Coontz, Cherlin and Putnam Get it Wrong on the Decline of Marriage

June 1, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

As everyone knows, marriage rates in the U.S. have been falling gradually for some time and non-marital childbearing has increased, although it seems to have levelled off at a bit above 40% of all births. Those facts have produced considerable consternation among a lot of observers, myself among them. But just why the decline in marriage and the dissociation of childbearing from marriage have occurred are the subjects of much debate.

Here’s what may be called the liberal take on the matter from Stephanie Coontz in the guise of reviewing books by Andrew Cherlin and Robert Putnam (American Prospect, 5/14/15). Although she (and they) make some obvious points, for the most part, they fail to persuade. Here is their proverbial “bottom line:”

Since 1970, marriage rates have fallen and births to unwed mothers have risen among all Americans, though at different rates depending on educational level. In a reversal of the past, people with less than a high school degree now have the lowest rates of marriage, while highly educated people have the highest. But since 1980, the most dramatic drop in family stability, Andrew Cherlin argues in his new book, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America, has taken place among the high-school-educated…

[T]hese books show how, in just a few decades, falling wages and increasing job insecurity overturned the family patterns of the archetypical representatives of “traditional family values” — people without any “legacy of slavery” or generational history of family instability. In doing so, the authors demonstrate that current trends in marriage and unwed childbearing are more consequence than cause of America’s increasing economic insecurity and inequality.

So that’s the liberal analysis of the decline of marriage and the spike in non-marital childbearing, according to which, it’s no one’s fault. Or rather, it’s the economy’s fault for failing to produce enough good jobs for the less educated, which in turn makes those men less alluring to women as marriage partners. And it’s certainly not the fault of liberal policies and discourse that for decades have encouraged us to think of marriage as a snare and fathers as disposable appendages to the mother-child dyad. According to Coontz, et al, all we have to do is level out the current income inequality and, I suppose, the marriage rate will soar and women will once again wait to have children till they have a ring.

Needless to say, there’s a lot wrong with those claims. But I don’t mean to pretend that the decline in good jobs for high-school educated men has had no effect on marriage rates. I’m sure it has. Certainly some working class women say that’s why they went ahead and had children without a husband, although whether that’s a reason or an excuse is uncertain.

That said, there are just too many questions Coontz never even mentions much less answers. For example, if the current inequality explains low rates of marriage among the less educated, why did the spike in divorce and out of wedlock childbearing begin in the 1970s, when the post-war U.S. prosperity was still very much in evidence? Why were marriages among African-Americans quite stable well into the 1960s despite the extreme inequality between white and black Americans dating back to the beginning of the country? If inequality and/or the unavailability of good jobs for working class folks explains the decline of marriage, then surely we’d see the same phenomenon during the great depression when unemployment hit 25%. But we didn’t. The same holds true for the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century when inequality between the haves and have nots was at least as extreme as it is now. But we didn’t then either.

Coontz answers none of those questions for what I suspect are obvious reasons. The simple fact is that Great Society policies toward the poor struck at the heart of the black family and the blow proved fatal. A formerly stable system of black families became dysfunctional almost overnight as Daniel Patrick Moynihan so ably pointed out at the time. Coontz never brings the subject up.

Nor does she mention no-fault divorce, despite the fact that the divorce rate shot up in lock-step with no-fault becoming the law of the land.

In order to make their claims, the three authors compare today’s America to that of the immediate post-WWII era. Coontz at least knows it’s a false comparison, but she does it anyway. The reason she does is that it’s the only time in our history that makes her point. We had fairly stable families then and economic prosperity; today our working class faces real problems with declining wages and we have a marked decline in marriage. Ergo, according to Coontz, et al, the bad economy must be the cause of our bad marital situation.

But comparing now or any other time in American history to the post-war period is a fool’s game. The economic prosperity of the 50s and 60s had no parallel and never will again. That’s because World War II essentially destroyed the industrial infrastructure of the world except for ours. By contrast, massive government spending on the war effort made our industry better and more up-to-date than it had ever been. With literally no one in the world who could compete with us, and the world as our market, it’s no wonder young men with no college could get and keep good jobs or that prices were low.

After about a generation, economies like Germany’s and Japan’s started to catch up with us and that era of high wages and low prices went the way of the Dodo.

But throughout that prosperous time, American families looked very much like they had before the war, during the worst economic times the country has ever seen. In short, the Coontz/Cherlin/Putnam narrative doesn’t work.

Nor does Coontz’s effort to explain things via a feminist slant.

Women had few economic options outside marriage and few legal rights within it…

But the stability of blue-collar family patterns in the 1950s cannot be explained solely by the expanding economic opportunities for young men. Blocked opportunities for women also played a major role. Full-time jobs open to women were scarce, job tenures were short, and pay was low…. The only way most women could participate in the prosperity of the postwar era was by marrying.

The facts tell a different story. Had Coontz bothered to glance at labor data from the 50s and 60s, she’d know that, from 1950 — 1970, essentially every woman looking for work found it. So, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in 1950, the female labor force (above the age of 16) was about 18 million and 17 million of them were employed. In 1960 the numbers were 22 million and 22 million, and in 1970 they were 31 million and 30 million.

The labor force of course is the number of people who are either employed or looking for work. So throughout those two decades, virtually every woman who sought employment was employed. That strongly suggests that Coontz’s narrative of women imprisoned within marriage due to an economy and legal system that refused them gainful employment is vastly inaccurate.

What’s more, the percentage of women participating in the labor force increased throughout those two decades. In 1950, about one-third of women were part of the labor force, i.e. working or looking for work. By 1960 the number was about 40% and by 1970, it was 44%. In other words, as more and more women sought employment, more and more of them found it. Again, during that time, the ratio of women employed to women in the workforce was very close to 1:1.

Given all that, it’s hard to conclude what Coontz wants us to. Indeed, a bit of historical perspective makes it impossible. The year 1950 was just 11 years removed from the Great Depression, i.e. hard times. Prior to that, most Americans lived and worked on farms, i.e. hard work. (Indeed, one of the Depression’s signal features was that, for the first time in our history, more people lived in cities than on farms. The wholesale foreclosures of farmsteads accomplished the feat.)

So what post-war prosperity meant was not the opportunity to enslave women, but the opportunity to free them from the obligation to work. It was considered a symbol of American prosperity and greatness that a single man could support a family. It was a mark of affluence unknown among the working classes prior to the war that both spouses didn’t have to work. That explains the low percentage of women looking for work in 1950. What Betty Friedan and every feminist after her has bemoaned — the oppression of not having to work for a living — looked to the people of the post-war generation like freedom, affluence and leisure.

If the working life were truly closed to women, as Coontz claims, why did virtually 100% of women who wanted jobs get them even as the number seeking work grew and grew?

The final nail in Coontz’s coffin comes from more recent data. Since 1970, massive changes to the workplace to accommodate women and the balance of education now favoring women must surely have meant dramatic increases in the percentage of women in the workforce. How could it not?

But in fact, the percentage of women in the workforce increased barely as much from 1970 to the present (45 years) as it did from 1950 to 1970 (20 years). From 1950 to 1970, it increased 11 percentage points from 33% to 44%. From 1970 to the first quarter of 2015, it increased from 44% to only 56%, just 12 points.

Clearly, something about Coontz’s narrative of women bound by laws and traditions to the cook stove vs. women at last freed to follow their natural calling, paid labor, is seriously wrong.

I’ll have more to say about this next time.


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