There's been lots of reaction to the NY Times article last week that claims:
"For what experts say is probably the first time, more American women are living without a husband than with one, according to a New York Times analysis of census results."
"In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000. Coupled with the fact that in 2005 married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time, the trend could ultimately shape social and workplace policies, including the ways government and employers distribute benefits."
Evergreen State College professor Stephanie Coontz, says:
“This is yet another of the inexorable signs that there is no going back to a world where we can assume that marriage is the main institution that organizes people’s lives,” said Prof. Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit research group. “Most of these women will marry, or have married. But on average, Americans now spend half their adult lives outside marriage.”
Ms. Coontz may think this is an "inexorable sign," but I don't. I think marriage as an institution will survive the assaults on it, as will the traditional family unit (married mother and father and their children). If anything, social science data is demonstrating that the traditional family arrangements offers an array of benefits over "alternative" families - better health, better finances, greater educational opportunites, and more emotional support. Kay Hymowitz has written extensively about this, and the growing economic gap between the folks in the U.S. who get married and those who don't.
Back the the NY Times article. James Lileks wrote a funny, scathing column about the article (naturally for Lileks). He notes that the article is heavy on quotes from the older women who have divorced their dull husbands, and are thrilled by their new-found "independence."
"It’s a consequence of the triumph or Romantic Love, I suppose; if you don’t mesh at the elemental level, something’s wrong. The notion of simply inhabiting the same road as you move towards the horizon isn’t enough; you must both be fascinated by the same things. I prefer the model where one person is interested in the flowers that grow by the road, and the other discourses on the history of pavement, and you both speculate on the birds in the boughs above. But that’s just me. (Or rather us.) I’m sure marriages built around interests intensely shared work just as well. It all depends on what you put it into it, to state the obvious. It’s like a fireplace: you can let it go out, or you can add wood. Ahem."
"Anyway. Since the story’s methodology is fubar, what’s the point? Lay some snark on marriage, add another questionable statistic to the pool of Things Smart People Know To Be So, give aid and comfort to the readers who see the prospects of marriage slipping away for good, and erode, ever so gently, the stature of a venerable but quaintly outdated institution. I imagine the tone of the piece would be different if a majority of men divorced their lives to throw some hose in the trophy-babe pool, and pronounced their new freedom from responsibility and duty a great revelation."
Jeff Jacoby commented on the NYT article in today's Boston Globe (1-21-07), noting some questionable statistics. Of 117 million women in the U.S., 57.5 million (49%) are living with a husband, and 59.9 million (51%) are single or their husbands were not living at home when the survey was taken in 2005. The category of women "living without a husband" includes more than 2 million women whose "husbands are working out of town, are in the military, or are institutionalized." It also includes the ten million young women aged 15 to 19 who are single. I believe it's illegal for 15-year olds to be married in most American states, so why was that age group included?
Jacoby states the obvious:
If society is to flourish and perpetuate itself, it must uphold marriage as a social ideal -- it must raise boys and girls in a culture that encourages them to marry eventually a partner of the opposite sex, make stable and loving homes together, and have children who will one day form successful marriages of their own."
Jacoby says that don't put marriage on the Endangered Species list just yet:
"Marriage advocates often grumble that everything is getting worse, writes scholar David Blankenhorn in his forthcoming book, "The Future of Marriage," but it's time to acknowledge that some things are getting better: Divorce rates are declining modestly. Teen pregnancy rates are dramatically lower. Rates of reported marital happiness, after a long slide, appear to be rising. And a substantial majority of American children, 67 percent, are being raised by married parents. By even wider margins, young Americans look forward to being married..."
"The '60s, the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, the rise of single motherhood -- there is no question that marriage has been through a wringer. Yet our most important social insitution remains a social ideal. Boys and girls still aspire to become husbands and wives."
Michael Medved calls it "journalistic malpractice." Medved concludes:
"Despite the journalistic malpractice by Sam Roberts and the New York Times, the real front page news isn’t about marriage’s disappearance; it’s about the institution’s unexpected and encouraging durability."