Politics & Policy

Cheerleading for Divorce

Socially irresponsible reporting.

“51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouse,” the New York Times trumpeted last week. Is this something to celebrate, as the paper of record seemed to do? And more importantly, is it even true?

There is certainly a trend away from marriage, but the numbers reported by the New York Times are deliberately misleading. 

These data come from the American Community Survey for 2005, whose website is here. If you go directly to the simplest table, S1201, you will find, contra the NYT, that 51 percent of women are married. (Run your eye down the first column to the row which lists “females.” Scoot over to “Now married, (except separated).”) Voila! 51 percent of women are now married.

Not the impression created by the NYT headline. To get to the conclusion that the unmarried outnumber the married, our intrepid reporter of social trends had to do some digging.

He did it by going to Table B12001, which breaks down married people into categories of “Married, spouse present” and “Married, spouse absent.” (If you have trouble with this link, try going back to the homepage and entering the table number.) Run your eye down the females table, and you’ll see about 5.5 million women were “Married, Spouse Absent.” The three million who were legally separated were not included in the “Married” column in the previous table. The “other” category includes about 2.4 million women who were married, and not legally separated, but who were not living with their spouses at the time of the survey. These women could include those whose husbands are on military deployment, an extended business trip, or in prison or another kind of institution. These 2.4 million women comprise two percent of the population.

And two percent is just the number you need to shift the numbers from “51% of women are married, but not legally separated” to “51% of women are not living with husbands.”

Only the New York Times could make a headline out of a footnote.      

The second way this headline is misleading is in its definition of  “women.”  The number is based on all women over the age of 15. Look at the 15-19 age group: What a surprise to find that only 2.5 percent of them are married. If we exclude the teenagers, what percentage of women over 20 is married? The teenagers constitute about eight percent of the total population of women. My back of the envelope calculation suggests that throwing out the teenagers raises the percentage of women married by about four-percentage points to about 55 percent.

All this establishes is that the New York Times is so eager to show marriage as a declining institution that it tortured the data until it confessed. But, fact is, marriage is in trouble. They needn’t exaggerate. The point of the story was to convince the public that this decline is inexorable, like a force of nature, and that only old fuddy-duddies complain about it.

But should the rest of us just give a big “oh well” sigh and “move on?”

The happy single women the NYT depicts for its readers are recently divorced women in their fifties and happily unmarried women in their thirties. But I hear from a different set of people. The very day this story came out, I met a 43-year-old unmarried professional woman, who would love to be married. But all the men of suitable age and educational level insist on sex on the first date, and she’s not interested. I hear from young people who would love to get married and stay married because they don’t want to put their own children through the misery of divorce that they endured. But these young people are frightened, and not confident about their ability to sustain married life.

I hear from women whose husbands abandoned them and their children, for no particular reason. The law in most states does not protect the partner who wants to stay married, but the one who wants divorce. Even one of the NYT happily divorced women mentions that women in her divorce support group are miserable. But the NYT doesn’t think any of those women are worth interviewing. Their misery is just collateral damage in the war for women’s independence.

And don’t get me started on the harms women inflict on men. The NYT reporter quotes recently divorced women enjoying their freedom to come and go as they please. But honestly, we have no idea what kind of wreckage these women left behind them. Some divorced women leave their husbands with huge credit-card debts and three screaming children. I hear from these men all the time. And we’re supposed to just celebrate women’s freedom?          

This is socially irresponsible reporting at its worst. Marriage is the most basic form of social cooperation. It is the institution in which children are born and reared. When spousal cooperation breaks down, the substitutes for it are intrusive, ineffective, and expensive. Adults have an obligation to support the young as they try to form marriages. Instead, the NYT is scaring them away from marriage with exaggerated statistics and selective reporting.

We owe the young better than this.

 Jennifer Roback Morse is a senior research fellow in economics at the Acton Institute, and the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work.

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