July 28, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
There’s enough wrong with this piece by Stephanie Coontz that one might tend to just chuck it after the first sentence or two (New York Times, 7/26/14). But if you read it to the end, and your blood pressure’s still within normal limits, you’ll find it’s been worth it. Coontz makes two major points that are worthwhile and worth remembering.
Her thesis is that here in the United States, we’re headed in two different directions and which direction you’re headed depends a lot on your class and educational level. It’s not just that the rich are getting richer, which they are, but that they’re becoming more stable, particularly in their familial relationships. And that’s not just true of the 1%; it tends to be true of people with a college education and beyond. Those with less education are feeling the pinch both economically and in their family lives, and they’ll continue to do so far into the future.
Those are two great trends in America’s quest to become Mexico, i.e. a country with a wealth of natural resources, a hard-working populace, a school system that provides a good education to some, a political class that more and more thinks only of itself, and a hide-bound class system that thwarts real economic power and fosters resentment and unrest among the have-nots. Coontz is right to point them out and be alarmed at the latter.
Among the well-educated and well-heeled, times are good and one of the best trends among them is the decline in the divorce rate that hit highs in the late seventies, but has backed off of those overall. And within marriage, among the affluent, earnings, time spent at paid employment and time spent in childcare are evening out. As all know by now, men are spending much more time caring for their children than before and women are taking more seriously their obligation to work and earn. Coontz is right about all of that.
But she misses a lot too. Most importantly, whatever the trends may be among the better off, overall, what’s most impressive about American society is how little has changed. Yes, women are working and earning more than ever before, but recent years have seen women dropping out of the workforce in surprisingly high numbers. A number of commentators have noted the fact. Not Coontz.
And of course among those women who do work at paid employment, there are a far greater percentage than of men who do so only part-time. The last figures I saw found about 21 million women working part-time versus about 13 million men. And of course the number of stay-at-home mothers is around six million versus under 200,000 stay-at-home dads according to the Bureau of the Census. There are about five million fewer women working at all than there are men and of course those who do work for pay earn substantially less due to their tendency to work fewer hours and at lower-paying jobs.
A year or so ago a figure was much ballyhooed by the press and bloggers far and wide. We were told that women are the chief wage earners in 40% of American households, and that is true. “Yippee!” went all and sundry; clearly the move toward gender equality was bearing fruit. Nope. What those giddy articles failed to notice was that over two-thirds of those women were the chief wage earner in their families because they’re the only wage earner. The rest of the family consists of kids who either don’t work and earn at all or do so only minimally. The 40% figure everyone was so thrilled about actually indicates one of the most destructive forces in American life — the astonishing increase in single motherhood. When married adults were compared, only 13% of couples had the woman as their main earner. In 1960 the figure was 8%. That’s a change, but not much of one.
As is so often the case, Coontz mistakes what people say, what they aspire to, for what they actually do.
In 1977, two-thirds of Americans believed that the ideal family arrangement was for the husband to earn the money and the wife to stay home. By 2012, less than one-third still held this belief, according to a paper coming out this week by the Council on Contemporary Families.
That’s jolly good, but what people say they believe is very often not how they behave when push comes to shove. Remember Judith Warner’s little exercise in testing the hypothesis that women, particularly educated ones, were about to revolutionize work and families? Back in the early 2000s, Lisa Belkin proclaimed women to be “opting out” of paid work in favor of staying home with the kids. That of course applied to the only women Belkin was interested in — white, affluent, well-educated ones. Last year Warner tested her theory that those women would opt back in once the kids were out of the nest. They didn’t.
[N]ot a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working.
In short, among those women of whom we’d rightly expect the most — the greatest achievements, the highest notoriety — what we’ve gotten is the realization that the hard-charging world of business, the law, what have you, isn’t for them. With their intelligence and education, it’s there for the taking, but they declined the offer.
Of course Belkin and Warner’s groups were small and their surveys anything but scientific, but more scrupulous investigators have found the same thing. Study after study of women in various fields — law, business, S.T.E.M. academic fields — show women dropping out for long periods of time, usually to take care of their kids. These are not women who are ignorant of what that choice does to their career paths. They’re women who are fully aware of the toll it’ll take and who make the choice anyway. My guess is that they’re happier, more fulfilled and less stressed because of it, but whatever the case, it’s the commonest of phenomena.
Contrary to Coontz’s eager theorizing, the salient feature of the relations between the sexes in today’s America is not how much has changed, but how little. As Helen Smith reported in her book, Men on Strike, back in the 90s, 29% of college-educated women and 36% of college-educated men said that marriage was a high priority for them. Today those percentages have exactly reversed.
What Coontz emphasizes is the change in male and female roles within marriage. And indeed, men are unquestionably doing more childcare and women are earning more. But no one would seriously argue that there’s equality between the two. One reason Coontz is able to suggest there is (or almost is), is that she ignores divorce entirely. Yes, as long as two people are married, their roles may have moved toward equality, but once they split up, it’s another story thanks to the courts and, to a great extent, women’s actions there.
As we know, there are over one million divorces finalized every year and most of those are between adults with minor children. We also know that women initiate 70% of divorces and that they do so because they know they’ll get the kids. And we further know that women are far more likely than men to request either sole or primary custody. And finally, we know that, overwhelmingly, they get it.
The result being that mothers are saddled with, typically, between 80% and 100% of the parenting duties. That, combined with their usual tendency to work less at paid work, means custodial mothers tend to be strapped for cash, a fact that’s not much improved by the child support they receive from their ex. On average, child support orders run about $500 per month, i.e, not enough to offset what they could make if they’d thought to request parenting time equal to Dad’s. An astonishing 41% of custodial mothers live in poverty at least part of the time. And when they do, their kids do too.
So Coontz’s paean to our Brave New World of gender equality in marriage ignores far too much. It’s true as far as it goes, but that’s not very far. Much has changed over the last 50 years in the relations between the sexes, but what’s perhaps most noteworthy at this point is that we appear unwilling in almost every area of life to embrace gender equality. That’s not just true in divorce courts, it’s true in the workplace, politics (where women seek public office far less often than do men), the military, etc. The inescapable fact seems to be that women like their role as mother and even with all the special accommodations made to entice them away from it, when they can, they tend to refuse the offer.
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