Coontz Part 2: Imagining the Sexes to Be Different than They Are

June 3, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Continuing from Monday’s piece on this article by Stephanie Coontz that attempts to convince readers that “current trends in marriage and unwed childbearing are more consequence than cause of America’s increasing economic insecurity and inequality.” (American Prospect, 5/14/15). As I pointed out previously, if inequality and a bad job market for low-income people caused the breakdown of marriage and the increase in non-marital childbirth, then we’d have seen the same things during the Great Depression and the Gilded Age. During the former, the employment situation makes today’s look like a worker’s paradise; during the latter, the absence of redistributionist government taxation and spending made inequality worse than it is now. But during neither of those times did families fall apart nor out-of-wedlock childbearing spike.

Coontz mostly ignores those obvious facts. She also ignores the fact that family breakdown in this country began when no-fault divorce and the pop culture assault on fathers did i.e. in the 70s. No one pretends that the financial inequality that existed in the 70s compares to what it is now. After all, up until the very end of that decade, the post-war prosperity that had characterized the country for three decades was still hanging on. According to Coontz, Cherlin and Putnam, that couldn’t have been the genesis of family breakdown and single-mother childbearing. But it was.

Again, Coontz prefers to ignore her own most blatant fallacies. In sum, her effort is to excuse certain public policies of the last 50 years that have dramatically undermined the family. Her goal is to get readers to believe that things like no-fault divorce and pop culture messages that told women they didn’t need a man and everyone that men were worthless at best and violent at worst had no effect on the current crisis in the American family. According to her, Cherlin and Putnam, if we just sort out our inequality problem, all will be well.

Taken together, these books suggest that even as marriage has become more beneficial for educated dual-earner couples and their children, it has become a riskier proposition than it used to be for men and women without a college education. In an economy where most wage-earners need an employed partner to make ends meet, unemployed women and men are not attractive potential partners, and even someone who is employed might not have a job very long. Two low salaries are certainly better than one, which is why low-income couples move in together much more quickly than do their college-educated counterparts. But now that a woman has at least some earnings potential, it makes less sense to hitch herself to a man who might lose his job, leaving her with one more mouth to feed.

Those are dubious propositions, to say the least. Does Coontz even notice that she herself admits that marriage “has become more beneficial for the educated dual-earner couples and their children?” If that’s true, then, according to her, that demographic would show all-time highs in getting and remaining married. But it doesn’t. Yes, those families are more stable than those of lower-educated, lower-earning couples, but they’re nothing like what most families were back in … pick a time, any time. Again, family stability during the Great Depression was pretty good.

For that matter, since the “Great Recession” that began in 2008, there’s been a much remarked-on decline in divorce. That is, those hard times actually made families a bit more likely to stick together, yet another fact that doesn’t make it into Coontz’s narrative.

But what’s even stranger is one obvious fact that Coontz does notice but pretends doesn’t undermine her thesis. She admits the fact that two earners are better than one, but imagines that women aren’t marrying because, well, he might get laid off.

Here’s some basic arithmetic. Let’s suppose an unmarried woman becomes pregnant by her boyfriend. She decides to keep the child and is faced with the decision whether to bring another person into the family. Now the fact is that, in order for that to make financial sense to her and her child, the boyfriend doesn’t have to earn much. All he has to do is bring in enough to pay for the incremental costs of the household with him in it, plus a little extra. In other words, he needs to earn enough to pay for the extra food he eats, utilities he uses, extra car insurance, etc. In other words, not much. For most people, $1,000 per month would easily do the trick; $1,500 would be a bonus. That’s $12,000 – $18,000 per year.

The fact is only those close to destitution fail to earn that.

Coontz is right that “unemployed women and men are not very attractive potential partners,” but fails to take note of the unemployment rate that stood in April at about 5.4% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s true that many of those aren’t ideal jobs; many don’t pay much. But essentially all of them pay $12k a year.

And yes, one reason the unemployment rate is so low is that the labor force keeps shrinking as a percentage of the total population. More and more people are getting discouraged and no longer look for work, which decreases the labor force and the unemployment rate.

But are those the men who are siring children? I don’t know of any data that answer that question, but there are two possibilities, ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ If those are the men single mothers are choosing to father their children, then those mothers aren’t behaving rationally for anyone’s sake, their own, their children or the dads.

I seriously doubt that men who are unemployed and unemployable make up very many of the mates women choose to have their children with. If they are, those American women are doing something that’s essentially unheard of across all cultures and all times. Reporting on “37 samples of men and women — totaling more than 10,000 people — across 33 countries, six continents, and five islands,” social psychologist David Geary said “research on marriage preferences has been conducted throughout the world and supports the position that female choice (of mates) is influenced by the quantity and quality of resources that might be provided by a prospective husband.” The same held true in the United States including a cohort of “a nationally representative sample of unmarried adults.”

So the possibility that large percentages of women in this country are choosing the worst of the worst men to father their children is highly unlikely.

And if they’re not choosing men with neither jobs nor possibilities, then they’re choosing men with one or the other or both. And that means those men overwhelmingly are employed. The unemployment rate for men aged 20 and over is 5%.

In short, Coontz’s claims are as leaky as a bait bucket. They just don’t make sense.

What does make sense is that the U.S. and the Western world generally have, over the past half century embraced codes of conduct that have always been understood to be detrimental to families and society generally. Easy divorce, destigmatized non-marital childbearing and attacks on men and masculinity have had their effects. The experiment has gone awry and, while we’re all paying the price, our most vulnerable citizens — children and the poor — are paying the most.

We made a mistake when we bought into the notion that the sexes are really just identical cardboard cutouts that society colors pink for women and blue for men. The notion that the differing behaviors of the sexes are attributable solely to social engineering and can therefore be changed with different engineering was always absurd and we were fools to believe it.

The simple fact is that, whatever the latest book or magazine article may extol or condemn, sex roles are proving very, very hard to change. Much empirical data bear this out. In spite of decades of haranguing by feminists, women still behave more like mothers than like breadwinners. And men continue to doggedly believe that working and earning are their best contributions to society and their families. Courts still assume that mothers are natural caregivers and fathers aren’t. So do parental leave laws and policies. Women still avoid the dangerous jobs society offers them despite the fact that they tend to pay more than the ones they choose.

I could go on and on, but one behavior on the part of women is most salient — hypergamy. As Geary says, “In this study (i.e. the one previously referred to), it was found that — across age and ethnic status — women preferred husbands who were better educated than they were and who earned more money than they did,” i.e. they were hypergamous.

To state the obvious, that has nothing to do with inequalities between the rich and poor because, in every class, women can usually find a partner who makes enough to improve her and her child’s standard of living. They can also find partners who earn more than they do, since men on average work more hours than do women and at higher-paying jobs.

But what men can’t do is marry women who don’t want to marry them, i.e. women who’ve been told for two generations that they don’t need a man, that single-motherhood is “heroic,” that men are dangerous to them and their children, that men are useless.

Coontz’s arguments fail. They do so because they seek to defend a defenseless status quo. I’m all for greater financial equality, for narrowing the enormous and growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. But to imagine that we’ll put the family back together again without a long and persistent fight against the toxic, anti-family, anti-male culture we’ve so patiently put together is delusional.


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#familybreakdown, #popularculture, #inequality, #hypergamy

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