the way we never wereAnother Quarter Century of Family Change and Diversity

Editor’s note: In 1992—the year the U.S. presidential campaign erupted into a culture war over family values—Stephanie Coontz published The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. The title itself offered the pithy concept, and the book demonstrated that diversity and change have always been hallmarks of American family life: “Leave It to Beaver” was not a documentary. This week (March 29, 2016) Coontz released a substantially revised and updated edition of The Way We Never Were. Below, she provides a brief review of ten things that have changed for the better in the past quarter century, three that have stayed the same, and two that have gotten worse.

In 1992, political leaders and pundits were predicting that changes in family forms and gender roles were leading America into disaster. Were they right? 

  1. Whatever happened to the Super Predators? In the early 1990s criminologists were predicting “a blood bath of violence” unleashed by “tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators” – all supposedly a result of rising rates of unwed births. But between 1993 and 2010, sexual assaults and intimate partner violence reported dropped by more than 60 percent. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, the murder rate in 2013 was lower than at any time since the records began in 1960. Since 1994, juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent, even though the proportion of children born out of wedlock has risen to 40 percent.
  1. How about crack babies? In the 1980s and 1990s, newspapers headlined an epidemic of “crack babies” in the inner city, with kids permanently damaged by their mothers’ use of crack cocaine during pregnancy. This led to a wave of punitive legal actions against such women. But follow-up studies have since revealed that children from the same high-poverty areas who had not been exposed to cocaine in utero were equally likely to have developmental and intellectual delays as babies born with cocaine in their systems. As I documented in The Way We Never Were, the big risk to these children was the pollution, violence, and chronic stress of deeply impoverished and neglected communities – including lead poisoning damage that was going on for years before it hit the headlines in 2016 because of the disaster in Flint.
  1. Did career women start “out-sourcing” their children’s developmental care? As women gained more high prestige jobs in the late 1990s, that’s what many experts feared. In fact, however, even as mothers’ work hours increased, their child-care hours increased too, while fathers’ child-care time tripled. Today, both single and working moms spend more time with their children than married homemaker mothers did back in 1965.

And, according to David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Paula England’s brief report on Moms and Jobs, educated professionals – the women most likely to work outside the home – spend many more hours in child care than their less-educated counterparts.

But nostalgia never dies; it just finds a new home. Now many pundits claim parents are spending too much time and attention on their kids, failing to instill the independence in their 20-something children that was fostered by parents of the past. In fact, youthful dependence today is mild in comparison to the 19th and early 20th century. Susan Matt points out that during the Civil War, military officials prohibited bands from playing “Home, Sweet Home” for fear it might make young soldiers literally ill from homesickness. During WWI, soldiers published poems in The Stars and Stripes about missing their mothers’ kisses and caresses.

  1. Are hookups the new threat to marriage? In the early 1990s, teen pregnancy was the crisis du jour. Now that teen pregnancy has reached all-time lows, attention has switched to campus hookups. The idea that hookups have replaced relationships and have been imposed on women by men is a new myth in the making, according to a major new survey by Arielle Kuperberg and Joseph Padgett.

And whatever the problems (binge drinking is certainly one), things sure wouldn’t be improved by going back to the 1950s, when the average couple married after knowing each other only six months and almost a quarter of brides were already pregnant.

  1. Did the no-fault divorce laws adopted by most states in the 1980s and 1990s lead to the catastrophic results that pundits predicted? In each state that adopted no-fault, the next five years saw an eight to 16 percent decline in suicide rate of wives and a 30 percent drop in domestic violence. Although no-fault divorce is now universal, divorce rates are actually falling.
  2. Are we seeing the end of marriage for educated women? Another big worry in the 1990s was that college-educated women couldn’t find enough highly-educated men for them to marry, and if they married a man with less education, they were likely to divorce. But since the 1980s, it is non-college-educated women who have experienced the greatest drop in marriage rates. About 85 percent of college-educated women will eventually marry, and these women are experiencing falling divorce risks, regardless of whether they have more education than their husband, points out Christine R. Schwartz.
  1. Does equality really kill eroticism? Data collected in 1991 and 1992 found that couples who practiced equality by sharing housework and childcare reported lower marital and sexual satisfaction than couples in “traditional” marriages. But this data came from marriages formed in the 1970s and 1980s, when sharing housework and child care was still uncommon. For marriages formed in the early 1990s and later the opposite is true: heterosexual couples who share housework and childcare equally now report the highest levels of marital and sexual satisfaction – and the most frequent sex.
  1. Are Brad and Angelina leading young couples astray? As late as 1995, couples who lived together, had a premarital birth, and later went on to marry were 60 percent more likely to divorce than couples who married before having a child. But for relationships started 10 years later, researchers find, couples who live together, have a child, and then go on to wed have no higher chance of breaking up than couples who marry without ever living together first or couples who live together but marry before having a child.
  1. Same-sex marriage has confounded the predictions of opponents and proponents alike. In 1990, more than 60 percent of Americans thought homosexuality was “always wrong,” and many LGBT activists thought fighting for same-sex marriage was a dead-end. As late as 1996, 65 percent of Americans opposed same sex marriage, with just 27 percent in favor. Yet by 2011, 53 percent favored same-sex marriage, paving the way for its legalization in 2015. Definitive, long-term studies now show that children raised by two parents of the same sex turn out fine.
  1. What about that “second shift” that employed mothers faced at the end of the work day, according to many feminist accounts in the 1990s? On average, working moms still do more housework and childcare than their working husbands, but this is because men tend to increase their paid work hours after having a child, while women are more likely to cut back or quit paid work, largely because of the lack of paid job-protected maternity leave and affordable, quality childcare. Counting each partner’s paid and unpaid work, we find that, aside from the first year after childbirth, married moms and dads work about the same number of total hours per week. But is this division of labor what men and women really prefer, as many anti-feminists claim? New research says no and shows why paid paternity leave is just as important for families as paid maternity leave.

Despite these myth-breaking changes, some things have remained the same. Here are three things that haven’t changed. They are a reminder of the persistence of what I called the “nostalgia trap” policy-makers all into when they cling to visions of a Golden Age in the past, refusing to recognize the changing realities of families.

  1. Since 1993, the federal government has made no substantive progress toward policies that help women and men reconcile work and family obligations, while other countries have leapt ahead. In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act gave workers in large companies up to 12 weeks unpaid job-protected leave. But 23 years later, only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave, and 44 percent don’t even have the right to unpaid leave. By contrast, every other wealthy country now guarantees more than 12 weeks of paid leave to new mothers, limits the maximum length of the work week, and mandates paid annual vacations. Most also offer paid leave to fathers. The result? American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than their European counterparts. And the U.S. has fallen from 6th to 17th place in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 1990. The one exception to this backwardness? The Pentagon, which runs the best affordable and universal childcare system in the country and just instituted 12 weeks paid maternity leave.
  2. Politicians continue to recycle myths about past family life to avoid confronting contemporary family needs. Do these claims sound familiar? “Self-reliant families are the secret to America’s success.” “Our ancestors never asked for handouts.” “Protecting family values must be the basis of public policy.” “America’s founding principles were private enterprise and small government.” “‘Throwing money’ at families never works (unless you’re throwing back money that wealthy families would otherwise owe the government in taxes).”
  • In fact, frontier families, followed closely by 1950s suburban families, were more heavily dependent on government subsidies than any inner-city families have ever been. Even today, farmers pay only cents on the dollar for what it costs to irrigate their land. The internet and all the “start-up” social media companies that have sprung from it could never have gotten off the ground if the web had begun as a private profit-making initiative.
  • Our founding fathers would be horrified at the idea that private family values constitute political virtue, and they were extremely hostile toward the unequal accumulation of wealth
  • New research shows that raising families’ incomes improves their parenting and their children’s outcomes – and even decreases their spending on tobacco and alcohol.
  1. Since 1989, the Heritage Foundation and other rightwing think tanks have been telling us that marriage is America’s greatest weapon against child poverty. But new research shows that growing inequality and income insecurity have been much more important than family structure in explaining the growth of poverty over the past two decades. A more subtle version of the rightwing theory is called the “success sequence”: According to most politicians, it takes just three simple steps to achieve the American dream. Get an education, then a job, and don’t have children until you are married. Telling people that’s the way to end poverty is like saying the way to hit a home run is to pass first base, speed around third, and gallop home. Given the increasing inequality in people’s access to living wage jobs and higher education documented in The Way We Never Were, “the success sequence” is merely a description of an advantaged family life, not a recipe for it.

When politicians and pundits accuse contemporary families of abandoning the values of the past, they often forget that they have also abandoned many features of the past. Here are two things that were actually better decades ago.

  1. Women’s reproductive rights. In 1960 two former presidents, Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Harry Truman, served together as honorary co-chairs of Planned Parenthood. In 1970, another Republican, President Nixon, signed into law Title X of the Public Health Service Act, funding voluntary family planning programs. But in 2014, the Supreme Court struck down the section of the Affordable Care Act that required employers to cover certain contraceptives. And over the past several years there has been a vociferous campaign to defund and defame Planned Parenthood, which provides almost 3 million women a year with breast exams, cervical cancer screenings, HIV screening, birth control and other essential health services. As of the end of 2015, state legislators had enacted 288 separate restrictions on access to abortion, despite evidence that women unable to get a desired abortion are more likely to experience domestic violence and depression, both risk factors for children.
  2. Inequality: Worse today than in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Between 1949 and 1973, the median real wages of men aged 25-29 more than doubled. By 1961, young men were making four times what their dads had earned at the same age. But between 1973 and 2013, the median real wages of young men workers declined by almost 30 percent. Since 1980, the average worker with a high school diploma has made less than his father did at the same age.
  • From 1960 to 1970, more than 60 percent of national income gains went to the bottom 90 percent of the population, with just 11 percent going to the wealthiest one percent. But from 2002-2007, two-thirds of national income gains went to the top one percent. After falling somewhat during the recession from 2007-09, gains for the top one percent have rebounded, with the top one percent capturing ALL the economic gains of the recovery in 2012 and 2013. These trends have exacerbated relationship instability and created a growing gap in the outcomes and prospects of America’s children.

Stephanie Coontz is a Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families as well as a professor of History and Family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.