Stephanie Coontz Bashes Low-Income Men, Hopes Low-Income Women will Marry Them

July 30, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Stephanie Coontz’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times is no gem of lucidity, as I pointed out in my post on Monday (New York Times, 7/27/14). But I could only deal with the first part of her article. The second part goes downhill from a none-too-lofty starting point.

Her basic point is two-fold. Part I holds that, over the past few decades, the sexes have become much more equal. She points to increased earnings by women and increased housework and childcare by men. If those two things were the Alpha and Omega of gender relations then Coontz would be on firmer ground, but of course they’re not. Rates of higher education? Men make up about 42% of college enrollees. Incarceration rates? About 90% of those are men, there are about 2 million people behind bars at any given time and millions more on probation or out on parole. Study after study shows that men are treated more harshly than women at every stage of the criminal justice process. Many states limit or deny the right to vote for anyone convicted of a felony. Despite decades of social science demonstrating the value of fathers to children, men still seldom get more than 14% – 20% of parenting time from divorce courts.

Coontz’s Part II deals with economic issues and their impact on marriage and the instability of families, but pretends that the above in some way plays no part in a man’s financial well-being or lack thereof, or why families break up. What should be obvious is that the lack of a college education, a criminal record and a hefty child-support debt you can’t begin to pay actually do impact a man’s earnings and consequently his ability to get a woman to be interested in him as a long-term partner. How that could escape Coontz is anyone’s guess.

As far as it goes, though, the second part of her piece has some merit, at least if we ignore her paean to the Brave New World of gender equality she believes exists. What Coontz wants us to know – and it’s well worth knowing – is that patterns of marital stability have changed considerably since the beginning of the 1970s. It used to be that the poor and working classes married and divorced at about the same rates as the more affluent. But now, those with a college education are far more likely to remain married and far less likely to have a child out of wedlock than are those of the poor and working classes. That divergence in marriage and single-parent child-bearing between the rich and poor is one of the most important and worst understood phenomena of our time.

Among Americans without college degrees, marriage rates have fallen precipitously and divorce rates remain higher. Divorce rates have fallen for college-educated couples, who are now considerably more likely to get married, and stay married, than their less-educated counterparts. According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.

Coontz thinks she has the answer, but few will be completely convinced. Her explanation for why the less educated are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce is the crash in economic opportunities for young men without a college degree. And doubtless that plays a role.

Men with only a high school diploma, the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin points out in his forthcoming book, “Labor’s Love Lost,” used to be the mainstay of family stability in the working class. However, the male-breadwinner marriages that such men established in the 1950s and 1960s rested on two pillars that no longer exist.

The first was the availability of stable, family-wage jobs for young men without a college education…

Over the 25 years between 1947 and 1972, the average real hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers nearly doubled, rising by almost 3 percent a year, according to the University of Iowa professor Colin Gordon…

Today, job prospects for young men are far less favorable. Real wages for men under age 35 have fallen almost continuously since the late 1970s, and those with only a high school diploma have experienced the sharpest losses. Between 1979 and 2007, young male high school graduates saw a 29 percent decline in real annual earnings — an even steeper decline than the 18 percent drop for men with no high school diploma.

That, according to Coontz, means women are less likely to marry those men and more likely to divorce them if they do get married.

Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry — even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expenses, and even if they have a child — is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.

The elephant in the room Coontz refuses to notice is that those statements by low-income women don’t make any sense. They definitely make those claims and they may honestly believe them, but those beliefs don’t stand up to even casual scrutiny. The simple truth is that, almost without exception, two adults with paying jobs live better than one of them would. That’s because two people living separately incur higher expenses than they do living together. They pay two rent bills instead of one, two sets of utilities, own two sets of appliances, furniture and the like.

But the downside to living alone doesn’t end there, particularly for women. Unmarried women and their children run a far greater risk of becoming victims of domestic violence than do married women. Worse, and far more pervasive, they’re at far greater risk of living at least part of their live in poverty. And of course their kids are at far greater risk for an array of social ills that have been repeated too often for me to reprise here.

Plus, if economic issues really explained the decline in marriage and unstable families among low-income people, wouldn’t we expect to see new Asian immigrants to this country living in single-parent households? We would, but we don’t.

Likewise, Coontz might want to read her own article. She points out that men with no college saw their wages steadily rise between 1947 and 1972. According to her theory, family stability should have been greater by the latter date than on the former, but in fact, the opposite was true.

Just why marriage rates among low-income people are so low and divorce rates so high remains a mystery and Coontz makes little headway in solving it. For one thing, she assumes that the reason for the low marriage rate is entirely due to women’s choices. She never considers what’s apparent to all – that it takes two to marry and therefore only one to avoid doing so. Do men have any reason to remain single? You bet they do. They know the perfidious nature of divorce courts as well as anyone and may well be deciding that a future that consists of not seeing the child you love, paying to support it under the threat of jail and probably shelling out for alimony as well aren’t a very persuasive argument for marriage.

Does male unwillingness contribute to the decline in marriage among the less affluent? We don’t know, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if we learned that it does.

So what explains the beliefs of those women that being single is better for them than being married when, as a general principle, it’s not? That too is unknown, but I have a thought. The simple fact is that, for decades now, they and everyone else have been fed a consistent diet of male-bashing by a bewildering variety of sources. Television, radio, the movies, advertisements, academia, cartoons, magazines, newspapers, etc. have engaged in an orgy of trashing men and fathers. Maybe those women got the message. And maybe those who are better educated saw through the nonsense and opted for what they know works.

Just in case we missed the point, Coontz engages in a bit of male-bashing of her own.

But she has to consider the very real possibility that if he loses his job or misuses the couple’s resources, he may become a financial burden…

Meanwhile, women’s expectation of fairness and reciprocity in marriage has been rising even as men’s ability to compensate for deficits in their behavior by being “good providers” has been falling…

If a woman’s marriage breaks up or her husband squanders their resources, she may end up worse off than if she had remained single and focused on improving her own earning power.

Wow. Who knew that only the man “misuses the couple’s resources,” “squanders their resources” and fails to “compensate for the deficits in [his] behavior?” I always thought that men and women were about equally likely to do those things. Indeed, don’t women spend some 70% of their families’ income? Coontz’s thesis is so shaky that she tries to prop it up with nonsense for which there’s no evidence (and of course she cites none). My guess is that she understands that when women claim they refuse to marry because they’re better off without a partner, they’re basically at odds with the facts. So she seeks to bolster the claim by pretending that – why are we surprised? – men, particularly lower class men, are just bums and layabouts casually squandering resources.

If I’m right that it’s the wholesale trashing of men that’s led low-income women to look askance at them as marital partners, it’s no small irony that Coontz does exactly that while bemoaning family breakdown among that very class.


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