TIME Family

Divorce Rates Are Falling—But Marriage Is Still on the Rocks

Studio shot of bride and groom figurines
Antonio M. Rosario—Getty Images

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She is the author of four books, including Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age and Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Is Turning Men Into Boys.

Hand-wringing is an appropriate response to the state of marriage today.

Tuesday’s New York Times’s Upshot section featured an article by Claire Cain Miller entitled “The Divorce Surge is Over, but the Myth Lives On.” The piece got a good deal of attention, but Miller manages to reinforce some myths of her own.

That’s not to say the piece is wrong in its basic facts. The divorce surge is over. (Or most people believe it is: this paper offers an alternate take.) In truth, the rise in divorce has been over for 20 years. Divorce rates peaked in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president and the Internet was only a mite in the eye of wierdos hanging out in California garages. In fact, this “news” may well be older than many of its readers who were probably not even been born when divorce rates were already on the downswing.

It’s also the case that people remain strangely attached to the idea that half of all marriages end in divorce despite numerous stories over the years showing otherwise. Miller links to one of those stories—from 2005, that is, nine years ago. I myself published a book that took stock of the trends in 2006. Family scholars have talked about the turn-around in divorce rates repeatedly. Yet the myth lives on. If you want proof of that, check out the media reaction to the Times piece: a “fascinating story” in the words of the Clarion Ledger; “surprisingly optimistic numbers,” marveled the Huffintgton Post.

So why has this particular myth been so difficult to extract from the hive mind? Why are people so (ahem) wedded to an idea that is not only untrue but has been for almost a generation? Two reasons. The first will no doubt sound clichéd: Hollywood. In la-la land divorce is about as common as Botox. When beautiful, famous people split up, fan magazines, entertainment networks, and social media sites spring into action, making sure we see albums of photos of crying, stoic, rehabbed, and then newly partnered, actors and actresses claiming they’ve never been happier. Social psychologists refer to a cognitive bias they call the “availability heuristic.” Striking events—plane crashes, Ebola cases, the Kardashians—make the weird seem more commonplace than it is precisely because the brain is so impressed by it. Of course, the availability heuristic gets some help from the television shows and movies these same famous people write, star in, and produce about marital crackups that often bear a striking resemblance to their own.

The second reason the myth lives on is not only more troubling but exemplified by the Times article that seeks to dismantle it. The younger generation, whether they know divorce is declining or not, believes that marriage is on the rocks. From their vantage point, they’re right. While fewer American adults have been divorcing over the past decades, a growing number of people in their own cohort have grown up apart from one parent, almost always their fathers.

How can divorce be declining but at the same time more children growing up with single parents? Because—and this is the story that Miller underplays—so many parents never marry in the first place. A little history is in order here: When divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1970s, American were not simply suddenly looking at their spouses and deciding en masse that they couldn’t take it anymore. They were reacting to a changing understanding about what marriage meant. Instead of an arrangement largely centered around providing for and rearing the next generation, it was becoming an adult-centric union based on love and shared happiness, which as an upper middle class grew in size, became closely linked to granite countered kitchens, European and spa vacations, and weddings with 200 guests.

One big reason that divorce rates began to fall after 1980 was that people, almost always those with less education and less income for the required accouterments of marriage, took the logic of the divorce revolution and ran with it. If marriage and childbearing were no longer tightly linked but rather discreet—even unrelated—life events, and if they were not earning enough to enjoy the middle class status objects enjoyed by their more educated peers, then why marry at all? Why not just have kids without getting married? While college educated women continued to demand a ring before they became mothers, the percentage of poor women having kids outside of marriage was already on the rise; now working class women, many of them temporarily cohabiting with their child’s father, also bypassed the chapel on the way to the maternity ward. In his forthcoming book Labor’s Loves Lost, Andrew Cherlin quotes one young unmarried father this way: “You need way better reasons than having a kid to get married.”

By missing this larger picture, Miller ends up adding single parents—who after all have a null chance of divorce—to good news numbers about marital stability. Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles from the Population Center at the University of Minnesota try to take into account the new reality in a recent paper. Their findings are sobering: “because cohabitation makes up a rapidly growing percentage of all unions,” they write, it has “an increasing impact on overall union instability.” And by accepting that marriage and children are unrelated, she can ignore the biggest problem with this rising instability. Experts have shown us in a virtual library of research papers that the children of single parents are at greater risk of everything from poverty to school failure to imprisonment. Their large numbers will almost surely help perpetuate inequality, poverty, and immobility.

“Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time,” Miller writes. As it happens, hand-wringing is an appropriate response to the state of marriage today.

That is, for anyone concerned about inequality and America’s lower income children.


TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

Street Harassment Isn’t About Sexism—It’s About Privilege

Woman walking in street
Getty Images

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She is the author of four books, including Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age and Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Is Turning Men Into Boys.

There's not much to do about catcalling, unless you’re willing to see a lot more minority men hassled by the police

Americans would rather talk about almost anything other than class. Even today as income inequality and racial and gender disparities dominate the headlines, even among the tell-all Millennials, class is quarantined from the arena of respectable conversation.

The latest example of this stubborn truism emerged after a video showing the catcalling torment young women face on city streets was posted on YouTube. Many viewers noticed that in the two-minute video by the activist group Hollaback!, condensed from a single woman’s 10 hour walk around New York City, all of the offending men were black and Hispanic. They chastised the creators for creating the appearance that white men don’t do this sort of thing, which led ultimately to an apology from Rob Bliss the video producer.

To say that Bliss was being disingenuous is putting it mildly. In a little noticed item on the website of the alternative magazine Mass Appeal Chris Moore did a little sleuthing and found that more than half of the shots used in the film appeared to be shot on 125th Street in Harlem, a predominately poor, black neighborhood. Much of the rest were shot near Times Square and Canal Street, neither area what anyone would call genteel. You have to give Bliss this much credit: He knew what he and very few other people are willing to admit. Street harassment is largely a class thing. In New York, at any rate, that means it’s also a race thing.

Now before anyone tweets about the pasty skinned guys from Morgan Stanley who whisper nasty somethings in her ear when she’s on line at the Financial District Starbucks, let’s get the obvious on the table: Street harassers can come in all colors and sport all kinds of pedigrees. Without a doubt, there are white guys in Brooks Brothers or Zegna who will ruin a girl’s morning with an unwelcome suggestion for where on her body he would like to deposit his bodily fluids.

Still. These bespoke brutes may not be a rare breed, but they’re just not common enough to spoil a good 10 hour walk along the Upper East Side. Young women who tense up as they approach a construction site know full well that walking past the guys who drive the fork lift will almost surely result in some unwanted attention; walking past the architects who are pouring over the blueprints probably won’t.

The catcalling gap will make sense to anyone who has noticed that middle class men and women tend to have a different physical and sexual presentation than their less privileged peers. Psychologists have long known that there are marked class differences in child rearing that can explain this. Preparing their children for office and stable domestic life, middle class parents have always nudged their children to display what was once known as “bourgeois propriety.” The term doesn’t seem to fit an America where, as the “Advice Goddess” Amy Alkon has said, even “nice people say f–k.” But middle class homes continue to encourage their children to use their “inside voices,” to demonstrate bodily self-discipline (one reason obesity has become a class marker), to play nice, and to soften the rough edges of male physicality. They ban toy guns from their homes and petition schools to prohibit dodgeball and other “human target” games.

Lower income parents tend to be less “proper” in their childrearing, dispensing more physical punishment and shrugging off rough and tumble play. The difference shows up in school where lower income kids, particularly boys, have more trouble sitting still, paying attention, and keeping quiet; educators consistently report they have more behavior problems. It should come as no surprise that these same boys grow up to become men who are more blatantly, and for middle class women especially, more obnoxiously, interested in every passing young thing. In rare but important instances this goes well beyond obnoxious; lower income men (and women) are also more likely than middle class to be involved in domestic violence disputes.

The catcalling gap creates some cognitive dissonance for promoters of the idea of “white male privilege.” If men of color and working class dudes are the biggest offenders, then middle class (mostly white) are the good — or at least the less bad — guys. Middle class men may no longer open doors for women or help them carry heavy suitcases, but most of them would be mortified to hear a friend shout “Hey baby; shake that thing!” to passing strangers as they rush to take their poli-sci class or make their 10 a.m. project meeting.

That raises the question of how the disproportionately white campus has become the site where so many men behave badly. That’s easy to answer. Put middle class men in a frat house with flowing kegs, and their manners melt into a boozy puddle. That’s exactly the point of the whole exercise. People —men and women — drink because it feels good to shed their inhibitions, to say the sorts of things of which their parents might not approve and do things their daytime, classroom selves may wonder at.

Ironically, then, Hollaback!’s video suggests that privilege belongs to white middle class women as much as their male classmates. For all of the myriad problems they face in a college sex scene drenched in alcohol, women students can walk the ivy paths with minimum of hassle (unless they pass by the guys building the new student center with yoga studio and state of the art fitness center). When they move to a chaotic, multicultural city, however, especially if they venture into Harlem and Times Square, they find themselves bumping up against all types — blue collar and poor men, immigrants and children of immigrants, men whose parents may not have raised them to treat women with the sort of restraint their own brothers and fathers do. And they don’t like it one bit.

Even Rob Bliss — especially Rob Bliss! — has to know there’s not much anyone can do about it. Unless they’re willing to see a lot more minority men hassled by the police.

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She is the author of four books, including Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age and Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Is Turning Men Into Boys.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME women

A Woman’s (Only) Nation: What’s Missing from the Shriver Report

Maria Shriver's new report tries to shine a light on the economic plight of women, but it virtually ignores one crucial factor -- men

You have to hand it to Maria Shriver. With her newly released report “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink” the Kennedy scion and gender impresario has managed to wrench the spotlight away from manicured leaning-inners and having-it-allers to the struggling women at the bottom. That’s a good thing. But if the 50 plus essays in her report — a hodge-podge of celebrity fan bait, service provider p.r., Oprahesque personal stories, and boilerplate feminism — proves anything, it’s that a Woman’s Nation is no place for men, young or old. And as a result, it’s not all that great for women either.

Of course, Shriver’s bona fides as a poverty warrior are hard to question. Her father Sargent Shriver was tapped by President Johnson to run the War on Poverty 50 years ago, a time when poverty wore a very different face than it does today. It was the tattered and barefoot Appalachian family and the malnourished children of Mississippi tenant farmers, some of whose relatives had escaped to the North only to become mired in decaying urban ghettoes.

(MORE: 11 Surprising Facts About Women and Poverty From the Shriver Report)

Today’s poverty would be unrecognizable to Shriver Sr., inextricably entwined, as it is, with single motherhood. In his day, rich and poor tried to avoid what he would have called “illegitimacy” like they would a house fire; in fact, a stunning 95% of children were born to married couples. As everyone knows, that’s far from today’s reality. A Woman’s Nation gives some of the details: 42% of American children are born to unmarried women. Yet children in female-headed families are four to five times as likely to be poor as children living with their mother and father. The median income for a never-married mother is $17,400; that puts her below the poverty line if she has two kids. Other studies put it even more dramatically: 83% of family households in the bottom quintile are headed by a lone mother. It would be more accurate to frame the problem as a Single Mother Nation on the brink.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Single mothers, who tend to be low skilled to begin with, are competing in the labor market with one hand tied behind their backs. The most obvious way to improve their economic situation would be to have a second earner, even if he also is low skilled, and a co-parent, or to put it more simply, a husband and father.

Yet the report is having none of that. With the exception of a powerful but out-of-place essay by Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin, it contains barely a word about the creatures who helped turn the denizens of Woman’s Nation into mothers. It’s as if the men of the Woman’s Nation have been disappeared. Women are “the engine driving the economy,” we hear on several occasions. Low income women are the “backbone of our economy and of their families.” Elsewhere we learn that “developing the assets of low-income women is key to addressing our nation’s financial insecurity.” Stagnating male median wages, high levels of school failure among boys, mass incarceration, reasons frequently cited for the decline of marriage – and the rise of women on the brink – in low income communities? Not a problem in the Woman’s Nation.

Or so the report seems to imply. In reality, there is no way to separate women and men’s well being. When men are doing well, it works to women’s advantage, and vice versa. Consider that plenty of those “women and their families” include boys who, presumably, will grow up to be men. Many studies suggest they would benefit from the presence of fathers. They are out of luck, and so are the children they may have when they get to be of age. Boys growing up with single mothers are more likely to have behavior problems in school, to be suspended, to drop out, and to become absent fathers themselves. And so without attending to men who would be husbands and fathers, the cycle of single motherhood continues.

(MORE: Meet Your New Favorite Feminist Blogger: Beyoncé)

To bring women back from the brink, the Shriver report tries out a slew of ideas that don’t involve men. They range from the reasonable – easing the “child care cliff” which eliminates child care subsidies all at once when a mother’s income rises to a certain level – to the daffy – teaching meditation to boys with ADD. (More common among sons of single mothers, by the way.) But whatever their benefits, the proposed solutions underline the disadvantage of single motherhood that policy can never resolve.

In a stunt-essay that has –unsurprisingly -brought the report immense publicity, Beyonce warns that “the average working woman earns only 77 percent of what the average working man makes.” She fails to mention that one big reason for the gap is that mothers work fewer hours than men and childless women. Maternity and sick pay leave, two proposals made in other essays, could ease some of the stress of lone mothers; in some cases, they might help women keep their jobs. But these would only protect mothers for several months out of the 18 year parenthood marathon. Workplace flexibility, the other solution to ills of the Single Mother Nation, has also been shown to add to wage gaps by creating a less competitive “mommy track.” Let’s face it: a woman whose children’s father is in the house is always going to be in a far better position than a lone mother to increase work hours if she wants, to have a caretaker at home with a sick child, and to cover for her during those times when work can’t wait, and no policy can change that.

In an elite culture so invested in parity between men and women, it’s strange to read a report that so entirely accepts do-nothing fathers. But I guess that’s what happens when, as in a Woman’s Nation on the Brink, you give up on men.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com