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Census Data Reveals New Geography of Marriage for Americans

August 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
A new wave of U.S. Census Bureau data reveals some interesting trends in marriage and divorce rates by region. Ray Suarez discusses what data tell us about the institution of marriage with David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values and Elaine Tyler May of the University of Minnesota.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, what a new wave of data about the geography of marriage tells us about the institution itself.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Among the newly-released studies is a first-of-its-kind Census Bureau analysis of marriage and divorce rates by region. The report, published last week, found that the South and West had the highest rates of divorce, while the Northeast ranked the lowest of the four regions.

At the same time, the number of unmarried Americans has reached a historic high, as the census also found that 30 percent of Americans have never been married, the largest percentage in the past 60 years. And yet another census snapshot released by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that same-sex couples have dispersed from urban enclaves to other parts of the country.

Joining us now to look at what all this may mean for the institution of marriage and its role in American life are David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, and Elaine Tyler May, professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota.

David Blankenhorn, are we in the midst of a redefinition of American marriage, why people get married, when they do it in their lives, even where they do it and what they think it’s for?

DAVID BLANKENHORN, Institute for American Values: Yes.

I think the shift in broad terms is toward — for marriage as an institution to marriage as a private relationship, an option for a private relationship. You know, in our parents and grandparents’ generation, when you got married you were joining an institution that had authority, told you the rules. You were supposed to act in accord with its procedures.

Now the shift is toward private ordering. Each individual couple defines the relationship for themselves. One way to think about it is, in an earlier day, the marriage vow defined the couple. And now it’s really the couple defining the marriage vow.

So, a great deal more flexibility, freedom of choice, a lot more constant change in the institution, but the essential shift is toward private ordering and away from institutional authority.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor May, you have been writing about marriage for decades. Do you buy that definition, couples, rather than submitting themselves to established ideas, shaping marriage for themselves?

ELAINE TYLER MAY, University of Minnesota: Well, I don’t think it’s that new, really, that couples have been shaping the institution of marriage.

I think what’s different is that people don’t need to marry anymore for the same reasons that they did in the past, and that there have always been changes in the patterns of marriage demography for the last 100 years or so, and longer ago than that.

You know, if we look 100 years ago, we also had a time when there was increased age at marriage and fewer people getting married, and a lot of people choosing just to remain single. And the birth rate was going down.

And what we see today is a very different kind of pattern. It’s a little more extreme in terms of the age at marriage and in terms of people choosing not to marry. But we have to think about all the changes that have happened in the society since then, women being able to work at jobs that they used to have no access to.

Divorce is not as stigmatized as it used to be. And, certainly, having sex outside of marriage or before marriage is not carrying the heavy taboo and the great danger that it did even 50 years ago. So, now we have birth control available and a lot fewer reasons for people to actually get married for — as a result of cultural taboos or economic necessity.

So, Americans are marrying for love. And they really always have, but there have been other contingencies as well. And I think what we’re seeing now is, those other contingencies aren’t there and people are marrying because they want that sense of commitment, they want that sense of citizenship that marriage confers, and they want to express themselves as part of a couple that is committed to each other by love.

RAY SUAREZ: David Blankenhorn, when you look at these statistics, unprecedented numbers of people, well, in recent history reaching 30, 40 and 50 without ever having been married, not divorced, but without ever, ever having been married, large numbers of people choosing to have children inside unions that they make outside of marriage.

Are you saying that we’re in a new place, or do you accept Professor May’s idea that — just sort of taking a snapshot for an institution that’s always changing?

DAVID BLANKENHORN: Well, the institution is always changing. That’s true.

But we are in the middle of a definable long-term shift away from the authority of the institution. The most fundamental sign of this, I think, in terms of social meaning is that, several generations ago, a majority of Americans said that, if you’re having trouble in your marriage, you should stay together for the sake of the children.

And now a majority of Americans say that you shouldn’t do that; that’s a bad idea. So, another — a related issue is the, really, breaking of the link between marriage and childbearing. It used to be that you would never — you know, having a child outside of marriage was frowned on by society. You really wanted to avoid that.

Now it’s perfectly acceptable among many Americans. So this shift away from the institutional authority of marriage is, I think, the profoundest consequences have to do with the living arrangements of children, but it has to do also with just a new way that we’re thinking about what it means to be married.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor May, a lot of the new data has to do with where things are happening, gay couples moving outside of famed enclaves to suburban collar counties, the marriage statistics coming in from the South and West showing persistently higher rates of divorce than in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic.

Talk a little bit about what you see when you look at a map of America.

ELAINE TYLER MAY: Well, I think what we see is what we have always seen.

And that is that, when people are in economic distress, they’re much more likely to face marital tensions and much more likely to divorce. And we have large numbers of people in poverty and in stressful economic situations in the South and the West, more so than in the Northeast. And I think that explains a lot of what we’re seeing here.

I think what we have to watch out for is the notion of cause and effect. And you often hear that, when people have marriages that fall apart, that is a cause of poverty. Well, it is for women and children, for sure, because they have a harder time supporting themselves, but the fact is that it’s poverty itself and economic stress that causes divorce in the first place.

And that’s why I think we’re seeing more of it in these areas where there are greater concentrations of people who are struggling. Now, as far as gay couples are concerned, I think it’s clear that, as the country has become more gay-friendly all over, that gay people have felt that it was OK to live wherever they wanted to and be accepted.

And that wasn’t always true. If we look back only 50 years ago, a time of intense and official homophobia, where gay people were thrown out of their jobs and stigmatized as being unnatural and perverts and other horrible words like that, of course they were going to gravitate to centers of gay life, where they could feel comfortable. But that has all changed.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me go back to David Blankenhorn for a response.

What do you see happening geographically with American marriage, both in divorce and gay households?

DAVID BLANKENHORN: I agree with what Professor May says.

I would add to the issue of more poverty in the high divorce states, you also have younger people, people with lower levels of education and higher rates of geographical mobility. And all of those factors, plus low-income correlates, with more family instability.

So — and I agree on the issue of the sort of mainstreaming, you know, the acceptance of gay and lesbian people, gay and lesbian relationships, and the sort of breaking up of the enclaves. Gay and lesbian people now can live anywhere they want to live. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in these numbers.

RAY SUAREZ: David Blankenhorn, Professor May, thank you both.

ELAINE TYLER MAY: Thank you.

DAVID BLANKENHORN: Thank you.