marriage.

While DeMaris’ conclusions seemed plausible, I had some reservations about his methods and his arguments. When carrying out his analysis, DeMaris did not account for the fact that very religious couples are less likely to engage in extramarital sex than less religious couples. And what’s more, DeMaris framed very religious individuals as incapable of forgiving their cheating spouse. This seemed odd to me, particularly because most religions emphasize the importance of unconditional love and forgiveness.

With these reservations in mind, I coauthored a study with sociologist Shannon N. Davis that framed both extramarital sex and divorce as a long process of marital dissolution. Through this framing we were able to consider the level of religious commitment among couples before extramarital sex occurred, the effect that religious commitment had on the odds of extramarital sex occurring, and the effect that religious commitment had on the odds of divorce after extramarital sex had occurred.

We also used data from the Survey of Marital Instability Over the Life Course. Our findings were somewhat surprising. We confirmed that high levels of religious commitment reduced the odds of marital infidelity occurring in the first place. Moreover, we found that very religious couples were less likely to seek a divorce than less religious couples after marital infidelity had occurred. Indeed, we found that couples who were very religious before the occurrence of marital infidelity were better able to save their marriage because they were generally happier in their marriage, regardless of the occurrence of an affair.

I suggest caution when considering these findings, though. Our research focused on couples who belong to the “baby boomer” generation. It may be that subsequent generations, such as “generation X” and “millennials” think of marriage in quite the same way. This could further complicate the relationship shared between religious commitment, marital infidelity, and divorce.

Considering the fiscal contributions of immigrant households in the United States

Originally posted on the Institute for Immigration Research blog.

The following argument often circulates through social media and public discourse in the United States: immigrants are “takers”. They come to the U.S. to take advantage of social assistance programs, such as TANF or WIC, without contributing to public coffers through hard work and taxes. Some social researchers have advanced similar arguments. In 1999, economist George Borjas argued that immigrants tend to cluster in states that are relatively rich in social assistance benefits because they intend to enhance their incomes with those benefits. More recently, the Heritage Foundation released a report that suggested that undocumented immigrants impose undue fiscal burdens upon U.S. taxpayers by drawing upon social assistance programs. However, a new study carried out by the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) directly confronts these arguments. This study found that the collective income tax contribution of immigrant households is significant, even after accounting for the social assistance that they receive.

The IIR used Current Population Survey data to estimate the total value of state and federal income tax (less credits) that immigrant households contributed in 2012 (see Table 1). It was found that these households contributed an estimated $106 billion in state and federal taxes. The IIR also estimated the value of social assistance benefits that immigrant households received in 2012, which amounted to approximately $45.8 billion. Thus, the net value of state and federal income tax contributed by these households was approximately $61.1 billion. This amount is comparable to the operating budgets of major government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, which requested $57 billion in funding during 2012.

The Balance Sheet

The IIR study also found evidence to suggest that the net income tax contribution of immigrant households increases the longer they remain in the U.S. (see Figure 1). In light of this evidence, it is possible to view the social assistance that immigrants receive as a worthwhile investment provided by U.S. taxpayers. That is, immigrants who receive social assistance use that assistance to improve their economic standing, which leads to a greater amount of income tax revenue over the long-term.

Medians across years in US

In addition to estimating the net income tax contribution of immigrant households, the IIR also compared the proportion of income that immigrant households contribute and compared it to the proportion contributed by native-born households. This comparison was carried out at the state level. It was found that in nine states, immigrant households contributed a greater share of their income to state and federal taxes when compared to native-born households. These states were Oklahoma, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Vermont, Delaware, Mississippi, Michigan, and Missouri (see Figure 2).

Income Tax per State

In light of this evidence, several conclusions can be drawn. First, immigrants manage to contribute to public coffers, even though they receive some social assistance. Second, immigrant households that receive social assistance are using it to increase their economic position so that they can eventually become self-sufficient. This has the added benefit of increasing their net income tax contribution over time. Finally, in some states, immigrants contribute a greater share of their income to state and federal taxes than native-born households. With respect to these conclusions, the argument that immigrants are “takers” holds little weight.

You can read the entire research brief, “Immigration, Income Tax, and Social Assistance: Examining the fiscal contribution of foreign-born and native-born households in the U.S.”, here.