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N.Y. Times story on women living alone draws skepticism from marriage supporters

January 19, 2007

A New York Times study of census data from 2005 claims that 51 percent of American women now live alone without a spouse, and most of them by choice. The report, which appeared in the paper Jan. 16, claims the number of single women has increased from 49 percent just five years ago and from only 35 percent in 1950.

A New York Times study of census data from 2005 claims that 51 percent of American women now live alone without a spouse, and most of them by choice. The report, which appeared in the paper Jan. 16, claims the number of single women has increased from 49 percent just five years ago and from only 35 percent in 1950.

Several factors, including women waiting longer to marry, staying single, getting divorced and living alone longer after their spouses pass away, led to the increase, the paper reported. “Coupled with the fact that married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time, the trend could ultimately shape a range of social and workplace policies, including the ways the government and employers distribute benefits,” The Times article concludes.

But the claims made by the paper about the census and why fewer women are married may not be entirely correct. The American Community Survey — the study used by The Times — included in its count of women who live alone spouses of deployed military personnel and other married women who live by themselves “for reasons other than marital discord,” Robert Bernstein, an official with the U.S. Census Bureau, told Baptist Press.

More than 2 million of these married women who do not live with their spouses “for one reason or another” were included in The Times’ calculations. The report also counted among the number of women living alone those as young as age 15. That inclusion itself may have tilted the numbers in favor of those living alone without a spouse.

“If you use 18 and over as the threshold, this wouldn’t be the case,” Bernstein said. “A majority of women then would be married in a household.”

Another survey used by the Census Bureau, the Current Population Survey (CPS), also still puts married households in the majority at slightly more than 51 percent, contrary to the claim from The Times that married couples are now in the minority. The CPS relies on personal interviews, home visits or phone calls to the household, while the American Community Survey is conducted by mail and also does not include persons living in “group quarters,” such as married student housing, military barracks or nursing homes, Bernstein said.

According to The Times, the study it commissioned probed the marital status of 117 million women, finding that 63 million — 53 percent — were legally married. But The Times then deducted more than 3 million women it said were separated from their spouses and another 2.4 million that were described as being alone while married. Ultimately the findings reported in the paper included multiple demographics and a single conclusion — that a majority of American women are now not just alone; they are happier and freer with lives unencumbered by a spouse.

The Times presented in its article several women who claimed to offer the real reason why so many women are now single: They have “sworn off marriage” after bitter divorces, contentious relationships with live-in partners and even because they simply want to remain free. Ironically, as many as 10.5 million widows — some 9 percent of the women counted — also were included in the tally of women on their own by choice. They too may have been enlightened and avoiding remarriage, according to one interviewee in the story.

“For better or worse, women are less dependent on men or the institution of marriage,” William Frey of the Brookings Institution told The Times. “Younger women understand this better, and are preparing to live longer parts of their lives alone or with nonmarried partners. For many older boomer and senior women, the institution of marriage did not hold the promise they might have hoped for, growing up in an ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ era.”

Sam Roberts, the writer of the story, said his article “mentions all those caveats, including low marriage rates among black women too. It also says that most women do eventually marry.”

“But, apparently for the first time, at any given time the majority of women are not living with a spouse. People have taken that to mean any number of different things. I was reporting on a statistical benchmark, calling it to people’s attention so they can draw their own conclusions and respond in whatever way they think is appropriate,” Roberts told Baptist Press.

But the research data presented by The Times doesn’t lead to the conclusion the article and the experts quoted seem to make — that there is a devaluing of the sanctity of marriage or its necessity, Cathy Ruse, senior fellow for legal studies with the Family Research Council, said.

“It’s not as if 51 percent of women chose to live life by themselves,” Ruse said in an interview. “These figures don’t account for widows who had long and happy marriages, who loved their marriages, and they don’t account properly for absentee husbands, such as those deployed in the military. My questions are about whether the research actually holds up, and also about the conclusions that they draw from the data — that marriage is actually a bad thing when we know it’s not.

“I will concede that there is a trend in marriage. Women are marrying later in life,” Ruse said. “But that isn’t a commentary on marriage. Many women delay to better prepare for marriage, and to choose more wisely. I didn’t marry until age 39, but it wasn’t because I didn’t want to; it was because I hadn’t found the right man.”

Nevertheless, Frey contends in the article that America has reached a clear “tipping point,” an era in which the social changes of the 1960s have finally borne their fullest fruit. America is in an age of “greater independence and more flexible lifestyles for women,” he told The Times.

With that much, Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director for issues analysis with Focus on the Family, can agree. “There’s no question in my mind that the anti-male, anti-marriage messages that originated in the 1960s have encouraged women to view marriage more negatively. Certainly women have more professional and educational opportunities today but that doesn’t mean they have to jettison marriage.”

The Times report also included comments from Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the liberal lobby, the Council on Contemporary Families. She said that statistical data published by the newspaper is “yet another of the inexorable signs that there is no going back to a world where one can assume that marriage is the main institution that organizes people’s lives.”

That is a suggestion that organizations like Focus on the Family flatly reject. Earll said the individuals highlighted in the story were pushing a liberal agenda.

“The individuals interviewed — particularly Stephanie Coontz — are touting the same party line: that marriage is an outdated and obsolete institution, and who needs it? The answer is both men and women need it, and benefit from it. Social science research finds that married people are happier, healthier, tend to have higher incomes and enjoy greater emotional support. Domestic abuse rates are higher for women who cohabitate versus those who are married. The list goes on,” Earll said.

While the motivation for the article on single women and marriage may never be known, Earll said she believes one thing is clear: “Certainly the way the data is assembled and interpreted is suspect.”

At least one prominent critic of The Times said he knows how the paper arrived at its conclusions about marriage. That is the conclusion the paper wanted to reach in order to advance an agenda for social change, said William Proctor, whose book “The Gospel According to The New York Times” examined a bias toward liberal social policies at the paper.

Proctor said the “statistics they’ve reported don’t add up to what they are saying about marriage. There might be any number of factors involved.” Facts, however, have never really concerned The Times when it comes to pushing for changes in society, Proctor added. He said the paper is illustrating its bias in favor of a certain type of feminism that suggests the traditional role of a woman in marriage is to be attacked and even denigrated.

“This is really a featurized, very slanted look at this picture,” Proctor said. “There is a whole set of assumptions built in there, but that is typical of the way they have operated. It sounds to me like the kind of thing they will follow with an editorial saying the same thing — that women are tired of marriage. They’ve done it on gay marriage, transgender issues and abortion. They are very much pushing for social change.”

For many, especially conservative Christians, that still leaves the question of why. “When you consider the benefits of marriage for women and men, society — and The New York Times — should be encouraging marriage, not publishing articles that announce its near demise,” Earll said.


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