Michael Gerson at WaPo, earlier this year:
There is a parallel debate about the influence of economic hard times on the nation’s moral health. Without question, the most acute social problems — crime, illegitimacy, etc. — are concentrated in areas of highest poverty. But sociologists and criminologists have long pondered an apparent paradox. During the Great Depression — with about a quarter of Americans out of work — crime and divorce declined. During the relative prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s, crime rates shot up and families broke down.
Recessions and depressions are brutal beasts that stalk the stragglers, especially retirees and the poor. There is too much inherent suffering during a recession to ever welcome it. But times of economic stress, it appears, can also be times of cultural renewal. “One reasonable hypothesis,” argues James Q. Wilson, “is that the Depression pulled families together, and this cohesion inhibited crime.” Many Americans who struggled through the Depression adopted a set of moral and economic habits such as thrift, family commitment, savings and modest consumption that lasted through their lifetimes — and that have decayed in our own. The Depression generation controlled the things it could control — including its own consumption and character.
Diane Mannina at Heritage:
A new report -The 2009 “State of our Unions”– out of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values, reports that divorce fell during the first full year of the Great Recession, the first annual dip since 2005.
“Tough times foster real family solidarity and encourage many couples to stick together,” says UVA sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. “Many couples are rediscovering the longstanding sociological truth that marriage is one of society’s best social insurance plans.”
Despite this recent dip in the rate of divorce, the report predicts the recent recession will eventually undercut marriage in working-class communities since men-particularly working-class and uneducated men-have absorbed 75 percent of job losses since 2007. This will likely serve to further a “divorce divide” that has been growing since the 1980s between couples with college degrees and those with less education.
Hanna Rosin at Double X:
Divorce rates also dropped dramatically during the Great Depression. The reality is, however, that divorce is just expensive. People can’t afford to get divorced during a recession. Marriage rates are down as well; they can’t afford that luxury either.
The researchers don’t quite say this but it seems as if the recession just keeps a lid on a lot of unhappiness. This weekend’s New York Times Magazine brought us a close examination of one companionate marriage, which seemed equal parts passionate, dull, rocky, exciting, and definitely salvageable. Companionate marriages—also known as “soulmate marriages”—the modern idea that spouses should choose each other as friends and lovers and that marriage is intended for happiness more than expediency—is working out well for the kids of people who may get to write about it in the New York Times one day, but not so well for everyone else.
In less educated, less wealthy classes, women, now given the choice, are lately finding their husbands wanting. This is a form of feminism but also a form of instability. Researchers predict that once the recession is over the working class will start to look like the inner city—a matriarchy with struggling mothers and drifting men and unmoored children. The most amazing statistic comes late in the report—the percentage of people who describe themselves as “very happy” with their marriage is way down since 1960.
Here’s the glass half-full take on the National Marriage Project’s annual “State of Our Unions” report, which tackles the Great Recession’s impact on American wedlock. As it turns out, the strain of the downturn hasn’t pushed the divorce rate higher; instead, economic stress seems to have made American marriages slightly more stable overall, as couples develop a “new appreciation for the economic and social support that marriage can provide in tough times,” as the study’s lead author, Brad Wilcox, puts it. Americans are also turning thriftier (saving more, cutting down on credit card debt, reviving home-based economies, etc.), which is good news for wedlock, since financial stability correlates with marital stability, and with marital happiness as well. If you squint a little at the data, you could even imagine that the recession, and the adjustments required by long periods of unemployment, might “accelerate the social acceptance of women as equal breadwinners and men as capable parents and homemakers,” as Christine Whalen writes in an accompanying essay, and make the institution of marriage more flexible and resilient in the long run.
Here’s the pessimistic take. Yes, divorce rates are dropping, but marriage rates are down as well. People aren’t getting divorced because they can’t afford it, not because they’re suddenly happier with their spouses. Meanwhile, the recession’s job losses have been heavily concentrated among working class men, who aren’t necessarily equipped to make a smooth adjustment to playing stay-at-home dads while their wives support the family. (Whelan’s essay acknowledges that “flexible or egalitarian gender roles may be more attractive to well-educated, affluent Americans than less-educated, working-class couples,” and Wilcox notes that his own research suggests that “husbands are significantly less happy in their marriages, and more likely to contemplate divorce, when their wives take the lead in breadwinning.”) So while some upper-middle class marriages may be strengthened, on the margins, by the recession, working class marriages are more likely to be weakened, even as the continued decline of the manufacturing sector makes men without college degrees less marriageable to begin with. We already have a large “marriage gap” between well-educated and less-educated Americans; the recession is likely to widen it. And once it’s over, as Hanna Rosin suggests, the working class may look that much more “like the inner city—a matriarchy with struggling mothers and drifting men and unmoored children.”
I’m afraid the pessimistic take seems more convincing.